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Wot I Think: Steel Division – Normandy 44

I'm war-torn

There are two wars raging within Steel Division [official site]. While the Axis and Allies are going at it hammer and tongs in the très jolie fields and lanes of NW France, behind the scenes 'Plausibility' and 'Populism' - or 'Wargame' and 'RTS' if you prefer - are scrapping just as energetically for control of the soul of Eugen's latest offering. Most of the time the fight is close and the game is great as a result. It's only when Populism/RTS starts gaining the upper hand – something that happens most noticeably during the three short singleplayer campaigns – that things go awry for the mostly excellent Steel Division.

Can I assume you're familiar with the Eugen way? Base-free battling on large lifelike maps; real-time combat punctuated by regular reinforcement shopping sprees; no active pause but a 'bullet-time' setting that's a passable substitute... Although Red Dragon's discrete capturable map zones have been abandoned in favour of a more organic dynamic frontline concept (steady expansion is still vitally important in the most popular MP mode 'Conquest') and battles are now divided into three distinct phases to delay the arrival of heavy weapons, SD still feels like a chip off the old breechblock.

Like its predecessors this is a game that's arguably at its best when the clock is full of treacle and the player's responsibilities are few. During slowed small-scale Close Combat-style engagements there are opportunities to savour and micromanage. Wasn't it poet W. H. Davies who wrote “What is this life if, full of care, we have no time to stand and stare while a Typhoon rockets the sherbet out of a King Tiger, or an isolated knot of Ostruppen, pinned by two carefully choreographed Bren gun teams, decides to throw in the towel.”?

[No. You're thinking of Keats. Lit Ed].

My point is that Eugen have gone to so much trouble to fashion maps crisscrossed by complex sight lines, and model subtleties like AFV system damage (vehicles can lose individual crewmen, weapons, mobility...) and unit fire control (every weapon type can be manually activated/deactivated to preserve ammo or facilitate close-range ambushes) it would be a crying shame not to explore and relish these features.

Unfortunately, the authors of the three four-mission sequential campaigns seem far more interested in filling our screens with fury and hurrying us towards Finish lines, than letting us enjoy emergent war stories rich in detail. With their win-to-progress victory conditions, occasional time limits, and emphasis on spectacular large-scale combat, the campaign episodes have a dated, eager to awe feel. At times they weary and annoy. On one occasion I lost a long, hard-fought battle because I was a few seconds from clearing a VL when the non-negotiable time limit expired. On another, an 'evacuate 30 units through this exit' affair ended in an unseemly drag-select stampede simply because no-one in Paris had thought to provide me with a tally of departed units.

A bizarre lack of beach maps does the campaigns no favours either. The story of Overlord is told reasonably well, and the scenarios prove SD's AI – so capable and aggressive in skirmish mode (see on) – can also sit tight and focus on a single objective when necessary – but, crikey, things could have been so much better.

Puffing on my pipedream meerschaum I see a cellular strat map with player-controlled battle groups struggling to reach beleaguered Pegasus Bridge or Sainte-Mère-Église. I picture Pyrrhic victories and tough inter-mission reinforcement decisions. In my imaginary SD the large set-piece scraps that Eugen use as the building blocks for the campaign would be offered as standalone historical battles; the long game would offer something far more intimate and intertwined.

A flawed old-fashioned campaign would be a Blighty wound if campaigning was all SD had to offer. Placed alongside near-perfect skirmish and multiplayer modes, it's actually little more than a scratch.

I generally prefer to game alone, but Eugen's MP apparatus is so friendly and flexible, the opportunities for co-op combat so enticing, it's bally hard to resist the lure of the lobby. Playing the AI with a human comrade or two (ten-person teams are possible on big maps like Sword) at your side is the perfect way to hone skills. I've yet to encounter an impatient or selfish ally. Most people instinctively assist fellow commanders, especially if, glancing at the mini-map, they realise their partner is struggling to turn the enemy tide. All of a sudden there's a friendly scout plane circling overhead, an unbidden AT gun deploying in a gap in your line. If the devs ever introduce a mode where different players control different components of a force (infantry, armour, airpower and arty etc) and units can be passed temporarily or permanently to the AI to reduce workload, I'll be at the front of the queue to try it.

