A little bit of a world exclusive, this one. We were lucky enough to be the first publication to get our hands on the complete build of Men Of War: Assault Squad, and I've been reviewing the hell out of it. I've already been spending a lot of time on the beta, but now we've been able to look at the full thing. And it's kind of awesome. Up front I want to say one thing: people who were worried about the skirmish and multi-player focus detracting from the single-player challenge have nothing to fret about. The fifteen skirmish maps are all excellent, and are close to constituting a new campaign in their own right. But there are some caveats to that, obviously. Here's Wot I Think.
The original Men Of War, I should probably admit, is the real-time strategy that interests me most of all. I have spent more happy hours with it than any other. Assault Squad does not deviate far from the template of its origin, and for that I am thankful. That original template is one of pure tactics, high fiddliness, and extreme precision. Men Of War is, in many ways, a technical marvel. Dozens of units, destructible scenery, intricate physics modelling. It's quite the thing. And so is the challenge that faces you. You responsibility is not for resource collection or base building, but simply for the men on the field. And while these tiny heroes will shoot and take cover and dive away from grenades (sometimes) they do require meticulous management. Their positioning, their retreats and often, even, their specific ammo and targeting, must be managed by you. In a battle with hundreds of units, this can become breathtakingly tricky.
It's precisely this depth that makes the game so rewarding, too, of course. Playing Assault Squad has led – via the complexity of managing our little men – to some of the most inventive and heroic game events I have ever seen. Using a stolen pak gun to hold off an enemy advance while soldiers patched up a series of fallen tanks was just one in a million little victories, while instructing a soldier to throw a Molotov cocktail (looted from the inventories of the dead) only to have it smashed on broken scenery and set him on fire, one of a million tiny disasters. Men Of War is so rich as an experience because the details are so many, and so diverse. Yes, the default comment made in reference to the game's eccentricities of design is that hats can be shot off the heads of all the characters (why aren't they wearing them with chin straps!) but the truth is that the hats thing is simply a measure of all the other details in there, from being able to enter any building, to looting every fallen soldier on the field.
Many of you will not have played Men Of War, fearing this talk of micro-management, difficulty, and fiddliness, and that is a tragedy, because it will – for some of you – be precisely the game you are looking for.
Men Of War: Assault Squad is, I think, an interesting concept for a quasi-sequel. Rather than producing another scenario – as 1c are doing with Men Of War: Vietnam - or producing another campaign for the original game – as they did with Red Tide – Assault Squad is a take on another significant aspect of the game. That's the multiplayer. Assault Squad is the series' strongest online offering, with a fresh batch of multi-player options across thirty-seven maps and three game modes. THIRTY SEVEN MAPS. Yes. These range from 1v1 scenarios to a grand 8v8 giganto-map that will trouble even the sturdiest of gaming machines. These maps are sometimes little more than elegant, misty fields, but they're also often inventive, with detailed towns and sprawling bases. You can even mess about with them yourself, thanks to the game shipping with an editor. Making your own maps is remarkably easy.
The three multiplayer modes each rely on the game's points-cost model, in which you call up new units from a menu, and they roll onto the field from your starting position. You can also set things up at the start, depending on the game mode (they work in slightly different ways.) The Combat mode simply pours armies onto the battlefield for you to duke it out. Assault Zones puts a series of capture points across the map which you have to control and hold in classic “conquest” style (think Battlefield's conquest mode), while Frontlines has its own map and a time limit: it's about one side attacking relentlessly and the other trying to hold them back. This is probably the most entertaining of the multiplayer modes, although Assault Zones got some time from me, too.
Most of my time in multi-player has come, of course, from the extensive and length beta which has been run for the game. As a result many of the games I lost, and lost badly. There are some spectacularly talented Men of War players out there, and their ability to destroy me – and I am no slouch in the hotseat of this particular strategy conundrum – was galling. This will be, I am certain, one of those tough multiplayer communities that will be both rewarding and brutally challenging to be a part of. Off-putting for some, I know. But that is not where Assault Squad ends. No, because the pure multiplayer is the less interesting of the two halves of this game.
