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Combat Mission: Red Thunder – The Rite of Spring (Review)

October 20, 2023
4 mins read

Do you hear that? It’s the unmistakable sound of my T-34 tanks, their tracks rumbling down the freshly dried muddy lanes beneath the scorching midday sun. I find myself fully immersed in the battlefield, strategically commanding my pixeltruppen as they cautiously follow the lead tank. Their Mosin-Nagant rifles are slung over their shoulders, and with each step, the weight of their burden grows heavier.

Suddenly, thunderous booms resound in the distance, sending shockwaves through the ground beneath us. In a reflexive response, my troops drop to the ground, seeking cover from potential danger. Some of them cower, their hands shielding their heads. Thankfully, no one is harmed as the distant explosions pass by.

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You’ll be seeing a lot of variants of the T-34. This one has several armor plates slapped onto it to help bounce incoming shells.

This is the immersive atmosphere that I frequently find myself engrossed in Combat Mission: Red Thunder, the latest offering from Battlefront, published by Matrix. Transporting us back to the intense battles of June to August 1944, during the crucial moments of World War II, this game covers the historic offensive from Russia known as Operation Bagration. I fondly refer to this period as “Stalin’s sweet revenge.”

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A battle plan of Operation Bagration.

Here’s some history about Operation Bagration since this is partly a military history blog as well. This massive offensive operation aimed to liberate the Belarusian SSR and parts of Poland from Nazi Germany’s iron grip. Involving more than 2.3 million Soviet troops overwhelmed the Germans, unleashing ferocious tactics and bringing home the meaning of Stalin’s quote “Quantity has its own quality.

This massive troop concentration was not just about sheer numbers; it symbolized a pivotal turning point in the Eastern Front. The Red Army’s rapid advance and relentless pressure on the German forces shattered the myth of German invincibility. Operation Bagration was more than a military campaign; it was a historical moment that reshaped the course of World War II. It marked the liberation of key territories and brought us one step closer to the eventual defeat of Nazi Germany, all within the context of a critical phase of the war.

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Two Soviet troops operating a machine gun and firing upon German infantry crossing the river.

Now, It’s customary for me to complete the training campaign with every Combat Mission game I receive. Why, you ask? Well, that’s because I’m always a newbie when it comes to wargames. On top of that, the training campaign is a good showcase of the title’s standout features, like unique troops. If you follow the manual, it teaches you how to complete each mission with the intention of teaching you the basic tactics and doctrine of the faction you’re playing.

The game environment is notably distinct from other Combat Mission titles, such as Normandy or Blitzkrieg. Most maps feature dense forests, muddy trails, and narrow rivers, with small towns scattered across them, each housing strategic points of interest, like churches and towers.

If you own other WW2 Combat Mission titles, like Battle of Normandy or Blitzkrieg, and are contemplating whether to add Red Thunder to your wargame library, the answer is a resounding “yes.” Red Thunder features an extensive variety of units that played pivotal roles in the Eastern Front operations, and it introduces tactics and strategies unique to commanding the Soviet army.

Soviet doctrine
Soviet employed deep offensive doctrine. Their operation has two phases. The first phase is called the tactical phase and the second phase is accompanied by an aviation attack.

Unlike Western doctrine, Soviet tactics often demand 2-3 times more troops than typically considered necessary to achieve objectives. As outlined in the manual, if you think a squad can capture a village, the Soviet doctrine recommends a platoon. This alone can transform your playstyle and provide a fresh and distinctive gaming experience.

I may be speaking candidly, but playing as the Soviets allows room for mistakes and provides a broader margin for recovery. The sheer number of troops and armored vehicles at your disposal may make you feel invincible, but the gap between that feeling and the outcome of your actions becomes evident when you contemplate merely sacrificing units to the meat grinder.

As with other Combat Mission titles, you can expect realistic gameplay, offered in both turn-based mode with minute-by-minute actions and real-time mode, which is rarely used by most Combat Mission players. Unfortunately, Battlefront, the developer, still uses the dated 4.0 engine that is 18 years old.

The common sight of sunflowers in the fields of Ukraine takes most of the battlefield in Red Thunder.

While you may not feel the sluggishness of the engine when playing, you can certainly see it in the animations and graphical fidelity, which have already been far surpassed by other computer wargames. Even if you believe that wargames should not focus on graphics, presentation, and decent graphics are needed to keep current players happy and to attract a newer target audience.

In terms of content, the base game includes two highly detailed campaigns from the Soviet and German perspectives. Progress in each mission impacts your troop status and unlocks subsequent missions. The first Soviet campaign focuses on the assault in Orsha, while the second highlights a German counterattack in Radzymin, Poland. You also have access to 18 standalone battles and Quick Battle maps. Additionally, the expansion pack, Fire and Rubble, introduces new forces, including Soviet partisans and German branches such as Waffen SS. It offers over 20 standalone battles and two full-sized campaigns.

Lastly, the battle pack further enriches the experience with two captivating campaigns featuring battles in eastern Poland during July and August 1944. These scenarios range from small platoon-sized to battalion-sized engagements.

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An iconic sight of troops sitting on top of T-34s. Soviets prioritizes mobility over safety.

Of course, all of these expansions carry an extra cost of their own, and whether or not it justifies the price depends on your interest in the era and if the two base campaigns fail to satisfy your hunger for the Eastern front.

In conclusion, Combat Mission: Red Thunder is an immersive and historically rich wargame that transports players back to the intense battles of Operation Bagration during World War II. With its detailed campaigns, diverse scenarios, and unique Soviet gameplay, it offers a captivating and authentic experience for wargaming enthusiasts and history buffs alike. However, the game is held back by its proprietary engine, which is long overdue for a major upgrade.

On the plus side, the game’s environment sets it apart, with dense forests, muddy trails, and small towns adding to the realism of the Eastern Front. Whether you’re a seasoned Combat Mission player or new to the series, Red Thunder is a valuable addition to your wargame library. Lastly, always remember that in this game, quantity often has its own quality. Ooorah!

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Max Chee

Max Chee considers himself an avid wargamer, which inspired him to create this site. He has a burning passion for history and advocates computer wargaming for the masses. He believes one can derive knowledge from learning and playing out history,

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