Sudden Strike 4 Is A Slower More Thoughtful RTS

Either RTS games got faster or I got slower. Could be both. Either way, there was a point when war, whether interstellar or historical, became unmanageable for me. Exceptions existed, with Company of Heroes the most splendid of them, but the wider arena of real-time strategy esemed like a thing of my past for a while.

Sudden Strike 4 [official site] is a return to a slower, more thoughtful time.

One of the key tenets of most RTS games is that everything is disposable. You could read that as a commentary on the horrors of war, in which men and machines alike are swiftly forgotten in the midst of battle, or you could see it as a way to keep battlefields clean as commanders click and scroll across them.

Sudden Strike 4 doesn’t care for cleanliness. On the Stalingrad map that I played, clearing a street opened a route straight through to a key objective. I sent my tanks rumbling down the road, the infantry and support trucks lingering behind, using the great hulls of their companions as cover.

Disaster struck when two Russian tanks caught us in crossfire, destroying the tracks on both of my lead vehicles. The firefight that followed was swift and messy, as flames and smoke obscured the vision of my retreating infantry, several of which were cut down, and both of my tanks were rendered useless. The wreckage blocked the road completely.

When I brought up reinforcements, from the rear of the map, navigating that street – the only (previously) clean run to our objective – was all but impossible. Infantry could circumnavigate the wreckage but were soon pinned by enemy fire, and any vehicle larger than a motorbike struggled to get past the memory of my past mistakes in the form of those ruined tanks, nudging at their remains and barely making any progress, even as the turrets of the Russians locked into position for the kill.

That’s one dramatic example as to how Sudden Strike 4 tracks every element of the battlefield, and how each of those elements can have an impact on your tactical approach. Whether there’ll be similar situations in the rest of the twenty-plus missions that make up the three campaigns of the singleplayer game, it’s difficult to say. Developers Kite Games told me, in between my attempts to survive Stalingrad, that diversity of experience is an important aim in the design, so not every map will be a variation on the claustrophobic city streets that I found so effective.

Even when Sudden Strike is pitching an enormous number of tanks and infantry against one another, every unit has value. There is no base-building in the game, and no way to produce new units of any type. You work with what you’re given, treating every resource – whether human or machine – as an important asset rather than expendable. In many RTS games, even the mightiest units are sometimes used as ammunition rather than as weaponry, hurled in the direction of an opponent’s base or the bulk of their army and destroyed in the process of chipping away at a health bar.

Not so in this war. Here, the remnants of vehicles act as disruptive reminders of your losses. There are reinforcements during missions, but these are scripted, meaning that you know exactly what tools you have to complete the job, whether that be to reach a certain part of the map, defend a strategic asset or destroy enemy fortifications.

On a map like Stalingrad, which depicts a small corner of the city, in which the player (as an Axis commander) must clear the streets and two occupied factories, there’s a puzzle-like quality to proceedings. Two alternate routes toward the first objective provide various ways of dealing with a street that has been mined. Any vehicles rolling into the mines are likely to be disabled at best and completely destroyed at worst, but infantry can clear the area given time. Unfortunately, they’re unable to do that when under fire and the Soviet forces have the mined street covered.

It’s possible to attack the Soviets concealed behind the mined section by traversing some alleyways and side streets, but moving anything larger than a man through those narrow roads is all but impossible. Cue a few moments in which vehicles are left to idle while infantry squads clear buildings, make smart use of cover to advance, and use grenades to throw the Soviet defensive positions into disarray.

On my second playthrough, I accidentally sent a tank too far into the mines, crippling the machine and almost entirely blocking the road. Given the importance of each vehicle, I wasn’t willing to give the machine up as lost, despite its predicament. Even with its tracks damaged, the tank was still in fairly good shape. Sudden Strike 4 models armour on each side of a machine, to the extent that individual shells can be seen deflecting from strongly armoured sections, or punching through weakpoints.

My tank may not have been able to move, but it still provided excellent cover, absorbing machinegun fire, and allowing the infantry to move up behind and lob grenades. Both infantry and armour can be brought back into the fight, using medics or repair vehicles. The latter can even reactivate vehicles left abandoned on the battlefield. Repairing and resupplying are essential parts of combat flow. Rather than falling into patterns of building, expanding and striking, Sudden Strike 4 supports a loop of planning, attacking and then regrouping. It’s a rare RTS that supports tactical retreat rather than constant forward progression, but in Stalingrad at least I found it necessary to pull back and rethink on occasion.

