Yesterday afternoon, Phill and I managed to spend some time initiating the deaths of historical combatants in Men Of War: Assault Squad, which is the forthcoming multiplayer reworking of tactical cleverness simulator, Men Of War. We weren't picky: Americans, Britons, Germans, Russians, they all took their turn on the field of co-op glory that is Assault Squad's skirmish mode. Read on to find out what it was that we discovered.
The first challenge, of course, is to install and log into the game. It all worked! Saying our thanks to the Gods of compatibility and optimisation, we entered our Gamespy logins (fresh in our minds from having been dusted off for Borderlands, after years languishing in obscurity) and entered the lobby system. Skirmish isn't the only option that awaits us, of course, because Assault Squad has two other competitive multiplayer modes. But those were not today's task, instead we were going to fight our way to co-operative victory. Or so we thought.
I'm not sure what difficulty level Men Of War defaults to when you don't pick one, but it's clearly the one that reads “Too Hard For Us”. After making our first attempts to take a European town from its American occupiers, things weren't looking great. We had the right idea: soften them up with some mortar fire, but our little men were getting cut to pieces. Gradually, painfully, we advanced, remembering Men Of War's various lovely little features as we played.
Foremost among these features, of course, is that hats of anyone on the field can be shot off. But it's not just about head garment dislocation, there's the totally destructible scenery, the use of cover, and the glorious ability to take direct control of any of your units on the battlefield. Direct control turns this from indirect RTS commander experience to something more like a shooter. Deciding exactly where tanks shells are going to go is a splendid extension of normal RTS power-fantasies, but it's also very useful when you're trying to execute tricky or imaginative tactics. I used this to pretty effectively to take control of a machingunner and storm some trenches and, at one point, used a grenade and a pistol to kill ten entrenched enemy soldiers, before capturing the point. It was such an accomplishment that sang with joy, making our decision not to use voice-comms seem sensible.
And speaking of points, I should come around to my point about points: MOW:AS's skirmish maps feature a series of strategic points which are, at the start of the game, held by the enemy. You defend the single one you start with, and unlock (or relock) greater quotients of reinforcements as you capture/lose each line of enemy points. This means every battle is an escalation, culminating in a crescendo of tanks and heavy support. Unfortunately for me and Phill, our first crescendo of tanks turned out to be purely enemy ones. We'd been stuck at the couple of lines of enemy defences, and then overstretched. Had we taken some time to dig in and shore up our own position, we might have been okay. A wave of tanks and infantry meant that we weren't. We were beaten right back to our home base and defeated. This beating wasn't without spectacle, however: seeing Phill take out a tank which had run him over – thanks to a dropped grenade – was a beautiful moment.
Ruefully flicking the difficulty down to Easy, we had a much smoother ride with the second map we played, which was a desert scenario in which British forces were attacking German defences. This really showed off some of the breadth of units that the game gives you. While we were back with the mortars for hammering enemy lines, we were also using recoilless rifle chaps to take on armour, snipers to take on infantry across the wide open desert spaces, mounted guns to give things and explosive biff, and finally several tiers of tanks to make that final assault, tooth-and-nail assault genuinely interesting. Air power, one-shot power ups of artillery-mashing splendour, also made itself known.
Having learned our lesson from previous encounters, we made sure to rush the first line, and to entrench ourselves a little better with machineguns and other support weapons. Keeping momentum up is essential: if you haven't unlocked the better equipment by the time the enemy tanks and other tools of destruction arrive on the field, then you are going to struggle.
In the end our victory took the better part of an hour, and saw several hundred tiny men sent to their deaths. There were moments of extreme heroism, and moments of horrible futility (like when I wasted a dozen lives trying to capture a huge enemy artillery piece, which then proved too slow to turn around and shoot the enemy reinforcements before they arrived to retake it), but overall a solid Men Of War experience.
All of which leads me to concluding platitudes. The Men Of War engine and systems aren't exactly flawless, but they do have a kind of intricate beauty that I don't seem to be able to get enough of. They're just detailed enough for you to really feel like the smallest decisions are vital. A few people have expressed doubts about Assault Squad because it doesn't feature a campaign, and I have to admit I share this worry, because we're not entirely sure about the price. Going by this afternoon's experiences, however, I don't really care. Balls to stealth missions and other such distractions: the meat of Men Of War is in the escalating firefights through dense and destructible environments. It's the sheer fact of seething detail on a huge battlefield - those little moments of awesomeness amid a rolling mill of carnage. On the basis of what we've seen so far, I think Assault Squad is going to be a splendid addition to the Men Of War line up. Skirmish might not be enough for purely solo players, but I suspect the co-op and competitive rewards for folks who want to play with other humans will be a decent payoff.
No firm release date on this, I believe, but it shouldn't be too long. We're looking forward to judging the full thing, and we'll probably have a glance at those competitive game modes before then. More soon!
Oh, and here's the new trailer: