Wot I Think: Men Of War

By Alec Meer on March 27th, 2009 at 6:28 pm.

The second-sequel to the cult classic Soldiers: Heroes of World War II launched last week, and it looks like it’s going to be one of those games that comes and goes without attracting a big audience. Which would be terrible shame. Like King’s Bounty or Sins of a Solar Empire, this is a game that’s pure PC – something only possible on this proud platform, but without being wilfully obtuse about it. Or at least that’s the idea behind this freeform strategy/squad shooter/roleplaying game – allow me to judge whether it’s the case or not…

I am a guerrilla haberdasher. In the midst of battle, as mortar bombs fall around me, as Panzers rumble ominously across the hillsides towards me, I have just one thing on my mind – what’s on my head. Tin helmet? Well, it’s okay, but… ooh! That hat’s got googles. Goggles! And it’s in khaki! Mine. Bullets zip past my ears as I rotate and zoom the camera to admire my newly-clad noggin. My poor soldier is probably going to die for this – but at least I’ll leave a beautiful corpse.

Stealing hats from corpses might seem entirely inappropriate to the spirit of this brutal, enormously challenging action-strategy game, but as well as revealing quite how sickeningly disrespectful I am to the trials of our forefathers, it’s also a deft statement of why Men at War is so spectacular. This is an organic strategy game, where others are artificial. In other words, everything you need is on the battlefield, as a pre-existent, genuine element rather than a magic power-up crate, a weapon upgrade that blinks into existence out of nowhere, or a capture point with an ethereal timer floating above it. If you want a hat, you take it from someone. The same goes for guns, ammo, grenades, health kits… All taken from the battlefield itself (usually from your enemies’ cold, dead hands) and managed, stockpiled and replaced via a per-soldier inventory. Even reinforcements exist only if they visibly already exist in the level – if your team is low on men, borrow an extra pair of hands from a passing friendly squad.

There’s something startling complete about this approach. It’d be no surprise from a smaller-scale, more prescribed squad game – something like Commandos – but here it’s part of a vast, often free-form real-time strategy game. So Dawn of War II thought it was pairing strategy with roleplaying? Nah – it’s fun, but it’s so obviously compromised, so obviously mechanical. Men of War’s is a fully-functional world.

I am also a guerrilla mechanic. In keeping with an underlying ethos that nothing should be wasted, it’s often the case that a vehicle isn’t wiped out when it’s wiped out. Take a look – maybe it’s just its tracks, its engine or its turret that’s damage. Whip out the spanner, dodge the bullets and… there we go. Good as new, boss. At times, it’s a thrilling war movie moment – can you get ‘er up and running again before the enemy arrives? When you do, when you retreat your guys to safety or let loose that deadly turret just as a Nazi-filled APC screeches on the scene, it feels impossibly good: a thousand times more exciting and heroic than the blandly blank game name would ever have suggested.

This can even unexpectedly turn the tide of battle. A couple of times, I was all out of armour even as another wave of Germans approached. I reached to quit – and then I spotted the smouldering Panzer nearby. Dare I dream….? Yep – just a spot of track damage. The war’s back on, lads.

None of this is dry but invisible actions you only know are happening via blinking icons or scrolling text boxes. Again, this is a palpably alive world. True, the war-men’s faces may look cuboid and depressingly throwback if you zoom in close, but the beauty is in the animations – a vast, battle-torn world constantly spasming with tiny hints of life. It’s attention to detail in the broadest sense – exaggerations in the name of instantly-recognisable information. You know he’s fixing the tank because you can see him doing it. You know he’s in trouble because he’s lying on the ground with his hands over his head. You know he’s in real trouble because you see his helmet ping off his head. You know he’s going to be easy to sneak by because he’s sat down, staring at the floor. Dozens of tiny, characterful vignettes, and they’re all important information to boot. If you’re still in need of proof that World War II isn’t inherently a played-out theme, look no further. Men of War coolly proves there is still scope to do incredible things with the setting. Stealing hats, for instance.

None of this will come as much surprise to anyone who’s played forerunner games Soldiers: Heroes of World War II or Faces of War (the Russian Ukranian devs ritually fail to give their games decent names, it seems), but this is certainly the slickest, strongest attempt at it yet. It’s not held back by Soldiers’ wantonly bizarre interface, nor does it have the stodginess of Faces of War. It’s modern, smart and explosive.

Unfortunately, there are some painfully rough edges. The voice-acting is flat-out disastrous, the cutscenes tedious and pointless. It’d be a better game without them: each level just opening up on another of the sprawling, astonishingly destructible battlefields with a message reading simply, “win.” It’s World War II. You know full well why you’re there. The AI, too, has some awful stumbles. Some lacklustre pathfinding can see your all-too-frail infantry charge into a pack of enemies rather than edge along the wall you were expecting him too.