Whether the tension between maintaining military resources and committing to battle will be maintained when the focus shifts to larger confrontations, it’s impossible to say. The Stalingrad level, as presented, is at the perfect scale for the kind of close quarters skirmishing that best demonstrates the details of the damage system and precise control. I cared about every unit and every click, even when the repeated reveal of new enemy groups just around the next corner became predictable before the mission was done.

I can’t say whether there’ll be enough variety in the final game to prevent every mission from feeling like a similarly tight but eventually predictable hybrid of tactical tension and puzzlebox, and it’s also hard to say whether the promised changes in scope and scale across the missions might be to the detriment of Stalingrad’s better qualities. Sudden Strike 4 is refreshing though; an RTS that treats units as precious resources, to be understood, protected, maintained and only sacrificed when the gains have been carefully calculated. I remember its predecessors fondly (the first two at least) but hadn’t realised how much a faithful sequel would stand out in 2016.

The brief time I’ve spent with it suggests that this is a faithful sequel, and while it doesn’t quite appear to have the mischievous intelligence of R.U.S.E. or the superb atmosphere of Company of Heroes, it’s a World War II game with something to offer that we haven’t seen in some time. Slow-paced, deliberate and focused real-time tactical combat, with hand-crafted battlefields that change subtly with every encounter. When one destroyed tank created a deadly traffic jam that saw my support units and armour alike queueing up to die, I felt entirely responsible. And more than a little tactically inept. When so many games allow for recovery from all but the most long-term blunders (or the poorest of foundations laid in the initial stages), I’m glad to play an RTS in which a single error of judgement or planning can lead to panic and a complete collapse.

That said, given that the Stalingrad map feels like a problem to be solved as much as a dynamic series of encounters, I’m not sure that twenty missions will provide a great deal of replayability. That’s why I’ll be interested to see how the new-to-the-series leader abilities come into play: specialising in either infantry, armour or support, those leaders provide bonuses in the form of new abilities to certain units. That should at least lead to new ways to progress and to find solutions to previously insurmountable problems along the way.

Sudden Strike 4 will be out in Spring 2017.


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    Oakreef says:

    Badly named then.

    • Press X to Gary Busey says:

      It’s just the Strike that is sudden. The prior planning was extensive and the time after the Strike is filled with contemplation of the Strike.
      Very slow stuff.

  2. Nauallis says:

    Hey Adam – a handful of questions I’m curious about based on your write-up: Since the game tracks component damage to your vehicles, as you mentioned tracks being disabled, does the weaponry of the vehicle remain in-play when movement is disabled? Do you see a disabled icon or something on the UI, or do you have to select the unit and see a status report?

    Also, does the game track vehicle crews as manpower? That is, if you have a disabled vehicle but no repair vehicles, can you disembark the crew and use them as light infantry? And to repair/salvage leftover vehicles, do you have to escort crews?

    • Thurgret says:

      If you’re looking for a hyper-detailed World War 2 game, take a gander at Graviteam Tactics – probably Mius Front (actually sells itself as a battalion level combat simulation). Combat Mission is an alternative, though less heavy on the physics – favourite’s Fortress Italy, though the only other WW2 one I have is Battle for Normandy.

      If you really just want a detailed conventional RTS – and I’d love for Sudden Strike 4 to turn out to be that, myself – then don’t mind me.

      • Nauallis says:

        Thanks for the recommendation. As for this, I don’t really know what I want, haha. I was just hoping to clarify the mechanics to better grasp if it was a really micro-heavy game or what.

    • n7sen says:

      I wonder if there would be some editor… because that would really increase replayability value of the game.

  3. MrUnimport says:

    Sounds like Men of War.

    • n7sen says:

      Sudden Strike is totally different than Men of War. One thing that are so much different is that the amount of micro management is Men of War is so much higher.

    • The Crane says:

      Definitely sounds like Men Of War

    • fearandloathing says:

      men of war with less clunkiness is what I gather

      • Jmnea says:

        But probably less realism, like armor penetration. If it’s anything like the past series such as Sudden Strike 2, then definitely more towards traditional RTS. I loved the sprite graphics of the older games but without that it doesn’t draw me in at all with the gameplay it has

  4. Thurgret says:

    Watched a YouTube video of some gameplay. The first comment underneath was ‘Looks like Company of Heroes 2’ while the second was ‘its a bad copy’.

    Reminiscent of Warhammer being called a copy of Warcraft.

