Combat Mission: Fortress Italy is the newest entry in the long-running war simulation franchise. The game sports the newest version of the CMX2 engine and delivers all the turn-based strategy one would expect out of the genre. While I am familiar with several tactical RPGs and RTSs, Fortress Italy is my first experience with any game of its type.
Initially, Fortress Italy is overwhelming for a newcomer like me. I booted up the game and decided that I would just jump into an early battle or tutorial so I could get a feel for the mechanics. I clicked around and found two tutorials under the game’s campaign. Before every mission you are greeted with a mission briefing and a tactical map. For the tutorial’s briefing I was told “to make the most of this training campaign, you should follow the tutorial text that accompanies it, which can be found in your manual.” I thought to myself that it wasn’t completely necessary to read a manual on how to play a tutorial because I assumed that the tutorial itself would teach me the basics and show me what I needed to do. I quickly realized that if I wanted to play, I would need to read the manual. The first tutorial mission merely asks you to move some vehicles and soldiers around to grasp the basics of movement. It sounds simple enough, but the game only shows you the points in which you need to move your units around, nothing else. There’s no voice or text that appears telling you what to do, it doesn’t highlight which area of the user interface you need to interact with, and there’s not even a simple checklist to tell you when you’ve completed an objective.
So, with a feeling like I was being forced to do so, I turned to the game’s PDF manuals that came with the download. These two manuals contain nearly 200 pages worth of material for you to absorb. One manual spends about a hundred pages discussing the elements of the game engine while the second focuses on Fortress Italy and its features. Since I wanted to save on ink and paper and didn’t have a second monitor I decided to constantly switch back and forth from game to manual so I could figure out what I was doing. Another thing I found hard to understand is the lack of tooltips. When the user interface is your primary means of relaying information to the player then you should make it easy to understand. From what I could tell, tooltips are mainly delegated to weapons and a few other items but nothing else. So for me to understand, I would obviously have to refer to the manual until I have memorized all the information.
Like I’ve previously stated, I am a newcomer to this genre. To fans of Combat Mission and similar titles I probably come off as stupid or a fan of brainless shooters but I am neither of those things. I realize there are people who adore these games and find them very entertaining; but Fortress Italy practically alienates anyone wishing to test the waters. The mechanics of the game don’t have to change at all but merely offering basic forms of assistance instead of just saying “read the book” would help a great deal.
If you do make it over the learning curve and find yourself enjoying what Fortress Italy has to offer then you are in for a decent list of features. Being set in the Italian front of World War II, you will play as Italian, American, and German troops across a handful of small battles and a few campaigns consisting of some branching missions. Battles can be long affairs with some having up to two hours of possible playtime. You have the option of playing in either real time or turn-based. In real time you issue out orders for your units, press action, and wait for them to complete the orders (with the option of changing them). Turn-based is mostly the same except turns play out in one minute increments that you can skip but you cannot change your actions after they are executed. At the same time the opposing force is executing their commands. The system allows for you to issue as many commands as you want in the space of one turn but can still feel pretty slow in some areas, especially when waiting to actually engage in combat. The game has a lot of realistic touches which has garnered it a large fan base over the years. Troop morale, finite ammo, weather conditions, and varying terrain all add a strategic touch to the game and make for something else to manage in the midst of battle.
Graphics are definitely not the game’s strong suit but I strongly doubt that is a problem for most. The battle area is more or less a floating map. There is a pre-rendered sky and mountain range while the playing field sits on top of a sea of brownish texture. While you move the camera around the map you will immediately notice that there is nothing above, beyond, or below the playing field; you can even move the camera to see under the map. It looks extremely dated and borderline comical. The details on foot soldiers and other units isn’t next gen stuff but looks good despite what the rest of the game might make you think. Sound-wise there is barely anything to hear in the game. There are orchestral themes during menus and loading screens and at the ends of matches but no ambient music to speak of. Soldiers will make noise when you give them orders, vehicles and weapons sound appropriate, nothing spectacular. Oddly (or maybe not), there is no volume control, just the simple option of turning the sound on or off. One moderately impressive feature is the ability to create your own maps and scenarios. A detailed map editor allows you to create your own environments and specific parameters to fight in.
The game does offer players the option of playing online by selecting “Join Network Game” from the main menu. When first clicking on this option one might naturally expect to be greeting by some sort of matchmaking or lobby system; instead you are asked to put in a specific IP Address and Port. This has to be one of the most baffling aspects of the game. These days most games include multiplayer in some form (whether they are good or not is a different question) and it would seem like a game like Fortress Italy would thrive on multiplayer. This sort of system is so archaic it’s obviously built for a tight-knit community that has openly communicated across other Combat Mission titles through the years and in online forums. Still, why not create some sort of lobby where you can see other players and join their game with just a few clicks? Honestly it is hard to imagine a valid reason as to why a PC game in 2012 does not have a better system of playing online unless it boils down to server costs.
I understand that Combat Mission: Fortress Italy is designed for people who enjoy games of this type and previous Combat Mission titles; but that doesn’t forgive some of the glaring flaws that make this game look and play generations behind. Though it was recently released, the dated nature of several parts of this game will make any newcomers wary and cause the steep learning curve to feel like more of a brick wall. Being completely unfamiliar with the genre, I was hesitant to try Fortress Italy—especially after realizing I would need to read parts of the exhaustive manual to even grasp the basics of how to play. Still, I slogged through pages of manuals, clunky tutorials, and unfriendly user interfaces only to find myself just as clueless as before. If Fortress Italy is your type of game then you aren’t going to need any convincing; hell, you probably already own it. Anyone else looking for an introduction into war simulators can probably find something better and with a much cheaper and tedious admission fee.