The enemy are no better- when one of my tanks was confronted by a squad of riflemen who’d run out of anti-vehicle grenades, they clustered confusedly around it, vibrating slightly, seemingly aware they were supposed to do something but with no idea what. I felt a twinge of strange shame as I drove over the lot of the helpless goons. You’re not supposed to pity Nazis – but when they’re so dumb that they think they can defeat a tank by hugging it, it’s hard not to feel a little sorry for the goose-stepping cretins.

But these are teething problems, very likely patchable and never game-breaking. Perhaps a more serious impediment is that it’s a brutally hard game at times, require constant attention, reaction and awareness of what’s in your inventories as well as what’s in your line of sight. That’s why something like Dawn of War is so prescribed – the ancillary stuff is spoonfed to you so you can concentrate on simply fighting. This is vastly more satisfying, though – when you conquer a level, you know you’ve conquered so damned much, and genuinely triumphed against impossible odds. Again, it’s Hollyood war movie as war game, and yet retaining the traditional anonymity of strategy units rather than mawkishly heroising specific characters.

Right now, I’m dreaming of Dawn of War III. And all I want it to be is Men of War reskinned and with better voice-acting. This is a real war.

[Men Of War is out now. Demo here.]

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83 Comments »

  1. theleif says:

    This is a lovely game indeed, but quite hard at times, even at easy level. A tip: You can change the game speed with the backspace button. I would never have managed the second (wonderfully chaotic) level without it. Oh, and like most bestest PC games, there’s tons of great mods out there.

    “Stealing hats from corpses might seem entirely inappropriate to the spirit of this brutal, enormously challenging action-strategy game, but as well as revealing quite how sickening disrespectful I am to the entrails of our forefathers, it’s also a deft statement of why Men at War is so spectacular.”

    Corrected

    • sanejenny says:

      They should love the progress. I am sure we can get more things done this way if we want to give effort.
      Steam showers

    • Used copiers toronto says:

      Maybe le $45 or $40 cause the game like just game out and cause for games that usually just come out gamestop gives u like 40 or 45 for them and btw the reason u should pick me is cause i looked it up im not a jerk that just answers question.

  2. hydra9 says:

    Important question: Can you pause it to issue orders?

    I’m really intrigued, even though I’m crap at RTS games.

  3. theleif says:

    You cant issue order when the game is paused, but the slowest speed setting is really sloooooow.

    And, above all, this is a game where you loose tons of troops, and, if you somehow manage to win, usually survive, with just a few troops left, with scavenged weapons, huddling in a crater. It’s supposed to be chaotic and your troops are supposed to get slaughtered. My time with this game was a quite frustrating, until i came to terms with that. When all your troops has inventories and names, you’re used to trying to keep them all alive. Don’t.

  4. NoahApples says:

    It sounds like those riflemen were going for the .

  5. NoahApples says:

    Whoops, don’t quite have a handle on these tags.

    What I meant to say was:
    It sounds like those riflemen were going for the Japanese Honeybee Defense.

    • Type Zero Bee says:

      Awesome link. The lonely western hero versus Asian collective culture!

  6. DigitalSignalX says:

    So should we wait for the patches or give it a go now? You can evidently play as Allied Forces, the Soviets, or the Germans, and the multiplayer supports 15 ppl at once?

  7. Skurmedel says:

    Yeah, 16 people, altough about 8 will be monolingual russians, and it’ll be a lagfest. Not an actual issue with the game though. I’ve been in non-laggy 12 player games which was rather cool.

    The main problem as I see is the post-war tanks (IS3, T29 etc.) which can slow down a match considerably. They can take so much pounding and it’s just boring. It is, however something which can be modded away.

  8. theleif says:

    You can also play as the Japanese in multiplayer. Haven’t tried it yet though. Oh, and you can play the campaign co-op.

  9. Gunrun says:

    You can’t actually (Not that I can see). That’s to be added in a patch I think.

  10. Jim Rossignol says:

    Brilliant, brilliant game. (You can play individual missions co-op, not the campaign. There is a mod out for that which I’ll link up later.)

  11. Mike says:

    Heroes of WWII is one of my favourite games and I had no idea this was the sequel – thanks for the review, I’ll pick it up in a month or so!

  12. dartt says:

    Also worth mentioning is the full campaign cooperative. Playing through each mission trying to out do each other’s heroics has been smashing!

  13. Mel Gibson says:

    This game is terrible, This is like the third time the asshole editor at this site has convinced me to buy a POS game.

