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MOWAS: When Losing Was The Best Outcome

While the rest of the world seems to have been turning on the axis of Starcraft, I've been playing Men Of War: Assault Squad with RPS chums Phil and Dartt. It's mostly excellent. The game is in beta at the minute, with a busy contingent of testers playing both the co-op and versus modes of this new skirmish-based Men Of War game. That beta test is set to expand very soon, which is an exciting time. (Which reminds me, we will have some beta accounts to give away soon, so watch for that.) I've already written a bit about the game here, but I don't think I really explained how the game feels to play, and why it has take up so much of my attention. Read on and I will try to articulate some of my excitement.

While Phil and I had already beaten one of the levels co-op, pushing things up a difficulty level and trying the other levels with an extra player (Dartt) to create three players vs the computer, produced quite a different dynamic. With three of us on the field, and roughly three capture points along each line of progress across the map, we were able to take one flank each, with another person attacking through the middle. The first map we were to try saw us play as the Russians, attacking a Russian town that was held by entrenched Germans.

What is most pleasing about these battles, which can take up to a couple of hours to resolve, is that the escalate so exquisitely. That escalation isn't always perfectly balanced, that's what this beta test is all about, but the slow expansion of available reinforcements pitched against the enemy's increased armour and activity makes for a frenzied climax that leaves other games looking positively sedate. In our assault on the Russian town we began with mortars and infantry, and we would end up with some vast tractor-howitzer contraption, captured enemy tanks, and the ability to demand conscription, causing a vast wave of poorly-trained, doomed Russian infantry to sweep onto the battlefield. It is a glorious take on the gaming power-up, and at the same time so brutal it would make Stalin pale.

So, having taken the first line of capture points on the far side of a dried up river bed, we began to fight for the central, built-up area of the town. Here progress slowed dramatically, devolving into a struggle that would flatten most of the buildings in the centre of the map. The fight was to leave us clawing our way to the banks of the second river, which had water in this time, but was also partially frozen, partially filled in by the activities of war.

This process was populated with tiny moments of horror and victory. There was the horror of throwing a molotov cocktail, only for it to clip the wreckage of a collapsed building, and pour its fiery contents down on my own troops. There was the victory of using the same weapon to catch fire to the engine of an enemy tanks, and killing the crew as they abandoned their charge, and then patching the vehicle back up to take it into the field. This back and forth, loss and gain, is unending.

It's this kind of stuff that shows how Men Of War really works. It is a kind of messy simulation, as complete as possible, and necessarily incomplete. While Starcraft 2 is about a frenzied application and unfolding of your knowledge of the perfect systems of a rounded, comprehensible, balanced design, Men Of War is a kind of epic bodging of events on the field: a process of rolling crisis management and makeshift solution to problems involving horrendous odds. The fact that you can man guns dropped by the enemy, or place sandbags to try and entrench positions, or slowly – so slowly – patch up crewless, crippled vehicles and take them back to the field, well, it feels so much more human. Other RTS games are about faceless, mindlessly mechanisms of war, and Men of War is about /men/. I think that is what I love most about this game: the capacity to explore what the battlefield itself contains, and what it's capable of. Picking up a helmet shot from your head and putting it back on again might seem like a superfluous action, but it saves the soldier from a headshot the next time around. Those inventories for each and every soldier might seem like overkill, but the wonder of holding off an enemy tank with a sticky bomb found an enemy's pockets makes this an adventure, a story.

Returning to Russia, and the three of us had driven tanks into the river, lost men to ludicrous decisions to charge, found ourselves landing perfect killing shots with Men Of War's direct control system, and screaming as our snipers/mortars/AT rifles missed their targets. We had entrenched ourselves, called up a line of armour, unlocked conscription and the motherland's largest howitzer, and were ready to take the final third of the map. Everything should have been in place, our victory should have been assured, until that escalation I was talking about. A huge wave of German tanks appeared as we moved on the final point. Better tanks than ours. The assault collapsed, and the few men we had manning machineguns and AT guns on the river could do nothing to stem the tide. With just a single capture point left before the town would have been ours, we began to lose. And we lost. There was no way back. Victory had been ours, and it was snatched from our grasp by a single miscalculation of odds.

We were not going to make the same mistakes on the next map, which was the Omaha beach level. This doesn't involve the Saving Private Ryan bit, because the beach has already been taken, and instead the assault is on a stretch of Normandy beyond – a village, and then fortified stretch of farmlands crossed with German defences. This map, perhaps even better than the Russian town, demonstrated how terrain made the experience different for each of us. For Phil and Dartt the battle was defined by house-to-house assaults across the first few stages, and then the cover-free horror of open fields and a clear road beyond. They made rapid progress up to the far edge of the village. I, meanwhile, faced the right flank, where lay an enemy trench, a sandbag bunker, and then a fortified concrete bunker beyond. The assault here was far more precarious. Laying down suppressing fire with a half-track, and pushing a mortar up among the buildings, I made slow progress, until eventually I managed to get a machinegunner up onto the high ground.

My battle would largely be about holding this line of defence, taking them and then losing them to the Germans. Phil and Dartt meanwhile were, in the same game, on the same battlefield, having quite a different experience. The road and the fields were tank country, and since we were playing as Americans we actually had decent armour to lean on. As the fight escalated the middle of the battlefield became littered with wrecked tanks, APCs, half-tracks, and other mobile guns. Some of the incidental skirmishes being spectacular, with anti-tank rounds being fired through buildings, and traps taking down charging spearheads.

Eventually, thanks to judicious use of one-shot paratroopers and air-strikes, we managed to take the artillery at the end of the battlefield, and therefore the map. In some ways the first game, ending in our defeat, was far fulfilling than the second victory. It showed us that the game, despite being against the computer, wasn't designed to let us win. The second battle didn't seem like a victory this time, it seemed like a relief. “We /can/ do this.” The calamity of failure that first time, however, was where the real excitement lay.

Afterward I couldn't help thinking about how the way in which Men Of War is more simulation than other strategies in the same area – but less so that the hardcore tank sims or wargames – gives it a strange sense of urgency. Because there are so many variables there's no single way for this to play out. There's always invention and randomness in these kinds of games, but the capacity for us to have such a different experience from one game to the next shows just how successful MoW's model of the battlefield is. You want to see if that crazy plan about repairing a tank will work. You want to know if holding that building will help, or if laying mines here instead of there will make things easier. Men Of War is less like a refined game of strategy, and more like a mad toolbox of possibilities, providing you with special kinds of hammer that you have no use for, but will end up using anyway, /just to see/. Assault Squad just makes all that part of a bigger multiplayer game. And I'm enjoying that very much indeed.

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Jim Rossignol