Premature Evaluation: Call To Arms

Every Monday, Rob Zacny calls out to the assembled masses of Early Access games but only a few are brave and hardy enough to respond to his summons.

Call to Arms [official site] has a lot to make up for. Its predecessor, Men of War: Assault Squad 2, was one of the most bitter disappointments I’ve ever had with a game.

My friends and I had played the original Assault Squad for years. It was a staple of our game nights and I loved the spectacle: waves of tanks plowing through the icy trenches of the Eastern Front and squads of infantry trudging through the muddy fields and forests of the Pacific islands. It was the Men of War game that made the series’ entire concept — a tactical RTS with almost limitless granularity in terms of controls and tactical details — finally click for me.

Assault Squad 2 was… pretty much the exact same game. Tons of maps were recycled, and while you could charitably say that it was “a truckload of content”, there was an awful lot that was familiar from the earlier game. If you were of the opinion that Men of War needed to evolve, and perhaps even experiment with streamlining its fussy controls, Assault Squad 2’s complacency was maddening.

In the backdrop of all of this was another game from developer DigitalMindSoft: Call to Arms. It would be the true successor to Men of War. It would take the series into modern warfare, using the familiar backdrop of a fictionalized Middle East conflict between the United States and surprisingly well-equipped extremists. Now, it’s finally in beta and it’s time to see whether DigitalMindSoft have done enough to bring lapsed Men of War back into the battle.

On the one hand, Call to Arms is pretty much what I wanted Assault Squad 2 to be: a brand-new Men of War game with a different setting, new units, and lots of new maps and missions. At the most basic level, Call to Arms addresses my main complaints against its predecessor. On the other hand, it feels an awful lot like the same old game with a costume change. Weapons and uniforms have changed, but the action is much as I remember it.

That’s not a bad thing. Call to Arms may not quite have cutting edge graphics or sound (though it’s full of nice details), but it still offers one of the most engrossing and vivid real-time tactical games that you can play. If you haven’t played these games, let me explain a bit more about what makes this series special.

The Call to Arms / Men of War games are a bit like Company of Heroes, except it has an obsessive interest in the placement of each individual soldier, the angle of each individual shot, and the contents of everyone’s backpack. It’s a game where you can reach down into the battlefield, tap one specific soldier or vehicle crew on the shoulder and say, “Now’s your time to be a hero,” and then guide them to individual glory. While the rest of your troops fight automatically from the positions you gave them, you can seize direct control of individual troopers and practically turn them into shoot ’em up characters, moving and shooting according to WASD commands.

In multiplayer, that power can really take off because now you and your friends and enemies are all splitting your time between a tactical RTS and realistic top-down shooter. Your AI minions are merely competent soldiers, but your direct-controlled soldiers are all potential war heroes on a detailed and unpredictable battlefield. That’s what sets this series apart.

What Call to Arms brings to the table is a new set of battlefields filled with the trappings of modern war. Black-clad militia race around the map aboard machine-gun equipped pickup trucks, while Kevlar-covered Americans fight to survive ambushes in dusty villages and defend their airbases from enemy assault.

That’s not a bad offering, but it is a slightly disappointing one. Call to Arms applies an extra layer of polish to things like menus, making them much more readable and faster to use than in the past, but that’s about deep as it goes. The interface during combat missions is as messy and hard-to-read as ever, full of redundant or near-identical buttons and icons. Want your engineers to repair something? You have to remember which “gear” icon to press in order to open up the correct submenu for the command; right-clicking on the busted tank or gun won’t work. At times, this game feels almost like a CAD program with guns.

Worse, the new setting doesn’t seem all that different from World War 2. The models are different, but the underlying units are scarcely different from their 1940s counterparts. If you’re hoping for Men of War meets Wargame: AirLand Battle, Call to Arms isn’t really that game.

Though I could be wrong, because I haven’t seen a lot of the more advanced units yet. That’s because of another odd decision from DigitalMindSoft. After you’ve bought Call to Arms and go into your first games, you’ll discover that a ton of units and vehicles are locked away until you gain enough experience to use them. Not in the tech-tree sense, where you start a battle with infantry and advance to mechanized units; in the progression-grind sense, where you have to play lots of battles in order to unlock advanced equipment. But your AI and human opponents may not have any such limitations, so when that heavy tank comes rolling up the road and swamps your light infantry, that’s just your dues getting paid.

I wouldn’t mind it if there were a way to opt out of this system, but there doesn’t appear to be. There is no “give me all the stuff” box you can check before a skirmish or multiplayer, so you just have to play around with basic units until you unlock more. It’s a strangely ungenerous, nannying approach from a series that’s never had any qualms about tossing players into the deep end of the pool. It’s such a slow start that, if you’re a new player, I might just suggest getting Assault Squad 2 and getting a full taste of the series before jumping into Call to Arms.

Still, Call to Arms is a relatively straightforward choice for people with a relationship to the rest of the series. If you’re one of those players who really adored Men of War, and want more of that game in new settings and contexts, Call to Arms is a pretty direct answer to those prayers. It’s the kind of thing that my old Men of War group might be able to rally around right now, even before it is finished, and even allowing for the annoying progress-gating.

But if you wanted the series to evolve with a new setting, Call to Arms feels like a bait-and-switch. It’s a new name and a new setting, but it sure seems like Assault Squad 3. It’s still got the fussy and somewhat clunky interface that it always had, and it’s still about infantry and tanks blazing away at each other at close-quarters. It’s a good formula, but one that I hope would have changed after five years. Call to Arms still satisfies me as a new iteration of a favorite game, but I hope between now and its projected release later this year, it finds a way to surprise me as well.