The other half, the one I have been playing with RPS Hero Squad Lieutenant Dartt and Side-Sergeant Contributor Person Sponge, is co-op skirmish versus AI. This can be played single-player, of course, but there's an option for 2-4 people to play co-op, and that is an option you MUST TAKE.
Each skirmish map is huge and, depending on the difficulty you play on, can take 90-minutes or more to get through. I've spent several hours on the toughest ones. The maps are all divided into rough sections, each one containing a number of capture points, each of which can be captured and lost as the game progress. Ideally, once certain points have been captured, you will hold them, because their being captured unlocks new reinforcement options. And of course the reinforcements from the other side are matched: you will need the new tanks or mobile guns to take on what's coming from the AI's end of the map. In the game that I played last night with Dartt, it took us an hour to be defeated by the AI on the Arnhem map. Let me tell you a bit about that.
The map for Arnhem, which sees the British attacking and entrenched German position, has a series of open fields and a road leading up to a bridge over a river. The early part of the map saw us attacking light defences with mortars and rifle infantry, and we made swift progress. The river, however, was only about half way into the map, and we would never quite manage to hold the other side. It's a big river, by Assault Squad standards, but it can be forded in the right hand side of the map. Having fought our way across the the fields over a period of half an hour, and battled our way through a farm and up to a riverside cafe, we began to stall at this goliath feature.
This happens a bit on the skirmish maps: you capture up to a certain line of points on the map, but the opposing force is coming in hard, meaning you have to try to entrench before pushing on. The danger is that your losses will be too great from the assault, and the counter-attack might knock you out. This didn't seem to be a problem for us, as we'd managed to get a couple of pak guns and a couple of tanks within range of the bridge, basically sewing up the best way in. We thought we were sounded entrenched. We were wrong.
Neither of us had really bothered to pin down the right side of the field. We hadn't set up voice comms, we were being a bit lazy about communicating. Even on normal difficulty the AI would take dramatic advantage of our lapse in tactics. Dartt's assault on the capture point failed, and the soldiers who had been holding down any attacks on our right flank died in that action. There was little to stop the enemies advancing. Having been competently managing the constantly spill of crises up to this point, I assumed we might be okay. But then I panned across the map and saw the true situation. And our lack of reinforcements. I tried desperately to redeploy some weapons from our hold on the bridge, but it wasn't enough. The river-crossing heavy tank destroyers began to make short work of us, backed up as they were by infantry. Facing us head-on, their armour was too heavy for the AT-rifle soldiers to do much about. Capture points began to fall, infantry got flanked and peppered. It was over.
All of which led to a bit of deja vu. I realised that the last time I played a game that I then enthused about on RPS, it was when we lost on one of the Russian maps during the beta. This is a game where even the losing fills me with glee, because the busy chaos of the battles is so engaging, and so fulfilling. It's a big, dramatic, ramshackle catastrophe of a battle, every time, and Assault Squad has fifteen of these grand scenario skirmishes for me to get stuck into, for whenever I want to feel like that. Of course this also means that the game loses the rather small scale sneaking and covert-attack sort of maps that appeared in the straight-up campaigns. It also skips the nuances that some of the scripting can provide. While the skirmishes do provide moments of drama, such as the unlocking of super-weapons and special powers (conscription for the Russians, for example, floods the battlefield with poor-quality infantry), there isn't anything like the drama of Men Of War's trainyard defence, or convoy attack, or the defence of a hill from a German counter-offensive.
There a dozens more details I could talk about in this review, but I've got end it somewhere.
So let's end it like this: what Assault Squad does do is transform and reinvigorate Men Of War as a multi-player game, as well as set itself in stone as one of the greatest and grandest co-op games available. It's precisely this kind of overwrought game that only the PC can do, and I feel thrilled and delighted that it exists. You should too.
This is one of those games that I have to insist you try. Really, Try it. There's a demo here. Now just imagine how good that would be with two chums.
[Random note about images: It pains me to admit that I can't screengrab from the review build of the game. Nothing works. I don't know why, but it has meant I've cobbled together images from elsewhere. Not ideal, but there it is.]