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Frontline Report: Order of War Impressions

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While I feel slightly nervous to dare add further comment after an RTS-expert like John Walker has had his say, I actually did cross London town to have a look at Wargaming.net developed and Squaresoft published Order of War and have a few shareable thoughts. Before seeing the game, the initial interest is in the industry machinations of it. It’s Squaresoft’s first PC-only Western-developed game. Wh… at? And after playing the Belarus-originated game, I’m smiling at a tiny observation. That no matter how much a PC-game this is, Squaresoft’s first RTS still manages to work out a way to make the whole thing into a cut-scene.

But we’ll get to that eventually.

Top level facts: Order of War is a WW2 set large-scale RTS, with multiplayer and a couple of campaigns. One puts you as the Americans on the Western front, facing off against the Germans. The other plays out on the Eastern front, placing you as the Germans. Its main feature is the sheer scale and detail to it. Apparently you get up to a 1000 soldiers beneath you. Developers repeatedly talk about trying to create a Total War-esque feel in a WW2 game, with masses of detailed, highly animated soldiers marching forth. Since it uses a unit-based control system, where you control groups of tanks and footsoldiers rather than individual units, I can see the point. The other game which comes to mind is World In Conflict. Obviously it’s a game based around controlling many more troops than the tight and intimate WiC, but it seems to rely on a reinforcement system akin to the glorious Ruling King Of Explosions. You gain resources, then spend on having more troops arrive from off the battlefield. So while there’s no actual base-building, there’s an element of that.

Generally speaking, the developers talk a lot about accessibility and excitement. For example, rather than having a single objective, the missions – which vary between half an hour and one and a half hours – have multiple objectives which you’re swapped between. So, for example, you might attack a base with some tanks. Win that battle, and you’re moved over to controlling some air-strikes on a town elsewhere on the pretty-damn enormous maps. This allows the computer to look after the reforming the ranks over there while you do something more abstractly interesting. It’s a sort of edited highlights approach, almost. Married to that is the difficulty level. It promises three. The top one they describe as punishing, probably requiring replays to complete. The other two are… well, more generous. They actually talk about how it should be virtually impossible to fail on easy, just being about the joy of moving masses of troops around. You’re drip-fed reinforcements when things are looking bad. The average difficulty – well, they talk about some of that same approach, but the idea is that it’s balanced that it always seems that you’re on the precipice of failing. In other words, it’s gaming as a card trick… of course, I’m not sure of the wisdom of actually explaining their philosophy in such open terms to begin. When a gamer realises that a game is tricking them, the pleasure from it tends to decrease. Now everyone who reads this, if they come to play it on Normal, will be aware of how much the game is jiggering around behind the scenes.

That said, probably best for lunatics like us who actually read the games press to play on Hard. Man up, etc.

There’s another point to the whole difficulty level thing too. They want it possible for the more casual player to actually sit back and appreciate the carnage more – it’s one of the reasons why it’s not as punishing. That’s because they’ve integrated a cinematic camera system, which you can activate at any time for the game to jump around the flashpoints of the battle, showing it all from artful angles. Yeah, this is the “turn the whole game into a cutscene” feature mentioned earlier. It’s actually genuinely pretty, capturing the most impressive parts of the games – the brutal air-strikes, for example – brilliantly. Married to everything else, it’s clear that Order of War really is trying to capture its own feel. Mass, cinematic battles, embraced in cinematic terms, with even level-design taking the movie’s dead-time-must-be-cut-approach, by moving you from interesting challenge to interesting challenge.

And from having a play, it is fun, in a lobbing-masses around manner. The aforementioned World in Conflict does seem to be the best comparison in terms of its single-player attempt to make drama – and there’s certainly room to do that better than World in Conflict. Upping the army size would be a step in the right direction, I suspect. There’s a few doubts. Some are niggles – the zoom at the moment takes you directly down to where your camera view is, where a zoom-to-where-your-cursor-is-at is generally a better method for actually having a nose at whatever you want to see. More seriously, while there’s flanking and taking cover in trenches and similar detail, the combat does feel oddly simple. With the Total War reference, I’d have expected something similar to its key Morale to be integrated. It’s not, and your soldiers seem willing to march off into machinegun fire and die. This may be that it’s hidden more than Company of Heroes’ flashing-red-men, as they do tend to lie down in trouble, perhaps signifying being pinned… but it’s certainly not clear.

With the perennial WW2 fatigue, it’s difficult to actually get excited about until actually digging into it further – Men of War, it should be remembered, only really turned on RPS when we actually played the bally thing – but it’s certainly an attractive, large-scale WW2 RTS. Welcome to the PC, Squaresoft. Beginners tip: be careful when selecting your DRM options. The locals get uppity.

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Kieron Gillen

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Kieron Gillen is robo-crazy.

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