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Close Combat: The Battle of the Bulge, SSI, Inc./Atomic Games, Inc., 1999, $49.95.

The German Ardennes offensive has been the subject of numerous board and computer war games with varying success. Now Atomic Games and SSI have teamed to successfully capture and re-create the essential elements of the campaign in the fourth installment of its popular wargame series Close Combat: The Battle of the Bulge (SSI, Inc./Atomic Games, Inc., 1999, $49.95). Previous versions of the Close Combat franchise have covered squad-level tactical combat action in Normandy, Arnhem and on the Eastern Front. However, the claustrophobic small-unit actions forced on the combatants in the Bulge fit exceptionally well with the limited unit counts and confined battlefields of the Close Combat software engine. The welcome addition of more powerful late-war weapons such as the multiple rocket-firing Nebelwerfer and flame-thrower tanks can create an imbalance in the intense computerized battles. But coordinated, combined-arms tactics pitting Panthers against Sherman Jumbos, and hardened SS units against crack American airborne units, will carry the day. The current installment of the real-time action series shines with the use of historical units and commanders, improved graphics–particularly explosions–and stronger individual squads. Added airstrikes and artillery support will not decide the conflict, but they expand the gamester’s repertory and often come in handy.

Of course, the game isn’t perfect. The manual is disappointingly light, the operational and campaign options are too restricted and the mission briefings can leave the cyber commander scratching his head about objectives and battle plans. Still, whether you choose to take command of the embattled U.S. First Army or select instead one of the determined German Kampfgruppen, you will definitely enjoy the high drama and constant tension of refighting the desperate, pivotal battles of December 1944 that came to be known as the Battle of the Bulge.

David Christopher Baker