  5. LionsPhil says:

    Sounds promising. And RTS games totally got faster. There’s a reason I’m always banging on about the C&C1 GDI campaign: having to carefully nurse sick tanks back to health on a repair pad was worthwhile in it.

    Never got into the Sudden Strike games much the first time. Think I bounced off the demo because that was—if I’m think of the right one—roughly the era of TA and its celebration of eternal meat-grinder base-heavy economic warfare.

  6. Borreh says:

    For me the biggest issue with previous Sudden Strike games was the difference between what the game wants to be and what it is.

    The theoretical side was good: Count every unit, every man matters, be careful with your actions, so on and so forth.

    But when it came to the actual gameplay, it played like every other CnC style RTS: Everything was extremely fast, hardly readable, and commanding huge numbers of units was a chore.

    This is the thing that CoH solved: If you want every unit to count, then make the gameplay mechanics and UI that allows the player to care for them. The vehicles in CoH, even the lightest ones, are sluggish but well protected, infantry comes in groups that make micro easier while allowing for a much bigger number of utility for them (not to mention way better survivability). The cover and damage systems are designed in such a way to promote real-life tactics. In fact, unlike in literaly every other RTS out there, the units in CoH behave realisticaly (at least until you break the AI but that’s an exception).

    So, when a large battle unfolds, it happens at such speed that you can keep track of everything that’s happening and react accordingly.

    I know Sudden Strike was supposed to do that, too, but whenever I tried to do something, even the most well planned assault turned into a CnC-style unit blob, where everything moved in the most unrealistic manner possible, and happened so fast that I wasn’t able to react in time. Couple that with realistic damage model and you get a game that plays like Command and Conquer but in which you can loose an entire group of tanks within 2 seconds.

    I really tried to like Sudden Strike, but the games I played were a mess.

    Hope they’ll solve some of this with the new game, however.

    • Zankman says:

      What about Blitzkrieg?

    • BooleanBob says:

      Good post. I really liked what Company of Heroes did, and felt it was a shame the subsequent genre entries didn’t accept its many improvements and innovations as the new standard.

    • Zenicetus says:

      It’s been a while since I’ve played it, but IIRC, the singleplayer campaign in CoH used a lot of triggers on the map to pace the action. You could proceed at a steady pace, taking time between triggered events so it didn’t feel like most RTS games where the enemy AI was in constant motion against you.

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      FhnuZoag says:

      Yeah I agree, this was my experience, and a strong reason to be cautious about this new game. The inability to acquire reinforcements and the scripting enemy spawns were also terrible. Too often you would get into a situation where you think you won, but then the map reveals a bunch more enemies and you don’t have remotely enough units left to defeat them.

  7. Brinx says:

    Thirteen year old me LOVED Sudden Strike 2. Maybe I’ll pick this up because of nostalgia.

  8. Daniel Klein says:

    Are you saying it’s a tanking man’s game?

  9. Sin Vega says:

    Sounds very promising indeed, especially the unit preservation. I’ve always instinctively protected my dudes in games as much as possible, and could be described as a turtler in most RTS games precisely because of that. I’m not doing it for its own sake or as a strategic gambit; I just don’t want my people to die and my stuff to get blown up any more than is necessary.

    I mean, that’s sort of at odds with how I typically finish a mission in Men of War with 3 limping soldiers and half a stolen tank left out of an initial 1000 infantry and 50 tanks, but the point is that I TRIED, comrades!

  10. Unsheep says:

    I disagree with respects to Company of Heroes, to some extent at least; the gameplay and atmosphere is great in these games but the storylines are very poorly researched, with more basis in propaganda than in reality. The writing and fact-checking is amateurish at best, lazy at worst. Yet the gameplay is great so it doesn’t matter that much.

    I hope Sudden Strike 4 will arrive on GOG as well. Historically most of Kalypso’s strategy games eventually do, so I’m optimistic about that. It reminds me of the Men of War series, my favourite franchise in this genre.

    Oddly enough it’s coming to the PS4 as well. I have a mixed experiences playing these kind of games on console; Halo Wars worked great but RUSE was quite bad.

  11. Cederic says:

    The joy of base building in a RTS is that it stops the game becoming a puzzle game with hidden surprises.

    I don’t want to lose a battle and restart from scratch because I’ve never played it before and didn’t know there was a scripted ambush there. I want to rebuild within the battle, avenge my fallen troops and push through to the next challenge.

    There’s a sad lack of good RTS that give you that try/retry/”fuck it swarm the bastards with cheap robots” ability without also being clickfests; this looks like it’s not going to deliver either :(