Call to Arms is available on Steam for a franchise loyalist-friendly price of £18.99 / $24.99. My impressions are based on build 974407 on 29 February 2016.

15 Comments

  1. Max B says:

    i have never played the first one, but you seemed to have missed out a LOT on the second one. let me be clear for a sec: the steam workshop maps and scenarios. in particular SirHinkel’s crew, which apparently became (unsurprisingly to me) a dev at DMS. its the same with this one, and even the default non-mod scenario and multi mods, are actually better than ever.
    the default scenario campaign and multi mods are like a tutorial compared to the mountains of mods maps and campaigns available on the Workshop, not totally the case for this one as its just entered beta, but there is 100x the original content for MoW 2.
    half of the article is shitting on it, when you didnt even acknowledge this fact.
    and dont even bother with the “mods dont count” line because with a little studio like that, its fairly obvious, that they do count, and they MAKE the game.

  2. Unsheep says:

    The ‘more of the same’ factor is always going to be debatable.

    I too was a fan of the original Assault Squad, but I was also a big fan of the original games that Assault Squad was based on: Soldiers Heroes of WWII (2004), Faces of War (2006), Men of War (2009) and Red Tide (2009).

    Its a bit disappointing that the author has only played one single game in this big franchise before playing Assault Squad 2, yet consider himself an expert of what this franchise is all about, and what it ‘should’ be all about.

    I don’t blame the author specifically for that, its rather typical of mainstream media to consider themselves experts in everything, despite having only played two games in a 7 game franchise.

    Had the author played any of the other 5 games in the series, prior to Assault Squad 2, he would have known that these games pretty much build on the same formula. The main difference is the settings and the visual quality. So his expectations for Assault Squad 2 would have been more reasonable and logical.

    Had the author been familiar with strategy games he would also have recognized that “sameness” is actually the norm of any strategy game franchise: Europa Universalis, Civilization, Crusader Kings, Hearts of Iron, Total War, Age of Empires, Command & Conquer, Heroes of Might & Magic, Settlers, Empire Earth and so on, and so on.

    • Unsheep says:

      In hindsight, I should be more forgiving since this site is not called StrategyGameToday or StrategyGames4You, so my expectations of RPS are most likely misguided on this topic. One should not project one’s own experiences in gaming unto others.

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        Harlander says:

        Tim Stone’s probably your man for that level of in-depth knowledge.

    • Insidious Rex says:

      The author is Rob Zacny the host of three moves ahead. I would wager that he knows his stuff when it comes to strategy gaming.

    • Hydrogene says:

      Saying a game series doesn’t evolve can be a very valid criticism, and all the more if some of the previous quirks and problems (here, the quite arcane GUI I remember from MoW…) haven’t been addressed.
      -> I find Ron’s preview interesting and informative.

    • Zeewolf says:

      Surely, “more of the same” after five games is even worse than “more of the same” after two games?

      Besides, I don’t see where he states that he’s only played those two games. He just doesn’t specifically mention the others. There are some clear differences between the Assault Squad-series and the other games (and a different developer to boot), that makes it unneccessary to mention them in an article not titled The History of Men of War.

      And if you’re going to go off on an arrogant spiel about “the author”, then why don’t you check who he is? Ignorance and arrogance are seldom a good fit.

  3. jplayer01 says:

    As much as I like Men at War, this game is a complete no-go for me as long as they lock away units in the name of “progression”. If I wanted that kind of crap, I’d play Battlefield.

  4. Premium User Badge

    Harlander says:

    That second screenshot has broken through the cordon of the article’s width and is making a push for the edge of the screen…

    • Jac says:

      The edge of the screen has been lost sir. The search bar is our only surviving asset.

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        phuzz says:

        Perhaps we can convince the proud people of the scroll bar to aid us in our fight?

        (Same problem here, Firefox on Windows)

  5. wodin says:

    The problem I had with the Men of War series is I never knew how many troops I was aiming for. Was the game more about controlling just a few units or was it one were I should constantly be “building” bringing in new units. Plus if I was supposed to have lots of units how on earth was it possible to micro manage the game. So I was left confused. Real time is NOT my fav genre preferring either WEGO or turn based tactical wargames.Mainly due to the pressure I always feel when playing, like I’m not going fast enough. Now Graviteam Tactics Op Star I really enjoy because I know where I am right from the start. I have a set amount of troops for this one battle.

    • Cederic says:

      Micromanaging just isn’t the approach to take. You do need to pay attention and put some effort into things like resupplying your artillery and AT guns, but generally you should be focussing on the big picture, bringing up reinforcements where needed and building up enough forces to execute your preferred tactics.

      For me that tends to mean solid defences then a Russian style overwhelming force to create a breakthrough at high casualty costs, use the advantage that gave to encircle the enemy and cut off their supply, bring up my remaining troops along the front and rebuild my defences on the new forward line.

      I’m fairly sure that against another human player I’d get ripped asunder by someone with more mobile tactics and a better use of combined forces, but a core strength of the game is that it supports all those approaches.

      Really looking forward to Call to Arms, and also hoping they kill the silly unlock mechanic prior to release. That’s no fun, especially playing in co-op.

  6. TT says:

    For me the core “problem” with the series is the clash between the detailed actions you can perform and the rush click click style of the gameplay.
    I always wonder how the series would play as a Close Combat spin-off with fixed unit set, very limited reinforcements, asymmetrical play, fight for area control not points! etc. A slower but mush more tense play.

  7. Khoryos says:

    It sounds like they’ve borrowed the absolute worst feature from C&C 4, the one thing that made me despise it – gating the tech tree behind grinding, rather than progression.
    That’s just not good.