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.
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.