Wot I Think: Steel Division – Normandy 44

There are two wars raging within Steel Division [official site]. While the Axis and Allies are going at it hammer and tongs in the très jolie fields and lanes of NW France, behind the scenes ‘Plausibility’ and ‘Populism’ – or ‘Wargame’ and ‘RTS’ if you prefer – are scrapping just as energetically for control of the soul of Eugen’s latest offering. Most of the time the fight is close and the game is great as a result. It’s only when Populism/RTS starts gaining the upper hand – something that happens most noticeably during the three short singleplayer campaigns – that things go awry for the mostly excellent Steel Division.

Can I assume you’re familiar with the Eugen way? Base-free battling on large lifelike maps; real-time combat punctuated by regular reinforcement shopping sprees; no active pause but a ‘bullet-time’ setting that’s a passable substitute… Although Red Dragon’s discrete capturable map zones have been abandoned in favour of a more organic dynamic frontline concept (steady expansion is still vitally important in the most popular MP mode ‘Conquest’) and battles are now divided into three distinct phases to delay the arrival of heavy weapons, SD still feels like a chip off the old breechblock.

Like its predecessors this is a game that’s arguably at its best when the clock is full of treacle and the player’s responsibilities are few. During slowed small-scale Close Combat-style engagements there are opportunities to savour and micromanage. Wasn’t it poet W. H. Davies who wrote “What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare while a Typhoon rockets the sherbet out of a King Tiger, or an isolated knot of Ostruppen, pinned by two carefully choreographed Bren gun teams, decides to throw in the towel.”?

[No. You’re thinking of Keats. Lit Ed].

My point is that Eugen have gone to so much trouble to fashion maps crisscrossed by complex sight lines, and model subtleties like AFV system damage (vehicles can lose individual crewmen, weapons, mobility…) and unit fire control (every weapon type can be manually activated/deactivated to preserve ammo or facilitate close-range ambushes) it would be a crying shame not to explore and relish these features.

Unfortunately, the authors of the three four-mission sequential campaigns seem far more interested in filling our screens with fury and hurrying us towards Finish lines, than letting us enjoy emergent war stories rich in detail. With their win-to-progress victory conditions, occasional time limits, and emphasis on spectacular large-scale combat, the campaign episodes have a dated, eager to awe feel. At times they weary and annoy. On one occasion I lost a long, hard-fought battle because I was a few seconds from clearing a VL when the non-negotiable time limit expired. On another, an ‘evacuate 30 units through this exit’ affair ended in an unseemly drag-select stampede simply because no-one in Paris had thought to provide me with a tally of departed units.

A bizarre lack of beach maps does the campaigns no favours either. The story of Overlord is told reasonably well, and the scenarios prove SD’s AI – so capable and aggressive in skirmish mode (see on) – can also sit tight and focus on a single objective when necessary – but, crikey, things could have been so much better.

Puffing on my pipedream meerschaum I see a cellular strat map with player-controlled battle groups struggling to reach beleaguered Pegasus Bridge or Sainte-Mère-Église. I picture Pyrrhic victories and tough inter-mission reinforcement decisions. In my imaginary SD the large set-piece scraps that Eugen use as the building blocks for the campaign would be offered as standalone historical battles; the long game would offer something far more intimate and intertwined.

A flawed old-fashioned campaign would be a Blighty wound if campaigning was all SD had to offer. Placed alongside near-perfect skirmish and multiplayer modes, it’s actually little more than a scratch.

I generally prefer to game alone, but Eugen’s MP apparatus is so friendly and flexible, the opportunities for co-op combat so enticing, it’s bally hard to resist the lure of the lobby. Playing the AI with a human comrade or two (ten-person teams are possible on big maps like Sword) at your side is the perfect way to hone skills. I’ve yet to encounter an impatient or selfish ally. Most people instinctively assist fellow commanders, especially if, glancing at the mini-map, they realise their partner is struggling to turn the enemy tide. All of a sudden there’s a friendly scout plane circling overhead, an unbidden AT gun deploying in a gap in your line. If the devs ever introduce a mode where different players control different components of a force (infantry, armour, airpower and arty etc) and units can be passed temporarily or permanently to the AI to reduce workload, I’ll be at the front of the queue to try it.

