Men of War: Assault Squad – Review
Back in February I previewed Men of War: Assault Squad, and was left feeling rather excited about the prospect of the full game. A genuinely innovative and interesting World War II game is a welcome sight amidst the great morass of mediocre efforts based around that particular infamous international punch-up. Now, at last, this is my promised write-up of the final product. I’d recommend that you read that preview before continuing with this review, as I’m going to try and minimise commenting on aspects I covered previously, except where there are notable differences between the preview and full release versions of the game.
To quickly recap, Assault Squad is the second stand-alone expansion to 2009’s Men of War, which was generally well received by critics despite being marketed as a budget title in English speaking regions; the game being originally developed in the Ukraine and Germany respectively by Best Way and Digitalmindsoft, and later translated.
A real-time tactics and strategy title, Assault Squad focuses more on small unit infantry skirmishes, rather than all-out destruction over land, air and sea as in other games in the genre. Players are either given access to a small platoon and asked to achieve a set series of tasks, or given a larger, but still relatively small, initial force and limited reinforcement options that are added to as the battle progresses and objectives met.
The single player campaign is presented as a series of skirmish battles, separated into groups according to one of the game’s five nations. The game forces you to progress through each nation in turn, starting with the Americans, then moving onto the Germans, British and Commonwealth nations, Russia, and finally Japan. The Italian and Romanian armies from the previous expansion, Red Tide, are no longer present. All of these nations are playable across three maps depicting various famous engagements from the Second World War; in addition the American section has a fourth tutorial mission which also must be completed to move on. Not that this is a bad thing, as the game has a very steep learning curve, is unashamedly difficult, and has some pretty complex controls as opposed to the majority of Command & Conquer clones that dominate the genre.
Generally speaking, each mission starts by giving you a command post (either a fortified artillery position, or a simple flag in the mud and a couple of sandbags where your troops first landed), one or two platoons and, if you’re lucky, some AI controlled ally units controlling a handful of machine gun and mortar emplacements to help stop the enemy cutting you completely off from your main supply and reinforcement route. You progress through the battle by capturing other control posts, which are represented by a flag pole flying the colours of whichever army presently holds that position. Unlike in games like Company of Heroes and Dawn of War, all of these are held by the enemy from the start except your initial starting point, so trying to rush the nearest control points with a handful of units to capture them quickly and give yourself a better flow of resources and a better position to dig in and reinforce before engaging the enemy isn’t an option.
Indeed, Assault Squad is brutally hard across all difficulty settings, including the easiest which is more like the hard setting on any other RTS. You are constantly fighting against the odds, as your opponent starts each battle holding all of the territory on the map, with much more resources coming in to spend on reinforcements, dozens of strategically placed artillery and machine gun nests situated at all of the choke points, and access to all of the unit types including tanks and other armoured vehicles. The only way to win is to hit the ground running, and by being more cunning than the AI. Whereas in most strategy games the side with the most units wins, in Assault Squad it is the side that has the best grasp of small unit tactics, and employs the equipment and personnel available to it the most effectively. There is no playing turtle in a base, massing a large army and flattening the computer with overwhelming force in this game. Resources are slow in coming, there is a cool-down time on every unit type every time you request one, and those reinforcements all enter the map at the same starting point you began with, requiring you to bring them to where they are needed; if you charge in half-cocked and get into trouble, you can’t then engineer a Deus ex Machina by flooding the frontline with instant waves of backup until you turn the tide.
The heavy demands made on the player’s tactical ability are further increased by the game insisting on realism and accuracy to the period. Everything is available in restricted quantities; soldiers have a maximum inventory size and can quickly start running out of ammunition, health kits, and grenades and so on. They can also turn around and start running the opposite direction to where you want them to go if they decide that they don’t want to commit virtual suicide following your orders into the teeth of a heavily entrenched enemy position. Vehicles use fuel every time they move, and in greater or lesser quantities depending on the terrain. They’re also dependent on a crew, and receive damage to individual areas rather than from an overall health meter. If the crew inside die or flee the vehicle, it can’t move. Similarly if the enemy manages to blow off one of the wheels or tank treads. Losing the weapons turret allows it to move but not to fire on enemy units, and so on.
