If you're like me and you're into tactical squad-based shooters, you've probably been twiddling your thumbs ever since Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30 came out back in March. I recently broke out the original Ghost Recon and started playing that online, just for something "new" to do. But then Close Combat: First to Fight came across my desk and the drought was over. Or was it? Does Close Combat stand up to the likes of the aforementioned Brothers in Arms, Ghost Recon or Rainbow Six? Take a seat soldier, the briefing is about to begin.
Close Combat takes place in the Lebanese city of Beirut. Insurgents have started a rebellion and now a number of different factions, including Lebanese Militia, Syrian and Iranian forces, are vying for control of the war-torn city. The United States Marine Corps has been deployed to restore peace to the area and that's where you come in, as commander of one of the Marine Fire Teams. Over the course of the six-mission campaign, your squad will be tasked to rescue hostages, disable armored vehicles and eliminate or capture high value targets. Although it might sound like a small number of missions, each one is subdivided into several levels and furthermore into numerous checkpoints, culminating in a 12-hour operation.
One of the highlights of Close Combat is its level design, which blends indoor and outdoor environments beautifully. One moment you'll find your squad engaged in close-quarters combat, sweeping a sewer system of radicals. The next you'll be climbing to street level and getting ambushed by heavy artillery and rooftop snipers. The tension created by these environmental transitions is commendable. Unfortunately the level design gets a little lazy in the last third of the game, as portions of previous levels are re-used only in reverse, a la Halo.
The biggest issue I have with First to Fight is with the AI, friendly in particular. Their behaviour can be best summed up as inconsistent. Your Marine Fire Team work on a system of formation, movement and tactics called Ready-Team-Fire-Assist, which basically provides 360-degree security with each member of the four-man squad covering a direction. This system works great outdoors when you're moving down streets and crossing intersections, but once you step foot inside a building, it tends to break down into an episode of The Three Stooges. Your team gets disoriented indoors, staring blankly at walls while you're taking heat at 12 o'clock. Their reaction time decreases dramatically as well, leading to awkward moments of silence when they come face-to-face with an enemy. It got to be so bad at one point that I literally left my squad behind just so I could successfully complete one of the levels. You see, mission success depends on the survival of at least three members of your squad so if they can't handle the heat, they're better left out of the kitchen.
That's another of the cool features in Close Combat, the ability to break your squad into single units. For instance, if you're making your way down an apartment complex and you suspect you'll be ambushed when you reach the street level, why not leave a marine perched at one of the windows, primed to pick off a few enemies below. Sounds like a great plan, but the troublesome AI creeps into play again. You see, if you tell a soldier to hold his position at one of the windows, they'll imediately drop to a knee, shrinking their field of vision. They can only see straight ahead out the window or up to the sky, as opposed to down on the street where initially intended. The only way to get him to stand up is to order him to form up, at which point he'll run back to your position. See the dilemn here? Some of the best laid plans go to waste.
This is why Close Combat's single-player campaign is arguarly best enjoyed in the multiplayer mode, where you can eliminate the discrepencies of the AI. Up to four human players can tackle any single mission or the entire campaign as a whole, in either split-screen or online via Xbox Live. The game also supports a team deathmatch competitive mode, Fire Team Arena, in which up to eight players compete in two teams across various arenas. Though rudamentary in design, this mode offers the option of creating a Platoon (read:clan), a group of up to 32 players who can compete with other Platoons and be ranked on a team ladder.
Another gripe I have with First to Fight revolves around the controls. As I mentioned, you can assign orders to one, two or all three members of your Fire Team using a combination of the directional pad and the action button; an intuitive design to say the least. Unfortunately, that means less buttons for some of the more common FPS actions like peeking around corners. To peer, you have to click twice on the left thumbstick and then move said thumbstick in the direction you wish to lean. It's a bit of an awkward setup. But what's worse is the player movement. By default, your marine will creep about, and I can't emphasize the word creep enough. The other alternative is to run, which is accomplished by pushing the right thumbstick twice. There's no middle ground between the two and you can't fire your weapon when you're running, which leads to some frustrating moments when you want to move quickly and still be able to lay down fire in order to give your team time to find cover.
Visually, Close Combat is serviceable. The story unfolds through a series of well-executed CNN-style broadcasts. Both the indoor and outdoor environments are well realized, but they lack interaction. Sure, you can blow up a few vehicles and even knock the power out in a couple of buildings, but cannisters you might expect to explode, don't, and windows you might expect to shatter, won't. It doesn't detract from the game per se, but little touches like these only add to the overall experience. Unfortunately, much like the original Ghost Recon, Close Combat suffers from clipping issues. Enemy weapons and limbs clip through doors and sometimes shadows clip around corners, tipping off the bad guy's presence. The character models are acceptable, but there's not much in the way of variety with respect to enemy models. There's also an odd character animation when an enemy is wounded that makes them walk around like a zombie. As for the sound in Close Combat, it's decent but nothing particularly noteworthy.
When the credits start to roll, it's not as if Close Combat: First to Fight does anything terribly wrong, it just doesn't do anything new and exciting. What it offers in terms of gameplay has been done before, and done better by the likes of Rainbow Six, Ghost Recon and, to a lesser extent, Full Spectrum Warrior. To put it simply, Close Combat is a little rough around the edges. With that said, if you're eager to enlist in a new tactical squad-based shooter, one with co-op support in particular, First to Fight may be worth a look.