The most popular form of multiplayer is ‘Conquest’. Turtling is disastrous in this mode because the proportion of the map your side controls determines the speed at which victory points are amassed. ‘Destruction’ games can be customised to disincentive landgrabbing and eliminate reinforcements. If a traditional wargamey clash is what you’re after in MP or solo skirmish mode, then such confrontations are possible. The AI can’t be persuaded to mount a static defence outside of scripted campaign scenarios, but the standard ‘meeting engagements’ are so entertaining and challenging, I haven’t found myself pining for assaults.

SD’s artificial adversaries don’t need maps sprinkled with hidden signposts and trigger zones to fight with ferocity and cunning. When your lines are being battered by brutal combined arms attacks, your troop concentrations mercilessly pounded by aircraft and artillery, your tanks sniped by skilfully sited AT guns, there are moments when you have to remind yourself you’re playing a machine. Occasionally, foes persist in using dangerous approach routes when smoking wrecks scream ‘TURN BACK!’; sometimes enemies struggle to employ certain indirect fire units effectively, but, gosh, I wish more wargames offered resistance this stiff, canny and self-reliant.

Thanks largely to the lovely Combat Mission series I can’t ogle a busy SD battlefield without wincing slightly at the profusion of ‘rarities’. Anyone getting an Overlord education exclusively from this game may be surprised to learn that Tetrarch tanks weren’t in fact as numerous as Panzer IVs in Normandy, and Allied positions weren’t regularly inspected by Fieseler Storchs. The French devs have decided to revel in late war exotica rather than accurately reflect historical TOEs, and confronted by the colourful consequences of this decision – 18 customisable divisions consisting of around 400 different unit types – only the wettest of wet blankets will grouse.

Whether you choose to play with premade unit ‘decks’ or prefer to build your own – something that’s mandatory in the campaigns for some reason – it probably won’t be long before you find yourself employing essentially historical tactics. SD captures the essence of the fighting in Normandy better than many weightier wargames. The temptation to use the road network is powerful and often fatal; the opportunities to organise ambushes numerous; a well sited HMG or AT gun can cause havoc. Unit survivability is perfectly pitched. With the clock heavily retarded, though you will lose AFVs to single shells and see squads decimated by unexpected artillery stonks from time to time, there’s usually a chance to prevent a pickle turning into a calamity.

Sharp as a spike bayonet in the AI department, surprisingly realistic in areas like morale modelling, LoS and armour penetration, SD’s crowning achievement is arguably its interface. It’s hard to think of a wargame that makes control feel so effortless or one that communicates unit details so effectively. Beware – a few days with Eugen elegance makes Graviteam idiosyncracy awfully hard to bear.

Ten parting thoughts in no particular order

1. Hopefully it won’t be long before modders provide alternatives to the default vocal cues, many of which are toe-curlingly preposterous.

2. Hills are almost as rare as beaches on maps and when they do appear (Hill 112) have a stylised stepped look.

3. When fighting alongside computer-controlled allies, the friendly AI can demonstrate charming thoughtfulness. I love how my silicon cobelligerents sometimes despatch ammo trucks to resupply my artillery batteries.

4. (In answer to a question from DeadCanDance) I’ve not noticed any issues connected with woods or hedgerows. Units that debus near a building or undergrowth will – assuming their default ‘seek cover’ behaviour hasn’t been altered – automatically make use of the scenery. Units placed anywhere near a wood edge always enjoy views of the surrounding countryside. The closer the edge, the more is seen. The excellent combination LOS/weapon range tool makes assessing unit awareness very easy.

5. (In answer to a question from Stellar Duck) In phase A, assuming you can’t ambush or outgun troublesome German halftracks I advise discouraging them with indirect fire weapons. The Scots’ speedy mortar carrier should do the trick.

6. Post-battle debriefing screens list and credit every kill, but the game doesn’t offer replays. (see comments)

7. Veteran wargamers have a headstart when it comes to learning SD. Many of the tactics quietly encouraged by Combat Mission, Close Combat and Graviteam Tactics produce pleasing results when transferred to SD. Expect to miss your Nahverteidigungswaffe though. I think I’m right in saying AFVs never pop smoke.