You can resupply your vehicles and men with fresh ammunition and fuel, but this too isn’t particularly simple, as you are required to requisition supply trucks one at a time, with a cooling-down period just the same as any other unit. These trucks are slow, unarmed and unarmoured, can’t handle rough terrain, and also have a limited amount of fuel available to them. They also only carry so many supplies. As the enemy focuses on supply trucks as soon as they get into firing range, and because they only take a few hits from anything greater than small arms fire, these trucks need to be micro-managed, coddled, and heavily guarded until they run out of supplies.
The difficulty is not insurmountable, however. The game makes up for the challenge by offering a wealth of strategic and tactical options, so that the most capable players have the freedom to pull off some truly impressive and inventive manoeuvres. Platoons can be controlled as a single unit or by giving orders to individual soldiers, or, if you have something especially hard in mind that you don’t trust the AI to manage by itself, the player can take direct control of an individual man or vehicle using the WASD keys and the mouse, turning the game briefly into a kind of third person action affair. This is great in small doses as required, and fortunately the range of orders you can give is wide-ranging, allowing you to dictate unit stance, formation, and even which ammo type they use, but you can’t win the battle using direct control.
Cover and the terrain of the map play a huge part in the game, as every unit except artillery and mortar weapons have true line of sight firing, and whilst there are jeeps and tanks in the game, the focus is heavily on infantry, who can shelter behind practically any object on the screen or use the terrain to prevent being seen by enemy units until it’s too late. Snipers are worth ten times their weight in gold as a result of this, as you’ll need them to take down practically every fortified enemy position by neutralising the machine gunners and mortar emplacement crews. Terrain and available cover is constantly shifting as each battle progresses too, with destroyed vehicles and buildings remaining on the map, as well as the craters left behind from tank or artillery shells exploding.
In addition to the solo player skirmishes, there is a multiplayer mode available that is playable either online via a Gamespy account or over a local network for those players who are rather more traditionally minded, making the game a good candidate for LAN parties. There are four game modes in multiplayer. First up is Assault Zone, which is a glorified King of the Hill where each player must take and hold the assault zone, gaining points whilst it remains in your undisputed possession. Frontlines is Assault Squad’s capture the flag mode, with one side defending and the other attacking with the aim of capturing the flags… seems pretty self-explanatory, but is much harder than it looks if you have a skilled opponent of course. The simply named Combat mode is the easiest of the four multiplayer games, with the simple objective of destroying as many enemy units as possible whilst taking the fewest losses; points are awarded depending on the unit destroyed, with the largest and most dangerous tanks scoring much more than basic infantrymen. Finally there is Skirmish, which allows you to play all of the single player missions cooperatively against the computer; interestingly, every mission is available for co-op from the start, and does not need to be unlocked as in solo play, making it a good option for the impatient or less capable players.
There is a wealth of options when hosting a multiplayer game, with everything from the winning score down to the ability to turn off tanks and have an infantry only battle. Players can use the chatbox in the game lobby to decide on a customised personal set-up according to their preferences, and the whole thing is very painless. If you are joining an existing game, there is a larger lobby that displays everyone currently not in a match, all of the available game servers, and a chat facility. When starting a game, all of the players have to signal their readiness to begin. Fairly standard set-up for multiplayer matchmaking, though one area of disappointment is how the game signifies players’ levels of experience. Each player has a rank emblem next to their name, ranging from new recruit up through the enlisted and officer grades, but it is based on how many games they’ve played, and not on how many they have won, making it somewhat clumsy and not the most reliable indication of who you’re going to be fighting against in random matchmaking. Additionally, you don’t know if the person you’re going to be playing against can speak English, as English, Russian and German players are all put into the same lobby, and the Men of War series has much larger followings in Russian and German speaking countries than English speaking ones. The series has a very loyal and dedicated core group of fans too, who know the games inside out and are rather unconsciously exclusionary. This can be very intimidating, as you will very likely get crushed utterly by more experienced players in very short order, time and again, and as your multiplayer rank goes on completed games rather than wins, it can look like you know what you’re doing so they won’t show any mercy on you. It makes it very hard to learn the finer points of each game type needed to win, when you’re on the receiving end of a rapid kick in the arse from the other player. For that reason, it would be best for newbies to arrange games privately with friends and password protect their matches, at least until they can get a handle on all of the online game modes and their differences.
