Men of War: Assault Squad – Review



Title   Men of War: Assault Squad
Developer  Digitalmindsoft, Best Way
Publisher  1C Company, Lace Mamba Global
Platform  Windows PC
Genre  Real-time Tactics and Strategy
Release Date  24th February 2011 (Steam), 15th April 2011 (Retail/Special Edition Box)

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.
Cons
  • 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.
Summary

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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13 Comments

  1. MarkuzR says:

    This is insane! When we were shown the preview back in January or whenever it was, I had no idea that there was so much involved in running the units… to the point where ammunition, grenades, health kits and even fuel have to be replenished. This is why I loved the original Theme Park series and didn’t take to Rollercoaster Tycoon much… with Rollercoaster Tycoon you just built stuff and kept everyone happy but with Theme Park you had to keep control of all stock and know in advance how long it took for stock to arrive so that you were never left without fries or anything like that – it wasn’t an unending supply.

    So what you’re saying is that the Command And Conquer series is Rollercoaster Tycoon and this is Theme Park. That’s quite a revelation, and I’m even more psyched about it now than I was before… purely because it’s less about strategic planning and more about an overall balancing act where EVERYTHING affects gameplay. The thought of vehicles having their turrets shot out but still being able to progress without firepower, or a vehicle standing still if the driver is killed… I love it.

    I absolutely NEED this game now.

  2. Ste says:

    This game does sound great. However I think the super realism is probably both its best assest and it’s own worst enemy at the same time. I can imagine a lot of people, very quickly, getting fed up with being bitch slapped all the time by this game. Anyway, nice review Sam.

  3. MarkuzR says:

    Totally agree, Ste! Was talking to Pete about it briefly, as he and I tend to go head to head on C&C Generals whenever he’s up staying with us, and he said himself that it’d probably be too much having to be aware of too many different things at once. I think it’s just one of those acquired skills though which, after a while, would become second nature… but it’s lasting to THAT point that would be the struggle. It’s why I can’t be arsed with Street Fighter games – too many button combos for special moves when I just want to kick shit out of people!

  4. Samuel says:

    Thanks guys.

    Yeah, you make a good point Ste. I addressed it briefly in the review, casual players will be scared shitless by the difficulty and the micro-managing in this game. I don’t really mind that to be honest. I’ve lost games of Command & Conquer to total newbs who got lucky or who used cheap rush tactics, and this game isn’t going to give that problem. If you lose here, it’s because you didn’t step up your game, and it’s purely your own fault. Incidentally, I got my arse handed to me every time when I was checking out the online modes. My opponent was German (and German isn’t a language I speak at all), but he was good enough not to gloat, so I didn’t feel cheated or hard done by. I did start to worry about how screwed we all are if the Germans try to invade again and have the sense to recruit Men of War veterans as generals…

    For me personally, this game is the single best RTS in the last 8 years, since 2003, which is when Rise of Nations came out. I mean, I was impressed last year by Total War: Napoleon to the point of picking it as my game of the year, but Assault Squad just blows that game away like a dust mote. I didn’t say that in my review because this will be a Marmite game, either you’ll adore it, or you just won’t cope. That said however, it’s still an amazing game.

    I have a feeling that it’ll just be me and Mark playing this if we ever try to do a GamingLives Men of War night. Ben and Zero might get a real kick out of it too, since they’re into strategy games. But it is a very niche sort of title. Those who are into that niche though will love it, I’m sure of it.

  5. rich says:

    I, Casual Rich, am terrified of this game.

  6. Pete says:

    I’m with you Rich! :D Way too much going on but it does look fab!

    Like Mark says, we C&C regularly and I struggle keeping track of all I have going on in that and it’s fairly simple in comparison lol

    Mark did have a great idea though…. multiscreen gaming where the action takes place in one screen and all your data and resource stuff on another :D

  7. Lee says:

    This game sounds amazing but I’ll be honest I don’t think I’ll ever get past the tutorial. I think I’ll of lost my mojo with proper RTS games like this I’ve been softened by that wave of console RTS games and c&c zero hour was probably the last proper RTS I’d played and even then was about my limit for stuff to manage in an RTS game. I could on the other hand happily sit next to somebody playing it and watch them for hours while barking orders at them and talking about guns, tanks and how accurate it is with things like that. Although from the sounds of it there won’t be much to fault.

  8. Samuel says:

    Multiscreen strategy gaming already exists Pete, with the action on one screen and an overview and data display on another. The original Supreme Commander did it. Also most strategy and RPG games on the DS do it, but that’s nowhere near as impressive… Shame more games haven’t copied Supreme Commander though, because it is such a better way of seeing what’s happening on the battlefield.

    Definitely a great idea, and Supreme Commander proved it can be done if you have the hardware, so why other games don’t do it I don’t rightly know.

    Thanks for your comments guys.

  9. Edward says:

    I’m also terrified of this kind of game. I liked Red Alert 1&2 and spent an obsessive amount of time on the first one as micromanagement was kept to a minimum. I have less time nowadays to spend on the minutae of these sorts of things and need it to get up and go on my command.

    Still, fantastic review and I hope it does well :)

  10. Ben says:

    Starcraft II multiplayer is probably one of the biggest ‘rushes’ I think my gaming ventures will ever experience, be interested to see how this would compare.

    Quality review Preacher, will be keeping my eye out for this next time Steam has one of its mega sales and fingers crossed it finds itself in it.

  11. Lorna says:

    Loved the review and the game looks stunning. The visuals alone make it very appealing, but the actual gameplay itself is the biggest draw. In a time where so many games are dumbing down for the casual/family market it is great to find one which seems to have deliberately cranked up the difficulty. While it does seem complex, I imagine that over time, any frustrations will melt into a greater appreciation for the detail and hard work that has gone into it. Definitely a purchase for me, though I’ll be waiting for the Special Edition!

  12. Limskj says:

    The part of this game that puts me off the sheer micromanagement required. No one ever tells every soldier what to do, down to the last bullet, in battle. Let alone save their own skin. Heck they can’t even do that!

  13. [...] the others being Men of War, Red Tide and Assault Squad, the latter of which we reviewed here. This time the series moves away from World War II and concentrates on the Vietnam War. For those [...]

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