One of the most intense Ukrainian games destined for our hard-drives in 2009 is Men Of War, which I’ve been lucky enough to have some time with over the past couple of weeks. It’s rather similar to previous games Faces of War and Soldiers: Heroes of World War II, but since that’s not exactly the most universal reference point I’ve written some impressions of the new game beyond the jump. They should give you some idea of why this particular RTS is so interesting.
Another World War II game? Oof, it would seem like a game too far, especially when it’s not from one of our pop favourites like Relic. But there’s loads here that feels fresh and seems to resonate on an entirely different level to the Hollywood WWII we’ve so often been fed. It’s detailed, bleak, and quite difficult to get to grips with. While not exactly one of those impenetrable wargames that we’ve all spend the last decade avoiding, but definitely and RTS with a bit more substance.
The first level of Men Of War is, of course, fairly tutorial-driven. I’d played some of it before at KRI, but spending some more time with it now makes me realise what a heavy dose of tactical gaming this actually is. The most striking thing for anyone used to the C&C lineage of games is that every single soldier has his own inventory. There could be dozens of people on the field of battle, and each one will have his own equipment, in an inventory that can be looted after death. Yes, it’s that kind of game. Then there’s the sheer time it takes for your little dudes to fix a damaged tank. You feel like actual field repairs could take place in that aching stretch of time. We’re so attuned to the NOWNOW GO pace of these games that something that expects you take your time seems strangely obtuse. Sure, this is a game that makes lots of concessions to its gaminess, but realism and simulation loom large in the design. The different between high explosive and armour piercing rapidly become clear, for example, as you can happily shoot through the side of a building and into the body of a vehicle if you get the right ammo set up.
And it’s just really damned hard. The first level is long, with multiple objectives that can easily be failed if your tank gets messed up or your dudes happen to take the wrong piece of cover. Nor does it necessarily recognise when a level has gone too far to be rescued, leaving you to flounder and struggle with your inadequate resources. The path-finding doesn’t help: your autonomous chappies regular get themselves shot if you try to use a grenade, and a tank will happily drive through a tractor if it’s in the way of where you asked it to go.
Nor does the game seem to worry about the kind of step-by-step progression towards complexity that most game designers seem to believe is necessary. The second level throws you from the first level’s stealing a tank and attacking a convoy into a massive hour-long defence of some factory yards, where waves of Nazis are trying to get to a train that is being loaded with industrial equipment. The change in scale is huge, and it’s absolutely awe inspiring to watch this unfold, especially as the game begins to unveil its damage model. Buildings collapse beautifully, and the exchanges of howitzer fire between mounted guns start to knock dusty chunks out of debris, and the buildings break up to reveal detailed little interiors. It’s the point at which criticisms of the game begin to dissolve in the light of its excellent complexity. This is a splendid experience.
What’s most interesting about Men of War, however, it that just a short time with the game shows off the sheer range of Men Of War’s ambition, right there on that fighting retreat. While some levels rely on your using the range of skills supplied by a small group of infantry – you take to a running away process of guerrilla war in the later levels for example – the game itself can handle huge battles where most of your units are acting semi-autonomously. In that second level the game feels far more like some kind of battlefield model or simulation, where you are a spectator making some tweaks, than it does any kind of traditional RTS. This kind of situation crops up several times during the game, with immense, sweeping battles taking place right under your nose. This change of pace is no bad thing, either: this is a richly detailed, beautiful, ambitious game of war that doesn’t necessarily try to do one thing well, but to do lots of things impressively. Sure, it’s probably going to put some people off with the amateurish front end and sheer fiddly-hardcore nature of its design, but this is a vast, heavy game, with almost too much to do. It’s exactly the kind of game I will never finish, but also exactly the kind of game that I am genuinely glad exists.
Another Russian masterpiece? That might be a bit strong. It’s certainly unique, and it’s definitely one of the most interesting World War II games I’ve ever had the pleasure to play with.