Command Ops: Battles from the Bulge was recently released by Matrix Games. I have only had a chance to play around with the training mission so far but it quickly became apparent that CO:BftB is simply an evolution of the original Airborne Assault series. CO:BftB has numerous improvements but basic play is essentially the same. Considering that Airborne Assault: Highway to the Reich is one of my all time favorite computer wargames this is a good thing. It also means if you are considering purchasing CO:Battles from the Bulge then a look at Airborne Assault: Highway to the Reich should help you make your decision.
Below is a review I wrote a few years back for Airborne Assault: Highway to the Reich. It is too early for me to comment on changes in CO:BftB, but I can mention a few things that have not changed: There is still no ability for units to scale with zoom; no ability to rewind to watch other events; no ability to see a regular TO&E diagram view for formations; graphics and sound are basically the same. But CO:BftB still has the same great game play and it is after all the Bulge!
Airborne Assault: Highway to the Reich (AA:HttR) is the follow-up game to AA: Red Devils Over Arnhem (AA:RDOA). I only played the demo of AA:RDOA so I cannot comment on the similarities or differences to that game but those who played that game will certainly find AA:HttR a quick learn. Those who passed on AA:RDOA will find AA:HttR to have a much grander scale as the game now covers all of Operation Market-Garden. Thus the replay value is vastly greater.
AA: Highway to the Reich is a historical conflict simulation (aka a wargame) in all respects. If you are new to wargames AA:HttR is not an impossible place to begin but, as with all wargames, it requires a few hours of work to learn before one can truly enjoy the game (knowledge of the historical situation and military operations helps as well). The reward for the effort is a rich, intellectually challenging and historically accurate game with considerable replay value. Traditional board wargamers will find much familiar and much to appreciate. There are two tutorials with an 88 page guide (mostly screen shots) and a well done 120 page manual. Playing through the two tutorials is almost mandatory (unless you are an AA:RDOA veteran) to learn the game and will take at least a couple of hours.
AA:HttR covers Operation Market-Garden from bottom to top (with 34 scenarios). Unit scale is from platoon to battalion with company being the most common. The game uses a realistic TO&E and unit subordination is key to the game. The map has six levels of zoom and, at the highest video resolution (of three) of 1280×1024, an area of 4 sq/km up to more than 45 sq/km is viewable on screen. The map is vector art and thus looks good at all resolutions and zoom levels. The map is easily manipulated with the mouse including dragging the map around, zooming, selecting units/objectives as well as right-clicking to see the terrain type at a particular spot. In may respects AA:HttR is closer to a traditional miniatures game than a board wargame except for its operational scale. One could say it is the best of both worlds. There is also a small strategic-scale map with the units shown as dots. The map even gets darker as night falls. The map and unit art could certainly be more attractive but they are nice and very functional.
The game interface is extremely well done with the majority of the screen being taken up with the map and a small left hand border containing various information and control panels. There is an immense amount of information and control provided in the panels in a very easy-to-read format (it even provides historical info on the various units and commanders) but there is a fair amount to learn to use them effectively.
The unit icons contain a lot of information. No matter what zoom level you are in the units remain the same size. This is good and bad and one wish is that there was an option to have the units scale with the zoom. The advantage to having them not scale is that they remain readable at all times. There is a lot of information packed on them and at max video resolution some may have a hard time reading them easily. One can choose between NATO style unit symbols and icons but these take up only the small upper left corner of the unit. The upper right of the unit is a dynamic spot that uses various colors and icons to display all kinds of various bits of information such as fatigue, morale, facing, strength, and more. This is a wonderful interface idea but, for some of the options, the area is a bit small for some of the icons and thus a tad hard to read (again, at high resolution).
The display of the units has been wonderfully thought out. As soon as you click on any unit its facing indicator appears along with command lines to its immediate superior and/or subordinate units. Hitting the arrow keys cycles you through the senior/subordinate formations. This all makes it very easy to see unit organizations and deployments. In addition, drag selecting units gives you some overall stats as well as displaying the facing of all the selected units, great for quickly checking unit deployments. Once you see this display method you’ll wonder why no one has done it before.
Sound and animation is minimal at best. There are some good ‘combat’ sounds but animations are limited to small explosions and colored lines shooting back and forth representing gunfire. This is all functional for sure but underwhelming at best. There is no music or background noise.
Game play is real-time but the action can be paused at any moment (and sped up) and orders given at any time. In this respect it is similar to TacOps or the Combat Mission games (although without the ‘turns’ of those games). The game can also be minimized so you can easily view the PDF manual or do other things while playing.
Play proceeds simply with giving orders to units and then hitting go and watching the action unfold. You can give orders to units in real-time or pause the action and give orders and check out other things. There is an almost bewildering array of order options including various actions, formation types, aggressiveness, fire frequency and a whole lot more. You can also speed-up play if you are just moving to contact. Note that you are not playing with turns with a ‘planning’ phase and then an ‘actions’ phase. You can stop time but it always moves forward. You cannot rewind to watch other events unfold. This is one of my few quibbles with the game. With larger scenarios it is hard to see all the action that is going on. You can rely on your AI but this also takes some of the fun out of the game as you may miss some great fights occurring on the other side of the map while you are otherwise occupied. There are alerts and unit logs so if you find your force ravaged you can decipher what happened but this is a poor substitute for seeing the action first hand.
The line-of-site tool is a thing of beauty and deserves comment. You can check LOS between any two points on the map. With a simple click and drag you get not only the LOS between the two end points but to every point in between including dead zones AND elevations! You have to see it to really appreciate it and again one wonders why we have never seen such a thing before. You can also instantly see all of the enemy units in LOS of a selected unit.
While you can micro-manage every unit if you wish, the design intent, and real beauty, of the game is to use proper military chain-of-command. Thus you can just give orders to higher level units (say at division level) and the AI will take care of handling all of the subordinate units. You can mix and match this and have the AI worry about less important attacks/defenses while you apply a more hands-on approach to more important areas. The AI is certainly respectable in this regard but of course, as with any computer wargame, the AI can always use some improvement. On the other hand, times when I thought the AI was making a poor choice it in fact was not or was reacting in accordance with unit settings I had made. This is a very elegant system and combined with the concept of ‘orders delay’ probably presents the most realistic portrayal of WW2 operational combat seen in any wargame (board or computer) to date. It is far from perfect but as close as anyone has come yet.
Overall Airborne Assault: Highway to the Reich is a fantastic operational level wargame that puts you in the seat of an operational-level commander better than any other wargame to date. It DOES take some time and effort to learn the game — and you will not appreciate it as much until you do because you will find all kinds of goodies as you learn – but it rewards your efforts in spades with a rich wargaming experience.
Quibbles I hope to see addressed in the future: Ability for units to scale with zoom; ability to rewind to watch (although perhaps not intervene) other events; ability to see a regular TO&E diagram view for formations (both ideal and as currently implemented); better graphics, sounds, and animation; improved AI.