MOWAS: When Losing Was The Best Outcome

While the rest of the world seems to have been turning on the axis of Starcraft, I’ve been playing Men Of War: Assault Squad with RPS chums Phil and Dartt. It’s mostly excellent. The game is in beta at the minute, with a busy contingent of testers playing both the co-op and versus modes of this new skirmish-based Men Of War game. That beta test is set to expand very soon, which is an exciting time. (Which reminds me, we will have some beta accounts to give away soon, so watch for that.) I’ve already written a bit about the game here, but I don’t think I really explained how the game feels to play, and why it has take up so much of my attention. Read on and I will try to articulate some of my excitement.

While Phil and I had already beaten one of the levels co-op, pushing things up a difficulty level and trying the other levels with an extra player (Dartt) to create three players vs the computer, produced quite a different dynamic. With three of us on the field, and roughly three capture points along each line of progress across the map, we were able to take one flank each, with another person attacking through the middle. The first map we were to try saw us play as the Russians, attacking a Russian town that was held by entrenched Germans.

What is most pleasing about these battles, which can take up to a couple of hours to resolve, is that the escalate so exquisitely. That escalation isn’t always perfectly balanced, that’s what this beta test is all about, but the slow expansion of available reinforcements pitched against the enemy’s increased armour and activity makes for a frenzied climax that leaves other games looking positively sedate. In our assault on the Russian town we began with mortars and infantry, and we would end up with some vast tractor-howitzer contraption, captured enemy tanks, and the ability to demand conscription, causing a vast wave of poorly-trained, doomed Russian infantry to sweep onto the battlefield. It is a glorious take on the gaming power-up, and at the same time so brutal it would make Stalin pale.

So, having taken the first line of capture points on the far side of a dried up river bed, we began to fight for the central, built-up area of the town. Here progress slowed dramatically, devolving into a struggle that would flatten most of the buildings in the centre of the map. The fight was to leave us clawing our way to the banks of the second river, which had water in this time, but was also partially frozen, partially filled in by the activities of war.

This process was populated with tiny moments of horror and victory. There was the horror of throwing a molotov cocktail, only for it to clip the wreckage of a collapsed building, and pour its fiery contents down on my own troops. There was the victory of using the same weapon to catch fire to the engine of an enemy tanks, and killing the crew as they abandoned their charge, and then patching the vehicle back up to take it into the field. This back and forth, loss and gain, is unending.

It’s this kind of stuff that shows how Men Of War really works. It is a kind of messy simulation, as complete as possible, and necessarily incomplete. While Starcraft 2 is about a frenzied application and unfolding of your knowledge of the perfect systems of a rounded, comprehensible, balanced design, Men Of War is a kind of epic bodging of events on the field: a process of rolling crisis management and makeshift solution to problems involving horrendous odds. The fact that you can man guns dropped by the enemy, or place sandbags to try and entrench positions, or slowly – so slowly – patch up crewless, crippled vehicles and take them back to the field, well, it feels so much more human. Other RTS games are about faceless, mindlessly mechanisms of war, and Men of War is about /men/. I think that is what I love most about this game: the capacity to explore what the battlefield itself contains, and what it’s capable of. Picking up a helmet shot from your head and putting it back on again might seem like a superfluous action, but it saves the soldier from a headshot the next time around. Those inventories for each and every soldier might seem like overkill, but the wonder of holding off an enemy tank with a sticky bomb found an enemy’s pockets makes this an adventure, a story.

Returning to Russia, and the three of us had driven tanks into the river, lost men to ludicrous decisions to charge, found ourselves landing perfect killing shots with Men Of War’s direct control system, and screaming as our snipers/mortars/AT rifles missed their targets. We had entrenched ourselves, called up a line of armour, unlocked conscription and the motherland’s largest howitzer, and were ready to take the final third of the map. Everything should have been in place, our victory should have been assured, until that escalation I was talking about. A huge wave of German tanks appeared as we moved on the final point. Better tanks than ours. The assault collapsed, and the few men we had manning machineguns and AT guns on the river could do nothing to stem the tide. With just a single capture point left before the town would have been ours, we began to lose. And we lost. There was no way back. Victory had been ours, and it was snatched from our grasp by a single miscalculation of odds.

We were not going to make the same mistakes on the next map, which was the Omaha beach level. This doesn’t involve the Saving Private Ryan bit, because the beach has already been taken, and instead the assault is on a stretch of Normandy beyond – a village, and then fortified stretch of farmlands crossed with German defences. This map, perhaps even better than the Russian town, demonstrated how terrain made the experience different for each of us. For Phil and Dartt the battle was defined by house-to-house assaults across the first few stages, and then the cover-free horror of open fields and a clear road beyond. They made rapid progress up to the far edge of the village. I, meanwhile, faced the right flank, where lay an enemy trench, a sandbag bunker, and then a fortified concrete bunker beyond. The assault here was far more precarious. Laying down suppressing fire with a half-track, and pushing a mortar up among the buildings, I made slow progress, until eventually I managed to get a machinegunner up onto the high ground.

