How on earth a gem like this one has evaded me for so long is a mystery to me. The original version of Firefight was apparently released way back in 1998. As a fan of the Combat Mission series from Battlefront.com, I was immediately drawn to this title because of the similarities I drew right after I fired up my first game of Firefight. Three days and about one hundred battles later and it's official - I'm addicted.
Firefight simulates company level combat in the WW2 theatre. It provides a massive amount of strategy based gameplay and realism unparalleled in a small scale indie wargame. The player can choose to play as any one of twelve nationalities, each with their own realistic lists of squads and equipment for any particular date in any area of operation. Scenarios are potentially unlimited.
The player could set up a realistic battle on the German eastern front with fighting between the Nazis and the Soviets in the snowy forests of Russia, or a purely fictitious rumble between Canadian and Japanese forces in the north African desert. The game runs in real time with battles generally lasting in the vincinity of 25 minutes or thereabouts, although I have had some missions take the longest part of an hour to fight.
There is also (besides the fully customisable single missions) one scripted campaign available for each of the twelve nationalities; a linked set of individual missions which take in the entirety of the war. Although the player never knows quite what to expect from the random map generator, certain parameters are set in the campaign file to create wonderful ongoing campaigns that track the progress of WW2 between missions in the form of newspaper headlines. Due to the uncertainty of number, quality and makeup of enemy forces, and also due to the nature of the random maps, some battles are simply unwinnable (as in real warfare), and when in a campaign, it is always a difficult decision to concede the mission, pull back and keep your HQ unit alive to fight another day. Even in such cases, your performance is rated objectively in areas such as how much damage the enemy sustained and by how direly you may have been outnumbered.
Controls are kept simple, but this adds to rather than detracts from the beauty of Firefight. Any squad when selected can be moved by clicking and dragging an indicating marker to any position on the battlefield. The arrow can be stretched out to position troops over a large area. Teams will move to the player-set marker as best they can, utillising cover and terrain to their advantage. Units can be forced to fire upon a specific target or area, but often are best left to choose targets by themselves. The impressive tactical AI which governs the exact behaviour of every unit on the battlefield works brilliantly to simulate heroic behaviour well beyond the call of duty, as well as the natural behaviour of most men when placed under suppressing fire to become demoralised and/or panic (often leading to casualties or surrender). Infantry caught in artillery barrages especially will generally just hunker down and attempt to avoid injury from flying shrapnel, leading to entire platoons becoming unable to respond to orders, and placing the player in a situation where thinking on the run and good tactics can mean the difference between victory and defeat.
Infantry teams are realistically represented with individual men armed with various small arms, from carbines and rifles to SMG and LMG units. Other support teams such as HMG units, flamethrower and bazooka teams (Panzershrek and PIAT teams are modelled too!) are available as well. Mortar teams can also be employed in addition to the off map artillery strikes. Field guns and tanks all have realistic armour penetration data for the various caliber ammo used. Hits on tanks and other armoured fighting vehicles are checked against armour thickness and angle data, albeit somewhat abstracted to simple front, back and side values. To be successful on a regular basis, the player will need to master combined arms tactics, make good use of cover and suppression fire, and apply overwhelming force on areas of enemy weakness. Flanking tactics are particularly effective. A tank or two driven into the flanks of enemy infantry formations that are otherwise occupied can sometimes turn the tide of a battle. On a slightly critical note, topography on the main view is very difficult to discern, and frequent checks of the minimap where elevation contours are more apparent is a must, especially to properly position anti-tank guns. These highly (although not impossibly) immovable assets need to be set up at the start of the mission in defensible positions where they also have a good field of fire. Overall, absolutely brilliant gameplay on the level of a true military tactics trainer.
The action is viewed from a top-down perspective and the units are small sprites. Hey, the game is 9 years old, after all! In effect this means that no zooming of the view is possible, however, in the new v4.0 of Firefight (released only last year) the F1 key toggles the mini-map and unit data screen on and off, and this is helpful in getting a better overall view of the battlefield. Environments include forests and farmlands of Europe, deserts of north Africa and jungles, farmlands and villages in South East Asia and China. As artillery strikes fall and rounds from tank cannons hit their mark, the ground becomes cratered and buildings are reduced to rubble. Knocked out vehicles burn and smoke, and the bodies of the fallen are strewn over the ground. To be honest, the retro graphics are cool in their own way, and more than do the job of supporting a title that relies on gameplay over gimmick. Another new addition in v4.0 is that the game now uses DirectSound, so that several sounds can be played at once. Sounds are great, with different effects for various caliber small arms, tank and gun rounds, artillery strikes and mortar rounds. Ambient sounds like birdsong, dogs barking and sheep bleating also entertain during those tense minutes before enemy contact is made (on suitable maps).
The random map generator is robust and produces some great maps as well as the occasional dud. This is only to be expected. A top feature is that maps can be generated from a specified numerical seed, allowing the player to replay a particular mission over or challenge a friend to do better from the exact same setup. Sadly, network mutiplayer mode is not available - Firefight is a single player game only. The game amazingly fits into a mere 3Mb installer package that is quickly downloaded even on a dial-up connection to the internet.
I couldn't more highly recommend Firefight to players of military strategy games. At $25 the game is a steal, and includes free upgrades of the game indefinitely. The discussion forum on the developers website is still quite active, and the changelog for the game suggests that updates to the game are regular and players' feedback is thoughtfully considered. Without a doubt the best indie that I've got my hands on this year, even if I am 9 years behind the pace.
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