  14. Cpl. Clot says:

    MP, co-op or vs, is where this game shines. So many hilarious moments of utter chaos. Well timed attacks can go drastically wrong at the drop of a hat and hair-brained off-the-cuff ideas can be the turning point of a battle simply because no-one could have predicted them. They should have called the game Murphy’s Law.

  15. Zach Braff's Lawyer says:

    I strongly suggest you cease impersonating Mel Gibson on the Internet as no good can come of it.

  16. Jim Rossignol says:

    RPS: Not endorsed by Mel Gibson.

  17. Danny says:

    Not enough blood and flogging for Mel :(

  18. Skurmedel says:

    Lol… I smell a troll.

  19. Rich_P says:

    RPS: Not endorsed by Mel Gibson.

    New RPS tagline go go go

  20. clive dunn says:

    What were the other two Mr Gibson?

  21. Muzman says:

    It’s not the real guy. He didn’t suggest that getting him to buy the game was part of some big Jewish conspiracy.

  22. Torgen says:

    Damn you Alec!
    Your review coerced me to purchase this from Amazon.com. Got a $25 gift cert for my “over the hill” birthday, and Amazon had it for $27.99 with free shipping. (Yes, I’m a dirty colonial, trashing your proper British intertubes.)

    I’d never heard of this game before, but after reading your description, how could I not buy it?

  23. teo says:

    I’m glad RPS exists

  24. Andrew says:

    The fiddlyness of the controls take a bit of time getting used to. Word of warning: If you’re the sort of gamer who just wants to ‘select all – right click – blow shit up’ then this might frustrate you a bit. Try the demo before you buy. If on the other hand you enjoy a slower, tactical pace and don’t mind lots of micromanaging, you might just find this to be one of the best RTS you’ll ever play

  25. Andrew says:

    Also worth mentioning is how damn pretty it looks. And the physics. Blowing shit up is really fun since buildings fall apart naturally not with canned animations like some other RTS games…

  26. Heliocentric says:

    Truth be told i still need to play the demo. And i’ve never finished the previous 2 games which i already own.

  27. Wolfox says:

    How different is it from Faces of War, in terms of gameplay and polish? I just bought Faces of War, and if it’s too similar, I guess I’ll wait to get Men of War after a few patches.

  28. Wolfox says:

    Does anyone know if Gamer’s Gate version is Securom-protected?

    BTW, King’s Bounty is 9.99 this weekend on Gamer’s Gate. It is Securom protected, but still worth it. ;-)

  29. unclelou says:

    “Does anyone know if Gamer’s Gate version is Securom-protected?”

    I’ve got the GG version, so if you tell me how to find out if it has Securom, I’ll gladly do so and report back.

  30. SirKicksalot says:

    Yo, don’t play it without the blood’n'gore mod!

    http://forum.1cpublishing.eu/showthread.php?t=6321

    Now you won’t just blow shit up, you’ll make soldiers asplode too! I spent about an hour dicking around with tanks, shooting soldiers just to see them blow up in glorious slow-mo!

  31. Jesucristo says:

    Superb game, I hope they sell a lot. There is a mapck pack and a mod for dinamic campaing here:
    http://www.digitalmindsoft.eu/forums/viewtopic.php?f=109&t=2779
    Multiplayer rocks, specially cooperative.

  32. theleif says:

    @Heliocentric: I never player Soldiers OW, but i tried Faces OW. Did not like it at all. This though, i really like. Can’t say if it because of the game or if i didn’t give Faces OW enough time, though.

  33. Wolfox says:

    @unclelou: well, if it is Securom-protected, you should be able to see one serial key in the “My Games” tab in the form XXXX-XXXX-XXXX-XXXX-XXXX-XXXX (and maybe a second one for multiplayer), which you have to enter the first time you run the game, in a small dialog that opens before the game loads, not within it. It may also run at the end of the installation, though I’m not sure if that’s the case. It should probably read “activation” somewhere. Also, if you right-click in the executable file for Men of War, it’s possible that it shows an extra menu option titled “Launch Analysis” or something like it (though I’m not sure if this would be the case for online Securom binaries).

    As mentioned, a few games in Gamer’s Gate are Securom-protected. King’s Bounty and Hitman: Blood Money are two of them, so, if you have any of those two, you might look for other hints.

    Thanks for the help, I appreciate it. Regards.

  34. unclelou says:

    You’re welcome – it has an activation code (I don’t quite remember when I had to enter it – pretty sure it was outside of the game in an extra window though), but it’s a 16-digit code rather than a 24-digit code. Don’t know if that helps?

    I don’t see anything special when I right-click the exe and don’t have King’s Bounty installed anymore, so I can’t compare, sorry.

  35. unclelou says:

    Ah, wait – just skim-read an ini file. There’s lots of text modules about online activation and a securom support email addy, so I guess that answers that.

