Combat Mission: Black Sea Steam review | Giving thermals to the blind

Combat Mission: Black Sea: I blew up a BMP-2!

When first announced Combat Mission: Black Sea, they were probably inspired by the Russo-Georgian war. “Which neighbor could Russia potentially invade next?” they must have asked themselves. They settled on Ukraine as the likely target. Seemed like a good idea at the time, but when the game was released in November 2014, the war in Donbass had been going for 3 months already. The situation hasn’t righted itself since, and the conflict was still ongoing Combat Mission: Black Sea was released on Steam on January 21st, 2021.

You probably already know the place: Ukraine. The fictional conflict was to arise in 2017. Fictively enough, it would have immediately turned conventional. No smoke and mirror convoys, no “volunteers” or “people’s republics” – just straight up Russian regulars rolling over the border in BMP-3s. Would the Ukrainian forces be able to stop them? Maybe. But just to be sure – and to keep the Western audiences interested – the Americans would decide to actively step in. That’s where you come in, to command some, all, or none (if you don’t buy the game) of the parties involved.

Combat Mission: Black Sea review: BMP-3s get immobilized in dirt
The very soil of Ukraine rises up against the invaders, clogging up wheels and treads

As befitting a proud groggy grog game for grogs, Combat Mission: Black Sea doesn’t have a sweeping narrative campaign that follows the personal stories of one character or another. Rather, you have several linked map campaigns, a whole bunch of scenario battles, a skirmish mode with more maps than you can shake a stick at, and a map editor for your bespoke funtimes.

This isn’t your grandpa’s RTS, even if he’s the target audience

But once you get to the field, it all works similarly no matter which way you play it. You have your forces – though scenarios often deliver most of it via timed reinforcements rather than dumping it all in the deployment zone – the enemy has his, and you have to fight to maintain control over map locations. You might not catch them all, but victory will be determined by the score gained by holding objectives, preserving your forces, destroying the enemy’s and so on. Difficulty “primarily determines” fog of war and support (read: artillery and aircraft) delivery.

The game manual is intentionally obscuring the effects of difficulty and leadership, which lessens the sting when one of your lieutenants bite it on the first minute of battle.

You do that by commanding your forces, the size of which range from 20 dudes to battalion-strong forces. And this is where it gets funky, because the granularity of control varies from splitting off 2-man scout teams, to manually telling embarked squads to grab weapons from their transport, to telling a whole battalion to go on a hunt. Granted, the game doesn’t handle mass orders well, so you’ll be better off ordering individual units yourself.

Sight un-Combat Mission: Black Sea-n

Fortunately, slow is smooth, and smooth is good, especially when you consider Combat Mission’s signature (and finicky) spotting system. This isn’t an RTS where your dudes spot the foe immediately when going in range. No, you’ll definitely want to take a stop and let the dudes spend a minute or two observing the environment.

Combat Mission: Black Sea: your dudes are nearly blind
After spending about half an hour using this tree line as an observation position and fire base, the Russian forces notice a Ukrainian force planted right in the middle of it.

Even when an enemy is spotted, it’s up to luck (and the difficulty level) to determine how effectively your dudes share their information with their friends. But since spotting dudes in the first place is a bit hard, you’ll see a scout team or two wiped out by a fox hole position they spotted only when they got close enough to fall in and break their necks.

That’s how it works in abstract. In the real thing, Combat Mission: Black Sea demands you go to down to the ground to manually check possible LoS blocks. The edge of the cliff that your soldiers are on, will it block the view of the area beyond? How far up a hill should your scouts advance to be able to safely see over it? Which clump of trees might prevent my artillery spotter from, er, spotting the enemy entrenchments? This slows down the process even more.

Real life isn’t StarCraft

So, you know, taking your time isn’t that bad – especially if you play not RTS, but WEGO mode. Simultaneous turn resolution rules the day, especially when playing PBEM. And in Combat Mission specifically, you can take your time to lay out the most obnoxious array of orders before committing the turn. Then the game runs for one minute, during which you can’t do anything at all but watch the ensuing carnage. So free of pressure, so liberated from the tyranny of APM! Would that all games be that enlightened!