My battle would largely be about holding this line of defence, taking them and then losing them to the Germans. Phil and Dartt meanwhile were, in the same game, on the same battlefield, having quite a different experience. The road and the fields were tank country, and since we were playing as Americans we actually had decent armour to lean on. As the fight escalated the middle of the battlefield became littered with wrecked tanks, APCs, half-tracks, and other mobile guns. Some of the incidental skirmishes being spectacular, with anti-tank rounds being fired through buildings, and traps taking down charging spearheads.

Eventually, thanks to judicious use of one-shot paratroopers and air-strikes, we managed to take the artillery at the end of the battlefield, and therefore the map. In some ways the first game, ending in our defeat, was far fulfilling than the second victory. It showed us that the game, despite being against the computer, wasn’t designed to let us win. The second battle didn’t seem like a victory this time, it seemed like a relief. “We /can/ do this.” The calamity of failure that first time, however, was where the real excitement lay.

Afterward I couldn’t help thinking about how the way in which Men Of War is more simulation than other strategies in the same area – but less so that the hardcore tank sims or wargames – gives it a strange sense of urgency. Because there are so many variables there’s no single way for this to play out. There’s always invention and randomness in these kinds of games, but the capacity for us to have such a different experience from one game to the next shows just how successful MoW’s model of the battlefield is. You want to see if that crazy plan about repairing a tank will work. You want to know if holding that building will help, or if laying mines here instead of there will make things easier. Men Of War is less like a refined game of strategy, and more like a mad toolbox of possibilities, providing you with special kinds of hammer that you have no use for, but will end up using anyway, /just to see/. Assault Squad just makes all that part of a bigger multiplayer game. And I’m enjoying that very much indeed.


  1. Alteisentier says:

    It’s sounding great so far. I just hope they polish up the UI a bit, and maybe make control groups a bit more manageable.

  2. Schaulustiger says:

    If only one could lower the game speed just as it’s possible in the singleplayer campaign…

    • caesarbear says:

      I could never understand why the multiplayer was stuck in turbo. It made a difficult interface even harder.

  3. President Weasel says:

    Do you at any point have to tell a little woodcutter soldier or miner soldier to hew wood or strike ground with pickaxe? Do you need to build a base and place a tank factory in order to build tanks with the ore and the wood?
    If not, this may well be the RTS for me.

    • Okami says:

      Everybody knows that you need wood and stone for the factory and gold and ore for the tanks!

    • Jim Rossignol says:

      The only resources are the points you have to spend on reinforcements who roll onto the field on the side you start from.

    • Alexander Norris says:

      @President Weavel — without those things it’s not an RTS, full stop. Men of War has no real economic aspect and is more an RTT than an RTS.

    • PleasingFungus says:

      The next time I see someone give a ‘helpful’ correction on whether a particular game is an RTS or an RTT (the latter being a term which no one uses, aside from these so-helpful people), I will enter the dreadful blood rage of my people. My vision will turn red, my muscles will bulge, and I will begin making comments even angrier than this one.

      Stop trying to make people comply with your arbitrary, contrived usages! Stop it!

    • Andrew Dunn says:

      Hear hear.

    • Heliocentric says:

      Real time tictacs.

    • Alexander Norris says:

      @PleasingFungus — for something that no one uses, it sure has a lot of words on its Wikipedia page.

    • Thants says:

      Whenever someone uses the term RTT I get sad that no one makes games like Myth nowadays.

  4. autogunner says:

    MoW is probably my favorite RTS for this reason. I remember the level in the first one where you had to defend a port against a hugely superior german force – total chaos.

  5. Andrew Dunn says:

    There is no base-building or resource gathering whatsoever.

    Unless you count the With Payback mode of reinforcements, where you get points returned for you to spend from every man or vehicle you lose. In which case you could class senseless slaughter as ‘resource gathering’, in a pleasingly Stalinist way.

    When’s Assault Squad due? I really cannot wait.

  6. Novotny says:

    I can’t seem to find those links to women’s designer shoes any more :(

  7. Toby says:

    I can’t wait for this. The release seems so far away. I’d rather get this than Star Craft II now that I think about it. I have already spent quite a bit of time on Men of War itself.

    Also, was it just me or were there plenty of spelling and/or grammatic errors in the article? I usually never complain about stuff like that but this time it seemed to be a lot more noticeable to me.

    PS: RPS must be messing with my head, just as I lost in the GA giveaway contest they put up GA ads on their website. Not fair.