  36. Dominic White says:

    I’ve said it many times before, but the complaints about the name can be directed to the publisher.

    The original titles were:

    Outfront (Soldiers: Heroes of WW2)
    Outfront 2 (Faces of War)
    Outfront 2a & 2b (Two expansions, later glued together to form a standalone game that is Men of War).

    Not sure why the publishers had to change the names.

  37. Wolfox says:

    @unclelou: yes, I guess it does. Thanks for taking a look for me!

  38. leeder_krenon says:

    Best game of 2009 to date.

  39. PC Monster says:

    “If you’re still in need of proof that World War II isn’t inherently a played-out theme, look no further”

    I’m not sure anyone was saying this, Alec. The last time this appeared on RPS I think the overwhelming majority of opinions were on the WWII itself – as a setting – has now been done to the point of saturation, and beyond. No-one was denying that more innovation could be found within it the theme.

    For many, and I include myself in this, playing another WWII game is beginning to feel exactly like being forced to study it in school for another year because your teacher won’t shut up about how marvellously stirring and grand and and glorious and horribly compelling and important it was. HE may still be obsessed by it but a large chunk of his class are bored and dreaming of other things.

  40. GC says:

    To correct a preceding answer, you can issue order when the game is paused, but it probably wasn’t intended so the interface (icons, cursor shape, …) don’t respond visually to your actions. Mostly you select a unit, select an icon if needed (grenade), pause the game, then you have time to think where to throw, you clic, you blindly select other units, move them or change their targets, unpause and watch the result.

  41. Greatdictator says:

    All i can say abouzt this game…i was in the beta is….that while infantry battles are more exciteing and fun the tank battles are just INFURIATEING …..you not only have to manage all sorts of shit , constantly watch out for what enemy tank they have so that you dont riskj loseing all of your armor….so unloess your one of those ridiculous micromanagers…simply put infantry fights = fun where tank battles = too confuseing , too much attention needed and too much micromanagment requierd

  42. Greatdictator says:

    Curse you and your non existing edit buttons…i would just like to apologize for all the spelling errors there

  43. aufi says:

    let’s also not forget that during cutscenes, the game DOESN’T PAUSE.

    meaning you click through the thing only to find that the chaps you were carefully guiding around are now damp smears on the ground.

  44. Ben Abraham says:

    I love when the editors of RPS convince me to buy games. It always works out better than when the Hypnotoad makes me.

  45. Erlam (Shalrath) says:

    A little strange comment here, but how would you compare this to say, Close Combat (the series of strategy games, not the FPS)?

  46. Dude says:

    Does any one else game freeze when open the inventory of a crate/dead guy (to steal their hats of course!)? mine does gets on my nerve.

    Great game so far, almost done with the soviet union campaign. I thought it would be hard to controls all those tiny men and tank but it is quite easy… Well tank of death need attention otherwise they blow up pretty quickly to other tank of death, or clever infantry man.
    Oh and I really like the feeling when you select a guy and say “ok Nicolov, let’s see if you can trow this AT grenade and survive” follow a lot of time by “Damn Nicolov, I trusted you… okay! Sergeiv, are you going to make it?”. You almost fell like the damn guy shooting cowards when they flee…

    • Promotional Items says:

      These don’t sound like poems, they sound like stories. Yeah, yeah, I know about “freewrite” and stuff, but it still sounds like stories. How did Iris the goddess of rainbows get to texting will rule the world? Doesn’t make sense, even for a poem.

    • corporategifts says:

      Agree with Promotional Items guy!

  47. Okami says:

    @kobzon: It was far easier twenty years ago, back then you could just write about “soviet game developers”. Not that there were that many, but still..

    I downloaded the demo and was delighted to find out, that the game actually runs decently with high settings on my rathr outdated computer. Guess I’ll have to buy it after all.. Curse you, RPS! You’re making me a very poor man! *sigh*

  48. Erlam (Shalrath) says:

    Oh lord, the controls!

    Left click commands, having to drag-drop the repair kit out of the tank, left click select it, click repair, have the guy stand there for a long, unknown amount of time, yargh.

    Also, I apparently suck, because it’s taken me three attempts to even get TO the convoy part of the demo, and I cant get further because my 8 guys + tank are having trouble fighting the ENTIRE GERMAN ARMY.

  49. dchavez says:

    For those complaining about left-click orders, there is an option to enable right click orders. I did this and immediately liked the game 100% more :-)

  50. EBass says:

    The only problem is the amount of defence missions. The level designers seem to have got it into their head that giving you a crapload of men and then throwing wave after wave at you is fun. It is, but not ever other mission, this series of games is always at its best when it uses the scalpel and not the sledgehammer.