The most popular form of multiplayer is 'Conquest'. Turtling is disastrous in this mode because the proportion of the map your side controls determines the speed at which victory points are amassed. 'Destruction' games can be customised to disincentive landgrabbing and eliminate reinforcements. If a traditional wargamey clash is what you're after in MP or solo skirmish mode, then such confrontations are possible. The AI can't be persuaded to mount a static defence outside of scripted campaign scenarios, but the standard 'meeting engagements' are so entertaining and challenging, I haven't found myself pining for assaults.

SD's artificial adversaries don't need maps sprinkled with hidden signposts and trigger zones to fight with ferocity and cunning. When your lines are being battered by brutal combined arms attacks, your troop concentrations mercilessly pounded by aircraft and artillery, your tanks sniped by skilfully sited AT guns, there are moments when you have to remind yourself you're playing a machine. Occasionally, foes persist in using dangerous approach routes when smoking wrecks scream 'TURN BACK!'; sometimes enemies struggle to employ certain indirect fire units effectively, but, gosh, I wish more wargames offered resistance this stiff, canny and self-reliant.

Thanks largely to the lovely Combat Mission series I can't ogle a busy SD battlefield without wincing slightly at the profusion of 'rarities'. Anyone getting an Overlord education exclusively from this game may be surprised to learn that Tetrarch tanks weren't in fact as numerous as Panzer IVs in Normandy, and Allied positions weren't regularly inspected by Fieseler Storchs. The French devs have decided to revel in late war exotica rather than accurately reflect historical TOEs, and confronted by the colourful consequences of this decision - 18 customisable divisions consisting of around 400 different unit types – only the wettest of wet blankets will grouse.

Whether you choose to play with premade unit 'decks' or prefer to build your own – something that's mandatory in the campaigns for some reason – it probably won't be long before you find yourself employing essentially historical tactics. SD captures the essence of the fighting in Normandy better than many weightier wargames. The temptation to use the road network is powerful and often fatal; the opportunities to organise ambushes numerous; a well sited HMG or AT gun can cause havoc. Unit survivability is perfectly pitched. With the clock heavily retarded, though you will lose AFVs to single shells and see squads decimated by unexpected artillery stonks from time to time, there's usually a chance to prevent a pickle turning into a calamity.

Sharp as a spike bayonet in the AI department, surprisingly realistic in areas like morale modelling, LoS and armour penetration, SD's crowning achievement is arguably its interface. It's hard to think of a wargame that makes control feel so effortless or one that communicates unit details so effectively. Beware - a few days with Eugen elegance makes Graviteam idiosyncracy awfully hard to bear.

Ten parting thoughts in no particular order

1. Hopefully it won't be long before modders provide alternatives to the default vocal cues, many of which are toe-curlingly preposterous.

2. Hills are almost as rare as beaches on maps and when they do appear (Hill 112) have a stylised stepped look.

3. When fighting alongside computer-controlled allies, the friendly AI can demonstrate charming thoughtfulness. I love how my silicon cobelligerents sometimes despatch ammo trucks to resupply my artillery batteries.

4. (In answer to a question from DeadCanDance) I've not noticed any issues connected with woods or hedgerows. Units that debus near a building or undergrowth will – assuming their default 'seek cover' behaviour hasn't been altered – automatically make use of the scenery. Units placed anywhere near a wood edge always enjoy views of the surrounding countryside. The closer the edge, the more is seen. The excellent combination LOS/weapon range tool makes assessing unit awareness very easy.

5. (In answer to a question from Stellar Duck) In phase A, assuming you can't ambush or outgun troublesome German halftracks I advise discouraging them with indirect fire weapons. The Scots' speedy mortar carrier should do the trick.

6. Post-battle debriefing screens list and credit every kill, but the game doesn't offer replays. (see comments)

7. Veteran wargamers have a headstart when it comes to learning SD. Many of the tactics quietly encouraged by Combat Mission, Close Combat and Graviteam Tactics produce pleasing results when transferred to SD. Expect to miss your Nahverteidigungswaffe though. I think I'm right in saying AFVs never pop smoke.

8. As in Red Dragon, armour clashes are enlivened by natty labels that draw attention to events like shell ricochets, track damage, and spalling.

9. Should I slap an 'RPS Recommended' rosette on a superb skirmish/multiplayer RTS slightly blighted by disappointing campaigns? Let's see what the Hivemind Handbook has to say on the subject...

10. Steel Division: Normandy 44 [official site] is available now, priced £35.

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