  8. Huggster says:

    Have you played against anyone online yet Jim?

    I call it “Repeated Lessons In Humility”.

    This game is massively deep, complex, strategic – but makes me panic like a big baby as soon as I start a PvP map.
    I am often all over the place – “Arrgh! Should I buy this tank? Or that artillery? Where are his tanks? Does he have men in the bushes – with BAZOOKAS? Where are his AT guns? Am I letting my team-mates down? So many choices! So little time!”

    Its far more intimidating playing good strategy players, as I have found out, than good FPS players. FPS games often rely on little quirks and tricks of the engine and just getting used to the maps. This relies pretty much on, well, strategy. And covering points with lots of guns.

    • Jim Rossignol says:

      Two PvP games so far. I lost one almost immediately, and did okay in the other until the other guy disconnected. He was probably winning.

    • Huggster says:

      I realised you have to be quite aggressive on the middle / shared points – aggressive in a Team Fortress 2 way – which quite often results in a lot of casualties. Once my opponents dug in with tanks and heavy MG some way behind points I find them hard to move.

      The larger games with more players tend to be a bit easier on new PvP players I have found – I have had allied tanks assist defending my points a few times.

  9. Junior says:

    I really want a first person shooter modded into MoW now.

    • pingualot says:

      You already can, if you own the game then go into the editor and load up a map and put some units in then press shift + F while selecting a unit then direct control them like a fps.

  10. Wilson says:

    I think you’ve summed up excellently why MoW can be so good. The ‘simulation’ nature of the game is it’s strong point. But if they haven’t improved the AI and/or control of your friendly units they’ll be doing themselves a grave disservice. I take it you haven’t had issues with maps degenerating into tiny groups of micro-managed men taking on the whole German forces? I found this happened quite often in vanilla MoW maps and the Red Tide expansion, for me at least. My men just weren’t smart enough to stay alive on their own in combat without my being there all the time, and it was too difficult to keep them all supplied with ammo. The game desperately needs a “rearm” command where selected units go and loot all nearby corpses and ammo sources for the bullets they need.

  11. T says:

    Looking great. MOW is great and this one looks to be topping it!

    PS: You should have add in the article the Steam Group joining link . When they get 10.000 Beta will open up for all!
    link to
    4k at present 6k to go

  12. Navagon says:

    I’m not good enough at that game to take my *cough* skills online.

    • Huggster says:

      Rubbish, come on-line and play me! We can be noobs together.
      You only get better by making mistakes.

    • pingualot says:

      Come on the community ventrilo there are always people on to help you.

      The details are:


      Port: 6889

    • Toby says:

      Same goes for me, I never dare to play RTS games online.

  13. Flaringo says:

    I love this series of RTS games (Soldiers: Heroes of WWII, Faces of War, Men of War and now MoW: Assault Squad).

    I remember I was playing co-op in the first game (Soldiers: Heroes of WWII). We found a box of matches, saw a pretty large wheat field (or something). We had a “are you thinking what I’m thinking”-moment, and before we knew it my friend was running around trying to lure a couple of half-tracks full of German troops into the wheat field, with me lying hidden in the field, panicking while trying to get the matches to work (the UI was a bit odd).

    I eventually managed to get them to work, lit the field on fire, got stuck in a fence and burned to death along with the Germans. It was glorious nonetheless!

  14. zipdrive says:

    Jim, two questions:
    1) Does the plethora of options you mention make for a big mess and ungainliness?
    2) How polished is this game? Is it noticeably smoother than the previous parts of the series? I ask because I’ve never played any MoW game and I’m debating whether this would be the best entry point to the franchise.

    • pingualot says:

      1. It’s a bit of a mess if you you play by your self against the AI but playing with 1 to 3 people on the skirmishs and any of the MP modes it is not messy.

      2. ATM it is not done so it is not 100% polished but the dev said that they are getting proper voice actors and already the menus and control system are more refined than normal MoW.

  15. UsF says:

    Would you care for me to join you in a coop game? Give me a note via PM in the forum, if you want to. :)

  16. UsF says:

    Would you care for me to join you in a coop game? Give me a note via PM in the forum, if you want to. :)

    And I mean the DMS forum, since you should have an account there, right?

  17. donjasjit says:

    Very well described. I love how you tell it like a story. That is what the best gaming should be all about, it should be about stories.

    I was thinking of saving this web page to my computer to re read later at my leisure. But perhaps you will edit it first for the grammatical errors.

