Let's begin with the most obvious: the command structure for G.I.
Combat is a blatant rip off of the system pioneered in Close Combat. So is the attention to morale, historical detail and the use of leaders to offset the negativities combat brings to a platoon's battle effectiveness. But it isn't a rip off because Freedom Games is composed of ex-Atomic Games' members; the developers of Close Combat and countless turn-based strategy titles.
G.I. Combat signals a return to the post Normandy invasion. If you ever want to do a college paper on a single event in a university library and you were afraid of running out of secondary sources, WWII is the topic you should choose. It's the single most covered topic by modern historians, ex cathedra. That's similar with wargames. D-Day and beyond is the hottest thing you could put out on the market and there's no shortage of games covering this time period. G.I. Combat is composed of a series of single battles. These are strung together as Operations (~three battles) and then strung together again in Campaigns (~six battles). Across battles, you're able to carry over troops and use command points accrued during the battles to purchase better equipment, provided they are available.
The objective of G.I. Combat is to move their tactical warfare game to a 3D setting, giving players the ability to do things like advance during inclement weather and launch night assaults. These couldn't be done as viscerally with a 2D engine. This is where G.I. Combat falters the most though. While it carried over the semi-autonomous controls of Close Combat, G.I. Combat's camera system is the opposite of intuitive.
There's a steep learning curve involved, particularly when everything is happening at once in real-time. Focusing suppressing fire at different locations, crucial to the game, is made difficult because of the imprecise controls. G.I. Combat prides itself, much like Close Combat, in the supremacy of the thinking infantryman. If you point an arrow towards a general location and label the path cautious, theoretically, your soldiers will cautiously advance to that location. Problems arise partly because your soldiers aren't thinking at the level they should be. Trying to recon ahead with the whole squad, for example, often results in one man's folly exposing the entire squad and getting everyone else killed. Because the command structure is made so that you can't control each and every man (since it is assumed, your platoon leaders will act intelligently), it means commanding your company can often be an exercise of frustration.
That's apart from the technical command problems. No matter how I tried to get into the game, the way you pan the camera around was nagging at me at every juncture. There has to be something to correct this. Right now, it's about as intuitive as the "gesture" clicking Bungie did with Myth a long time ago; an overly complex solution to a simple problem that defies the principles of Occam's razor. I'm sure there are problems with the artificial intelligence too. All but one of the campaigns included in the game recommends you to play against another player - an ominous sign indeed.
However, as I mentioned with the infantry focus, this game lives and breathes like a Close Combat title. There is a lot of attention to including black and white footage and photography of the military units. The research ethics, especially into what armament each side carries, how it sounds and how they execute, are carefully assembled. This is one of those games where I spend a lot of time clicking around the troop deployment screen simply to read about how each one can help me in the battle. And G.I. Combat's style encourages you to field a balanced force. Rifle teams will do little against a full armor advance.
This strength that is obviously carried over from Atomic Games is still not enough. The voiceovers, while in their native dialects, are too scratchy for my taste, even if it is an authentic recreation of the short-range communications at that time. If your soldiers screamed this incoherently, it's no wonder the Soviets lost half their nation, their capital and all of the industrial sites in a few months' time. In the movies, the voiceovers are absolutely dismal, which partly explains why they aren't played by default when you win or lose.
Some things did not carry over to Freedom Games' newest title. An overhead strategic map to plot attacks, seize supply centers and extend the strategic portion upwards is gone from the game. G.I. Combat also lacks the ability to include other Axis or Allied powers, like the
British, Soviet, or French sides (perhaps one day even Canadian, but I'm hoping for too much). I'm still waiting for three or more sided skirmish and multiplayer battles.
With such a difficult learning curve, the paper manual is little more than a quick start reference. The online manual, moreover, actually refers you to a live site. The tutorial section has seen parts of the axe too. Thus, there's not much, if any, handholding involved.
This is all disappointing because we've seen the material in action before. Recently, multiple award shows have gone on to recognize the greatest games of 2002. Nearly all of the PC ones were related to WWII in one way or another. This material can sell. Conversely, Close
Combat was the closest thing to a layman's wargame. The interface, while dubiously simplistic for hardcore fans, simply worked for everyone. But for some inexplicable reason, it doesn't here. Since you become so detached from the game, you become detached from commanding your soldiers. For the newcomers and initiates, it'll seem like everything is happening with or without your commands - and most likely that means your whole company is getting slaughtered.
The resulting odds and ends are, therefore, left to stand on their own.
With sprite-assembled hedgerows, unsophisticated textures, the whole move to the 3D setting is not very awe-inspiring. The crude textures may be acceptable for something like Combat Mission (where the graphics were done almost single-handedly). These guys are professionals though. Curiously, some of the most glaring faults (odd crashes, clumsy interface) were found in the earlier betas.
The subtitle for G.I. Combat is Episode I: Battle of Normandy. I'll take this as a sign of more games to come in this series. However, it's ironic that in moving to Freedom Games, the developers continue to find themselves (perhaps unnecessarily) shackled to the Close Combat paradigm. Let's hope in the next iteration, there will either be a departure from this approach or at least a more refined one at that. As it stands now, the developers at Freedom Games appear to be suffering from some Episode I jitters like George Lucas himself.