8. As in Red Dragon, armour clashes are enlivened by natty labels that draw attention to events like shell ricochets, track damage, and spalling.

9. Should I slap an ‘RPS Recommended’ rosette on a superb skirmish/multiplayer RTS slightly blighted by disappointing campaigns? Let’s see what the Hivemind Handbook has to say on the subject…

10. Steel Division: Normandy 44 [official site] is available now, priced £35.

41 Comments

  1. Premium User Badge

    Grizzly says:

    From the sound of it, it seems that the Steel Division campaign mimics the European Escalation one, which is a shame as Eugene has already shown that it’s much better at dynamic campaigns in the sequels to that particular outing.

    • Strzec says:

      I think a lot of the community would disagree with that claim. There was a lot of support for a return to scripted campaigns like W:EE had. That was partially due to the shit spammy AI from ALB and Red Dragon. A dynamic campaign may have worked well in SD thanks to the improved AI, but I’m a fan of the current campaigns. The Operation Epsom campaign is one of the hardest RTS campaigns I’ve played.

  2. DeadCanDance says:

    Great review and writing, as always, and thanks for the answer!

  3. Retzinsky says:

    There are no replays for the campaign, but skirmish/multi has them. They’re accessed under “Profile” for whatever reason.

    • WinTurkey says:

      Yep, every single skirmish and multiplayer game is automatically saved and can be viewed later in the profile menu.

    • Hyena Grin says:

      Yep, I was coming to comment the same thing. They’re a bit hidden now, but mostly because it’s all automated and you don’t have a ‘Save Replay’ button like you did in previous games.

      Replays are invaluable to the Wargame/Steel Division series’, because while playing it’s hard to appreciate the detail and nuances in a huge, hectic battlefield. I use it as a learning tool from time to time after a loss, to see what I could have done to prevent it, etc. Also being able to zoom in and focus on combat a bit more is a treat, as it was in Wargame.

  4. AlphaW0lph says:

    Great review. Exactly what I was expecting from this brilliant game.

  5. Shiloh says:

    I’ve not played it, and the Let’s Plays I’ve watched haven’t convinced me I should relinquish Theatre of War 2 in favour of it, but dammit all, now here comes Tim Stone, whose opinion I value above all other RPS writers, charging into the breach like Sir Thomas Picton up a ladder at Badajoz, waving an “RPS RECOMMENDED” banner. Choices, choices…

    • Joriath says:

      To provide a dissenting opinion – and highlighting that people’s preferences differ – I pre-ordered, played 18 hours, and refunded (I felt guilty for this but financial constraints meant I couldn’t justify a game I wasn’t enjoying). After a week or so break from my computer I couldn’t convince myself to boot the game up. It was interesting to begin with, and the frontline mechanic is a huge improvement over the Wargame map modes, but the game felt too repetitive. Each map – admittedly in the pre-order beta – felt too similar. The bocage resulted in grindfests on most maps; hedgerows could easily be fortresses, whilst urban environments were kill zones for all units within because of artillery.

      The divisions had a similar feel to them as well. Had I spent many more hours in the game I may have become attuned to the subtleties of each division but in the time I spent with the game I could find little drastically different between them other than armoured vs non-armoured. As Tim Stone mentioned in the review, TO&Es seem to have been thrown out the window in some instances in the name of balance and fancy units. Understandable, but for me it contributed (along with the all too similar topography of the maps) to each battle resulting in similar tactics and outcomes. I found myself not caring whether it was a Panzer IV or a Tiger coming at me, the only important value was the provided Armour rating (corresponding to front armour) because it was nigh on impossible to flank unless a tank had stupidly driven well beyond my front lines and could be ambushed from the rear. Tank turrets and assault guns turn too quick, and by the time an AT gun was zeroed in (first time hits were rare) it could often be wiped out by the target’s machine gun or so suppressed it was forced to fall back, thus becoming an easy target itself.

      Apologies for the rant, but I found the game showed early promise but after a few matches became mediocre. I simply stopped finding it fun.

      • hamilcarp says:

        I agree to a certain extent that this game suffers from a lack of variety in the units and maps, especially compared to Red Dragon. However I got the game on release and have since put in over 20 hours and I’m not even close to getting bored, no two battles play the same and tactics vary enormously between factions and divisions. It sounds to me like you spent too much time playing the pre-release version and burned out quickly. I don’t think it’s at all fair to judge a game when the majority of your playtime was in an incomplete version, particularly since you did not make that clear.

