When I’m not pretending to be a critic on this blog, I’m pretending to be a critic over at Gamedot.co.uk. This pretence has become so improbably successful that I’ve managed to fool the editor into sending me games, all in return for a mere 1,000 words of bile/praise-filled copy (delete as appropriate). On a more serious note, I am grateful for the opportunity, but from now on I hope to flesh out the reviews there with a little more subjective writing over in this little nook of the web.
This time round the subject is Men of War: Assault Squad, a second expansion in the World War II strategy series.
I haven’t played its predecessors, so I stepped onto the battlefield with my squad of soldiers, eager to take the fight to the enemy, before wiping in around about three minutes.
Oh. Try again. Wipe. Again?…Hurray! You cleared the first objective! As a reward, prepare to face a tank rush. Wipe.
This was, apparently, a tutorial level. Before getting into Assault Squad‘s successes, its basic failures in not teaching new players enough need to be addressed. The difficulty curve is absolutely brutal, even on the low difficulty settings (presumably playing on Heroic is equivalent to facing off against a Rommel-Patton-Zhukov dream-team). Until you’ve experimented with every tank and support gun, you’ll have no idea what does what due to the lack of information on offer. The UI is also flawed: at the start of battle, a few icons will indicate your squads and other units, but in the thick of things it becomes monstrously cluttered and nigh on unmanageable, particularly given that selecting a single soldier instantly detaches him from his squadmates, resulting in a unit bar full of icons representing each and every individual soldier on the battlefield. The game can quickly devolve into a micromanagement nightmare.
Yet the sheer depth of the game, exemplified by the micromanagement options, is astounding. Every soldier has an inventory, which can be restocked from supply dumps, trucks or from fallen soldiers. If you’re so inclined, a squad can be acutely tuned to be entirely made up of snipers, or sub-machine gunners, if you can find the equipment. Then there’s ‘direct control’, which allows you to command a single squaddie with the WASD keys, aiming and firing with the mouse. It’s a bizarre, but oddly compelling feature. The use of grenades, or different types of shell, is down to the player, as are uses of repair kits and morphine. Tanks have different armour grades on specific locations like the main gun, turret or tracks.
This isn’t what I find compelling about the game. It’s the fact that it lacks any sort of rock-paper-scissors approach. From individual infantry encounters to massive tank duels, it seems as though anything could happen. Just as in real warfare, no plan survives contact with the enemy. The game demands constant adaptability. There are doubtless stock strategies employed by the multiplayer community, but they can be so swiftly broken by chance events, like the lucky immobilisation of a tank that then forms a roadblock that must be overcome. When a plan does come off, it’s completely thrilling, even if it is rare.
Trying to compare the game to something like Company of Heroes only works in a superficial sense, hardly conveying how it plays. It’s certainly enjoyable, but in an odd way, with victory not bringing euphoria but rather a sense of deep satisfaction at having negotiated the maze of combat options, pitted wits against a rampant AI and a hideous learning curve, and coming out on top. I’ve only finished one map in about five days. One. But I’ve reloaded the maps I’ve tried so many times, in so many separate places, just to test out new ideas. I don’t think it will absorb me – I’m too much of a fan of structure and order in games – but Assault Squad could very easily be a game that will devour the time of others.
My full review of Men of War: Assault Squad will be up on Gamedot soon, at which point I’ll post a link.
EDIT: …and here it is.