I've been playing through a number of the Men Of War levels again for a second time, trying to feel like I'm somehow closer to mastering the game. I wanted to break down how one of the levels plays out to try and explain the game to people who haven't yet played it. This afternoon my level of choice was an assault on a German hilltop entrenchment, before an attack on a fortified base. It takes about an hour to play through, and my first time around it was one of the most chaotic gaming experiences I have ever known. After perhaps fifty hours of play I should now be a veteran of the game able to breeze through this early challenge quite easily. Right? Wrong.
Just as in almost every attempt to complete a Men Of War level my initial attack goes completely haywire. Despite exhibiting the kind of caution a Manhattan Project scientist must have shown when arming the first atomic bomb, I fluffed it completely, and ended up plunging headlong into a sprawling moment-to-moment crisis management that would last for the rest of the level. This time I did manage to hit the gun emplacements that should have taken me down, but my first tank was nevertheless immediately destroyed.
So - as is so often the case in Men Of War - it was down to my infantry to make the first push. The plucky little guys got shot to pieces while making a dash for the first line of trenches. Nevertheless they got there - with a hint of sniper covering fire and a smidgen of direct control of individual units - and began to kill the heavily entrenched infantry. Getting grenades onto mounted guns is usually a good start - with as much flank activity as possible.
Soon I captured an artillery piece and began to make short work of the hillside defences. My submachinegun troops were going to assault the right flank and take the hill. I say were, because they had a little run in with this flamethrower guy:
Everybody died, and NPC soldiers were left to their own devices on that flank. Fortunately, Russian tanks are more resistant to flames, and by this time I was beginning to call in armored reinforcements. The map had begun to open up to the wider battle, making more options available to me. It's worth remembering that all this time I'm fighting and picking my targets, and there are dozens of allied NPC units all conducting their own attacks. When things get really tough the only option is to resort to an airstrike.
My tanks, however, are still getting ripped apart by anti-tank guns, rocket launchers, and mortars. Like so:
We aren't making much progress. The map is now a vast battlefront, in which I am only a very small player. Keeping track of what's happening requires the processing power of around four human brains. Tanks were easy prey to the dozens of infantry pouring from the German lines, and so I had to resort to something fast-firing, yet tough. Enter the heroes of this particular battle, the bizarre 37mm mobile gun, the ZSU-37.
I spend my reinforcement allocation on three of these things and send them up onto the hill after a second airstrike. I've taken out the worst of the heavy armour, and if these things can hit the crews of the gun emplacements before they're themselves exploded, I can make some progress. That's precisely what happens, with the fast-firing 37mm cannons taking out multiple targets with each magazine, including picking off individual infantry at range. Mortar crews and mobile gun teams are shot to pieces as the ZSU spearhead moves. It's one of those moments that must have happened in real warfare: the brutal tide turning of exactly the right tactic deployed at the crucial moment. The enemy base is now in sight. The ZSUs are killed off by mortar fire, and I reinforce for a final assault: two tanks, and as many infantry as I can afford. The heavy tank gets stuck on the side of the hill. Is it a bug? Or just too steep? It's hard to tell, but the little men won't get out to push.
Nothing will keep me from the enemy base how, however. And with a mixture of captured artillery and the firepower of my own tanks, we head down into the defences. A final line of Germans is picked off by my amazing surviving sniper (alive from the first moments of the game), as I ready my tanks to go in.
The final battle is fierce, but there's no way we're going to held at bay now. Tanks and guns bombarding from the hills, I send the infantry down to capture the trenches, and to kill-off the mortar crews. Two German tanks - weird, long-barrelled beasts that I don't recognise - make a valiant defence and blast apart many of the approaching infantry. As ever in Men Of War, however, even this kind of last-ditch commitment is not enough. It takes just a couple of grenade-tossing soldiers to get into range for these steel beasts to be silenced. Soon thereafter, the Russians hold the base.
Finally, a fuel-dump goes up in a titanic end-game explosion. That's all the punctuation it needs. The Germans are defeated.
While the scenario was identical to the first time I played through, the way I resolved it couldn't have been more different. This is perhaps what's most exciting about this wargame: diversity that leads to an organic, evolving experience. I only wish all the other RTS games we seen so far this year had as much scope for messing around, coming up with madcap plans, and clawing back victory from the brink of ludicrous, hyperbolic defeat.