        And while the gameplay concerns you have are somewhat valid, they’re not unavoidable. Towns turning into killzones happen when you bunch up too many units and don’t move them often enough. AT guns are never effective on their own, they rely on the element of surprise, overlapping fields of fire, and veterancy levels that improve accuracy and rate of fire.

  6. Premium User Badge

    teije says:

    Sounds intriguing – would this game be enjoyable for someone who’s not a fast clicker, but more of a slow ponderer?

  7. Deptfordx says:

    I’ve been playing this for a couple of weeks now (having bought the pre-release beta) and have racked up 70+ hours of skirmish, solo and online. I strongly recommend this game if you’ve enjoyed any of Eugens games or similar stuff like Men of War and Combat Mission.

  8. wombat191 says:

    im enjoying it but yeah im missing the dynamic campaign badly and its a big step back not including it

    • Someoldguy says:

      Mmm with talk of the single player campaigns being the weak spot, I think I’ll save my cash and see what DLC emerges to liven it up for the dedicated solo player. Other humans tend to get frustrated if you need to play 5 minutes, pause for 20, repeat.

  9. DeadCanDance says:

    I’m reading troubling reports on some of steam’s reviews of stuart tanks knocking tigers out in one single hit. Is that true or was it fixed after the beta?

    • Deptfordx says:

      What makes you think a Stuart couldn’t kill a Tiger, especially a Tiger 1. That front armour is very impressive, side and rear not so much, especially at close range.

    • Retzinsky says:

      That’s certainly possible under some circumstances and as far as I’m concerned there’s nothing wrong with that. At the Tiger’s maximum range, the Stuart isn’t even able to fire back. At the Stuart’s maximum range it doesn’t have the penetration to damage a Tiger from any direction, even the rear. It has to be within 900m for the side/rear or 600m for the front to even have a slim hope, and you’d want to be considerably closer to stand a serious chance of penetrating.

      There does appear to be a vocal subset of players who for some reason think that the Wehrmacht’s heavy armour was blessed with some kind of invulnerability shield. However, believe me when I say that used smartly they are plenty effective.

      • Deptfordx says:

        95% of the people I’ve seen complaining about Tigers not being Invulnerable seem unfamiliar with concepts like ‘Recon’ and ‘Infantry Screen’. Used correctly they will absolutely wreck stuff.

  10. Stugle says:

    Wonderful review, addressing all the questions I had about this game. If I have one item of criticism, it would be the lack of any carefully staged screenshots of Typhoons raining Michael Bay-esque levels of destruction on assorted Axis evildoers. ;)

  11. mavrik says:

    *sigh* Why o why does it have to be the damn WW2 western allies campaign again. Tired beyond measure, their previous Cold War set strategies were infinitely more interesting due to modern hardware.

    • Premium User Badge

      Grizzly says:

      On the one hand, yes, it’s tired. On the other hand: Eugen is french so obviously they’d want a game set in france :P

    • thetruegentleman says:

      Plenty of reasons:

      1. The western theater is much more visually interesting than what would be seen in the east.

      2. Many interesting allied vehicles are virtually unknown, like the M18 Hellcat, Comet tank, M3 Lee, and the hundred or so Sherman variants (Jumbo, Firefly, M12, M36, etc), to say nothing of the planes.

      3. The western theater had a much more diverse assortment of infantry weapons.

      So…yeah.

    • Hyena Grin says:

      There’s no reason why additional expansions/games in the Steel Division series couldn’t explore other fronts. I actually would like to see some of the North African campaign.

      But I don’t think that the western front is tired by any means. I’m very pleased they started there.

  12. Mr Bismarck says:

    1. Hopefully it won’t be long before modders provide alternatives to the default vocal cues, many of which are toe-curlingly preposterous.

    I hope it’s as remarkable as this : link to youtube.com

  13. Mi-24 says:

    I’ve so far enjoyed what I’ve played of this, the maps definitely need a bit more variety (rivers, swamps, hills, castles, large towns etc) but the gameplay’s good.