Combat Mission: Black Sea: try commanding all of these dudes at once
The battles can get bigger than even that

On the other hand, the order system is a mixed blessing. Some are fairly complex, like a “Assault” getting a squad to execute bounding overwatch when approaching a position, or “Target light” making vehicles pepper an area with their MGs rather employing the big guns. Others are quite simple, like three different movement modes that essentially determine the speed of movement.

And some are nearly impenetrable – why does “Pop smoke” not allow me to choose the direction? What’s the benefit of “Combine squad” if it removes “Assault” as an option by just clumping two fire teams together? Is it to get a single capable unit if both of the teams had been previously mauled?

Therein lies one of the biggest issues of Combat Mission: Black Sea (and other games of the series): it loathes to explain anything to you. Tooltips don’t exist – for anything. Not for orders, not for things like artillery barrage intensity, nor for vehicle or troop equipment. Wondering how something works? Read the manual. You already have to do it if you’re a new player, as half of the tutorial resides in those hallowed PDF pages.

Delayed gratification in the form of 11 minute helicopter call-in

But if you can deal with the myriad of these nagging details, you can have an experience like no other – partially because is one of the very few grog designers that create 3D games. It certainly is rewarding when you suppress an enemy position with overwhelming firepower before sending in troops to assault it, however strange “fixing bayonets” maybe in the most modern of the Combat Mission titles.

Combat Mission: Black Sea - trench warfare is a lot less viable when airburst precision artillery exist
Mess up when buying forces in the skirmish mode and the AI deployment will give you some Warhammer 40k stuff

A successfully landed artillery barrage is all the more sweeter if you had to wait at least three minutes for that (that’s with a dedicated forward observer – combine personnel with lesser training with a hostile electronic warfare environment for waits of 20 minutes or more). It’s also genuinely rewarding to see your armored units actually manage to do their tasks – and if they survive the ordeal, the way they pop smoke and retreat upon laser warning is pleasing in its own way.

Heck, I’m just happy that you can leave your troops to give first aid to casualties – there’s no rush and no explicit benefit that having more points in the end, but I love taking care of my dudes. Good thing the CASEVAC is abstracted away – it would be a hell of a thing to pull off in this engine.

Engine damage!

Speaking of the engine… Combat Mission: Black Sea uses the latest iteration of it – in fact, the recent Steam release of Combat Mission: Shock Force 2 is an engine upgrade rather than a real sequel. And unlike the deserts of Syria, the hill of Ukraine seem to give it a lot more trouble. I’m seeing a lot more terrain taking its sweet time to pop in. Not great, considering that that level load times are already on the more… generous side.

Combat Mission: Black Sea - some graphical bugs exist
Some soldiers take their time recreating famous pieces of pre-WWII war photography, even if it means hanging in the air for the duration of the mission

On the other hand, the audio side seems mostly good? The music is definitely not something to write home about, with the menu theme being comprised of fairly embarrassing speed metal guitar riffs. On the other hand, the sounds of battle are good – I’m getting a Pavlovian reaction to the backdrop audio of fighting that plays all the time. The devs have also gone to some lengths to procure observer and battery/plane chatter that at the very least sounds right,

Now, for the elephant in the room: seeing how Lithuania is rarely depicted in games, Combat Mission: Black Sea hits closest to home. You know, somewhat abstractly,  that when you’re shuffling around Marines in a Vietnam game, you’re not playing the good guys. But the conflict in Ukraine is very close – mentally and geographically – so it feels a bit hard to order around your pixel troops with the same detachment (or attachment) as usual.

Game Good

Bearing all that in mind… I’m enjoying Combat Mission: Black Sea! It’s so rare to have a modern wargame that isn’t an absolutely arcade RTS (looking at you, Wargame series), and both WEGO and PBEM are seriously overlooked in the industry. If not for the political background, even the subject matter would be novel and interesting (again, looking at you, Cold War Gone Hot games who are adamant on not covering The Time Before Abrams). Shame about the lack of tooltips!

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