Visually Assault Squad is quite glorious to behold, even on lower-spec systems, thanks to the game using the same proprietary GEM2 engine as Men of War; years of polish on something that was originally released three years ago have resulted in something that looks next gen on higher settings but is technically solid and capable of running on less than the latest hardware. The first indication of this is in the initial retail release being version 1.81. The second comes when the game loads, with highly detailed textures, HD resolutions on monitors that support them, authentically modelled units, and spectacular weapons effects. Zoomed in close on the highest graphics settings, the game manages a level of realistic detail and cinematic action that no other RTS game comes close to, almost rivalling some of the first person shooters released a few years ago.
The sound of the game is very solid too; explosions carry weight, guns sound like they should, and the minimal amount of voice acting included for briefings and unit chatter sounds authentic. What could easily have sounded like an episode of ‘Allo ‘Allo thanks to the range of accents required thankfully avoids doing so, which is worth commending despite being nothing too spectacular simply because of the vast number of games that do wind up having such silly sounding voices in them. The game also comes with a very decent orchestral musical score, suitably martial and bombastic without being too overblown or ridiculous, and which doesn’t distract too much from the action.Pros
- The deepest and most tactical RTS game I’ve ever played, and I’ve played more than my share of the genre. Even the Total War series seems simple in comparison.
- Veteran strategy gamers who don’t see Command & Conquer as the be all and end all of the genre will find a real challenge here.
- The realism and attention to detail can really suck you in, and results in a very visceral combat experience.
- The game forces you to step up to each new challenge and overcome it using cunning and wits, rather than the usual formulaic way of playing strategy games of massing a big army first and rushing the enemy.
- Concentrating on infantry tactics, with diminished use of tanks and a complete exclusion of naval and air warfare has resulted in much more focused and precise gameplay.
- The best looking strategy game I’ve played in years.
- Will run on most modern computer systems without any issues, thanks to the solid and stable game engine, the culmination of 3 years of constant refinement.
- Online play doesn’t suffer from a lot of lag issues and works pretty smoothly even on my infamously unreliable connection.
- The difficulty will scare the crap out of most casual players, or those whose only exposure to the genre has been the endless parade of Command & Conquer clones. Though this is a good thing really, and only a con for those it applies to.
- Very occasionally the friendly AI can be a bit stupid, with your units not doing quite what you wanted and getting killed in the process.
- Random matchmaking online is a scary place, thanks to the exclusionary core of dedicated fans of the series, who will annihilate you without pausing to give new players a second thought.
- It can be a bit awkward when games last half the day between evenly matched opponents if one of them only speaks English and the other only speaks German or Russian.
- DRM on the retail release requires you to connect to the internet to activate.
I honestly think that this game is one of the best strategy games in years. The level of detail, the range of tactical options, and the absolute requirement for players to think intelligently about what they are doing and to constantly adapt to shifting conditions and situations all make it stand out over most other games in the genre.
Casual players or those who see Command & Conquer or Starcraft as deep and challenging examples of the genre will have a massive shock when playing this however, so I’d only recommend the game to people willing to master what is probably the steepest learning curve of any game I’ve played, irrespective of genre. The game does need patience, and you have to be able to sink a lot of time into it too, as occasionally the pace of battle is slowed by supplies running out, and on average each single player skirmish can last up to six or seven hours.
This game can be savagely hard. I played the tutorial mission on the highest difficulty setting to see what would happen, and had my entire platoon wiped out in just under a minute after they landed on the beach. That’s just crazy, for one thing I’m no stranger to these games, but the game makes no apologies for it; rather, it sticks up two fingers and tells you to come on if you’re hard enough, and I fucking respect that. There’s no dumbing down here, you have to meet it on its own terms, and you have to applaud the developers for their integrity in sticking to that.
Men of War: Assault Squad is a very fine game, and will reward those who can take it on and meet its challenges without shying away with a deep and fulfilling strategy experience.
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