    • wombat191 says:

      apparently the maps are made from aerial recon photos of the time.. so blame ww2 french for the lack of diversity of terrain haha

  14. Premium User Badge

    goodpoints says:

    Wow. The lack of detail in the models is just plain embarrassing compared to Graviteam, and Eugen certainly had a budget dozens of times larger. Everything here looks like those horrid pre-painted Axis & Allies plastic miniatures of yesteryear.

    • Hyena Grin says:

      The game is definitely going for a particular aesthetic. The models are plenty detailed, but everything kinda has a sepia wash to it, and they aren’t trying to be photorealistic at all.

      I wasn’t a huge fan at first of the style at first, but it has grown on me. Maybe they realize that the game is played from a kilometer away, so that style is plenty good enough and evokes the period.

      Also, this is probably not the genre that needs more innovation in graphics, y’know? Who cares. It innovates plenty in game mechanics, and is a damn good game in general.

      • Unclepauly says:

        Yeah, how many people are playing RTS for the graphical splendor right?

      • Premium User Badge

        goodpoints says:

        Plenty detailed? Look at that Matilda (eugh the shadows too) though. I seem to recall previous Eugen games I’ve played all had some kind of dumb hazy filter, and, like the majority of post effects in games, are just meant to obscure the ugly. Doesn’t it use a scale of single vehicles and infantry squads? That’s the same as Graviteam Tactics so I’m not seeing how the scale is an excuse. I’m not saying there aren’t things more important than graphics. But, considering this is a more mass market RTS, I’m sure graphical quality was one of their top priorities. And if this is the result, then it’s laughably inept and I’d find NATO counters more visually appealing.

        • wengart says:

          Having played a lot of Combat Mission and Wargame (and a tiny amount of graviteam). The scale and speed combine to make the model detail largely unimportant except in seeing things in broad strokes.

          Because while the base scale is single vehicles and infantry squads you are quite often commanding enough units to make up a reinforced company or under-strength battalion. So you rarely have the time to actually get low to the ground.

          • Premium User Badge

            goodpoints says:

            Well the the ravenous growth of scenario size is one of the main reasons I stopped playing Combat Mission Creep when Normandy came out.

            Do you play CM real-time? Because then I could understand not seeing the ground view much, but if you’re doing turn-based (the only way the system works imo) you’re constantly seeing units up close during replays.

            If a game is at a high enough level of command where I’m not seeing individual units much, then for ease of use and visual clarity I would prefer NATO counters a la Command Ops.

  15. a1ml3ss says:

    any bad players fancy adding me? I get the feeling that cooperation and established teams are going to be essential to have fun in multiplayer. I’ve played about 20 hours mix of solo and online – I could hold my own online at first but as time goes on and people refine their decks I cant keep up…
    username is the same

  16. Hyena Grin says:

    Love the game. For skirmish mode, at least. It may be the best comp-stomping good time in RTS.

    I will say though, that after playing through the largely obvious tutorial, I found myself wishing for smaller scale fights, with small maps and limited units. I quite enjoyed the tighter focus that some of the tutorial missions implied. I was hoping that the campaign would include some of that sort of thing – like, here’s four infantry units, a leader, and a machine gun; go use them to Solve a Series of Problems. Something a bit more traditional as far as RTS campaigns go.

  17. Dezztroy says:

    The Tetrarch vs Pz IV comment isn’t entirely accurate. The 6th Airborne can in total rely on 21 Tetrarchs of different models. The 21st Panzer meanwhile has access to in total 33 Pz IVs of different models.

  18. Kong says:

    Oh joy to see RPS recommended label.

    I totally agree with the autor on how sad it is that again Eugene denies us warporn voyerism.
    I used to create my own scenarios in EE just to watch my machinery go boom klang. Which gets old quick without the danger of losing.

    Close Combat Normandy allowed me to close my eyes and take in the sounds of battle. When can I have the visuals as well? Only when I do not give a Dreck about the conflict’s outcome. Maybe next time.

    Audio modders: I am Hesse. My English may have a slight German accent. At the beginning of my acting career I performed in plays of US Army RR Arts&Crafts and never heard any complaints.
    Schweinehunde! Vorwärts! Wollt ihr ewig Leben! Mamaaa aua aua achhhh…

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