  18. T says:

    Dont know about MOW-AS but in MOW never got any problems with the controls/ UI. But i remember some new players got a bit confused by so many options
    Camera – middle mouse button (free camera) and scroll wheel for Zooming in/ out
    Selection – just use the squad icons on the left side, you can also use it to add soldiers, merge squads etc. This way you can rearm your all squad easy, click squad click corps to loot easy (alternatively you can select the squad leader) selecting squads this way instead of drawing boxes around units its mush faster

    • Wilson says:

      Would clicking on a corpse with a squad actually rearm the squad? I assumed it only brought up the squad leader’s inventory. Squads worked well, except that they could be a bit smarter about cover (unless you were clicking on a long straight wall you’d end up with people in goofy positions if your squad was bigger than about 3-4 guys). I didn’t find the controls too bad (though the UI could definitely have been better) but I wish my men would survive a bit longer. I thought there weren’t enough proper firefights, generally one side would be utterly gunned down and the other would be largely unharmed, you didn’t seem to get two groups in cover shooting at each other for any length of time.

    • Andrew Dunn says:

      As long as you have the squad selected, any ammo you pick up will be divided intelligently. Same with medkits and grenades.

    • Wilson says:

      @Andrew Dunn – Well, wow. I didn’t know that at all. That is one of my repeated criticisms, and apparently it’s already dealt with. Do they mention this in the game at any point? Have I just missed it by not paying attention somewhere? Still, it’s nice to know.

  19. Meatloaf says:

    For serious. I play Men of War for the stories as much as the strategy. I don’t remember if it was on RPS, I think it was, but someone once described it as not a WWII RTS, but a WWII War Story Creator.

    Also, my CAPTCHA was “SUKS.” Interesting.

    • kulik says:

      I wish this had an replay system. How to show people all the fun you had if you can show them replays of those epic battles?! …the moment you showing them a live battle you always end up with a lame battle which looks boring.

    • Wilson says:

      @Kulik – Yeah, a replay system would be amazing. I could download and watch MoW replays all day :)

  20. kulik says:

    …loosing is fun.

  21. T says:

    when you rearm the squad lider he distributes the loot among the squadies

    • Wilson says:

      @T – Cheers for the response (I assume you were aiming that at me). I seem to have missed that. Handy to know.

    • GC says:

      I don’t know if they need to be near the leader to get their share of ammo… so much possibilities, so little info :-(

  22. Dominic White says:

    I will be buying this on or near launch. I’ve always loved this series, as it really does something so few games do – it generates stories.

    Each mission is a massive fractal mess of possibilities and things that can go horribly wrong. A stray machinegun bullet can ping off the armor of a tank, and ricochet into the eye of a guy about to throw a grenade, causing the primed explosive to fall at his feet and kill half his squad, while blowing the other half out of cover.

    And an event like that might play out over the course of two seconds. In 30-60 minute long mission, there is near infinite possibility for things to go hilariously well, or spectacularly badly wrong. It is almost unheard of for a single mission to play out the same way twice in a row, too, giving it fantastic replay value. Add to this the fact that even if you lose, you’re probably having fun, and it’s just golden.

  23. EmilBB says:

    ” It is a glorious take on the gaming power-up, and at the same time so brutal it would make Stalin pale.”

    I kinda doubt that. He was one though cookie, as far as I can tell.

    I can’t wat for this. My only problem is, I’m the only one I know who plays MoH! I don’t have anyone to play with :'(

  24. SubterraneanRivers says:

    This and Amnesia are the two games that have me dancing around in excitment this year. Standard RTSs just dont cut the mustard once MOW plants its glorious hooks in your brain.

  25. GC says:

    I love MOW because it is all realistic tactical and no strategy. But I play it more like a turn-by-turn game… sadly you cannot change the pause key so its not comfortable at all for the hand… and the UI does not respond well while paused :-(

  26. KingTalo says:


    “Thants says: September 6, 2010 at 11:58 pm

    Whenever someone uses the term RTT I get sad that no one makes games like Myth nowadays.”

  27. Lord_Mordja says:

    The first MOW is one of my favourite strategy games, but what exactly has changed in Assault Squad? Because if it’s just a few more units and campaigns I’ll probably hold out until Vietnam…

  28. disperse says:

    The most important question is: can you field the IS-2, the Greatest Tank of WWII?

  29. Jakkar says:

    In short, Men of War is a simulation, while others are merely ‘games’, obeying balance and rules. Here, a bullet is a bullet nomatter how unfair the circumstances, and sometimes you simply will not have a chance of penetrating the armour of that Tiger.

    Once again, this understanding and appreciation is the reason I come to RPS.

    • tigershuffle says:

      thats why i prefer it to certain ‘other’ rts games…… silly health bar nonsense.
      Makes you flank or hit tracks with your peashooter…..then send a suicide squad round the back with a molotov cocktail or 3
      mmm flambe tiger anyone

  30. Antlia says:

    Men of War is the best way to wage war virtually.