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Hands On: Men Of War Assault Squad 2

Directly Controlled

Men Of War: Assault Squad 2, or MOWASTWO for short, is now available to those who buy into the ongoing beta. Full release is scheduled for the 20th of March. Needless to say, Jim dove in, headfirst.

I'll admit that I'm a bit in love with the Men Of War games. It clouds my judgement. The series is flawed, even occasionally lame, but always so beautiful to my eye. Many games have attempted to sell us the idea of War, and even more the idea of Men, but it is only in Men Of War that these two ideas fused together, like desperate lovers, to produce a simulationist battlefield mutant that looks at us with terrible eyes and says: "Aim is in the reach zone!"

I'm sorry, it's been a while since I wrote anything. All my metaphors seem to have become sticky from neglect.

You should know about the Men Of War games. Perhaps you don't. If you don't, then your life has a hole in it, a big hole that can only be filled by the exploding battlefields of this lurching World War II-themed monstrosity. It is a complex, messy thing, and like war itself it is mostly about sending tiny men to their deaths to test whether doing that will win the battle. All too often, it doesn't.

Unlike most finely tuned and well-poised RTS games, these games are more about the action than the balance of play. It is more about the joy of tank damage models than it is about fairness, or even realism. This is no carefully wrought game of soldiers like Company Of Heroes, no, it is instead a barbed-wire-filled no man's land of off-screen dice and destructible scenery that lies between the RTS and a full blown simulation. Everything has its own stats, its own AI, it's own goddamned damage models and individual inventories. The Men Of War games are overblown, teetering on the brink of collapse from all the mayhem they try to cram into their khaki knapsacks.

Its fair to say that this hasn't changed much since the first game in the Men Of War series. MOWAS2 is little different from its predecessors in this regard. The same features - including glorious direct control - remain unaltered. While the series has made some advancements here and there, with new things to destroy, bigger maps, a better editor, and some engine improvements, it has never really taken a big step from the technology or the template of that first game. Assault Squad itself was an attempt to push the series in a direction that coped better with multiplayer, by making the entire thing more skirmished-led, with lashings of co-op, and providing a number of game modes more suited to multiplayer than the original campaign. This sequel simply places its feet in the same shoes and tries to stumble a bit further through the Eastern Front snow decals.

Something you should understand about the scope of the Men Of War games, including this one, is that the levels range from precarious "stealth" scenarios where you're expected to take out a tank-zoo of defences with a handful of commandos, to vast, ongoing armour-slaughters, where waves of hapless infantry smash themselves face-first onto the raging guns of entire lines of heavy weapons, bunkers, and happy Panzers. It is a game that has an enormous amount going on, but at the same time, if you've played a previous game, you've pretty much seen everything that MOWAS 2 has to offer. Every game in the series does everything, which seems like an odd sort of methodology.

Like its predecessor, MOWAS 2 doesn't have a full-blown campaign - the tedious Vietnam was the last game in the series to try that - but it does offer a handful of skirmish missions. The first of these levels (all of which are playable single player) is a brutal assault in which you have to conduct both defence against tanks and armour, as well as recapturing a damaged tank and then using that to spearhead an attack of your own. The second level, meanwhile, sees you controlling a single squad which has to assault an enemy-held town, quietly neutralizing both snipers and artillery stations. Like I said, it comes with a barrel-load of variety, even when the new offerings are slim.

These maps are radically different experiences, and both test the game engine and your patience in quiet different ways. Personally I'd be happy just to thrash my way through the intense firefights, and I get to do that if I play multiplayer. In fact I have to get it there, because there are only these four new skirmish levels to get through solo. That doesn't seem like much, but actually there's a lot more in multiplayer options - fifteen new maps in all. The game has also eaten the original MOWAS, so all those maps are in there too. That's... a lot of maps. The multiplayer offering is now as huge as the scope of its battlefield brawls, and the original MOWAS was also swollen by numerous free updates of maps, game mods and units. I'd anticipate much the same level of support for this game. Indeed, 1c are already touting that as a reason to buy.

Despite these comforting promises, the same old awkwardness that the original games demonstrated appear in this game, despite the years of familiarity and polish. People are still complaining about crash bugs, and I still find tanks that have "got confused" during battle and need to nudged into actually attacking anything. The Men Of War games have always been a clever toy stuck in a spider-web of feature complexity, and that's part of their charm. Nothing else attempts this. At the same time, well, it'd be nice if all that iteration had smoothed out the fundamentals. It seems it never will.

Because of all this, there's also the lingering issue with having seen many of these assets before. It does feel like very much the same game, because despite a few new models, the old ones are still making their charge up to that bump-mapped bunker. The games have lost none of their chaotic lustre, but the small advances in engine tech - like better support for multiple cores and so forth - simply add a bit of shine to the stark fact that a true sequel hasn't been attempted. Perhaps it won't be. Perhaps, wisely, 1c realise that attempting such a thing will lead off the path and into danger. I notice we haven't heard much from its modern world update, Call To Arms.

Men Of War and I have long been gazing across the internet at each other. And for a while I thought it loved me back. I can't tell any more, though, because if I am honest MOWAS2 DOES seem like just the same old resources trotted out once again. Not that this will stop me spending time with it. I can't help being dazzled by its patter and its great big rainbow of strategy-simulation. It still seems like that should be enough, even if our tired old relationship really needs something new.

Men Of War: Assault Squad 2 is out on March 20th.

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