Either RTS games got faster or I got slower. Could be both. Either way, there was a point when war, whether interstellar or historical, became unmanageable for me. Exceptions existed, with Company of Heroes the most splendid of them, but the wider arena of real-time strategy esemed like a thing of my past for a while.
One of the key tenets of most RTS games is that everything is disposable. You could read that as a commentary on the horrors of war, in which men and machines alike are swiftly forgotten in the midst of battle, or you could see it as a way to keep battlefields clean as commanders click and scroll across them.
Sudden Strike 4 doesn’t care for cleanliness. On the Stalingrad map that I played, clearing a street opened a route straight through to a key objective. I sent my tanks rumbling down the road, the infantry and support trucks lingering behind, using the great hulls of their companions as cover.
Disaster struck when two Russian tanks caught us in crossfire, destroying the tracks on both of my lead vehicles. The firefight that followed was swift and messy, as flames and smoke obscured the vision of my retreating infantry, several of which were cut down, and both of my tanks were rendered useless. The wreckage blocked the road completely.
When I brought up reinforcements, from the rear of the map, navigating that street - the only (previously) clean run to our objective - was all but impossible. Infantry could circumnavigate the wreckage but were soon pinned by enemy fire, and any vehicle larger than a motorbike struggled to get past the memory of my past mistakes in the form of those ruined tanks, nudging at their remains and barely making any progress, even as the turrets of the Russians locked into position for the kill.
That’s one dramatic example as to how Sudden Strike 4 tracks every element of the battlefield, and how each of those elements can have an impact on your tactical approach. Whether there’ll be similar situations in the rest of the twenty-plus missions that make up the three campaigns of the singleplayer game, it’s difficult to say. Developers Kite Games told me, in between my attempts to survive Stalingrad, that diversity of experience is an important aim in the design, so not every map will be a variation on the claustrophobic city streets that I found so effective.
Even when Sudden Strike is pitching an enormous number of tanks and infantry against one another, every unit has value. There is no base-building in the game, and no way to produce new units of any type. You work with what you’re given, treating every resource - whether human or machine - as an important asset rather than expendable. In many RTS games, even the mightiest units are sometimes used as ammunition rather than as weaponry, hurled in the direction of an opponent’s base or the bulk of their army and destroyed in the process of chipping away at a health bar.
Not so in this war. Here, the remnants of vehicles act as disruptive reminders of your losses. There are reinforcements during missions, but these are scripted, meaning that you know exactly what tools you have to complete the job, whether that be to reach a certain part of the map, defend a strategic asset or destroy enemy fortifications.
On a map like Stalingrad, which depicts a small corner of the city, in which the player (as an Axis commander) must clear the streets and two occupied factories, there’s a puzzle-like quality to proceedings. Two alternate routes toward the first objective provide various ways of dealing with a street that has been mined. Any vehicles rolling into the mines are likely to be disabled at best and completely destroyed at worst, but infantry can clear the area given time. Unfortunately, they’re unable to do that when under fire and the Soviet forces have the mined street covered.
It’s possible to attack the Soviets concealed behind the mined section by traversing some alleyways and side streets, but moving anything larger than a man through those narrow roads is all but impossible. Cue a few moments in which vehicles are left to idle while infantry squads clear buildings, make smart use of cover to advance, and use grenades to throw the Soviet defensive positions into disarray.
On my second playthrough, I accidentally sent a tank too far into the mines, crippling the machine and almost entirely blocking the road. Given the importance of each vehicle, I wasn’t willing to give the machine up as lost, despite its predicament. Even with its tracks damaged, the tank was still in fairly good shape. Sudden Strike 4 models armour on each side of a machine, to the extent that individual shells can be seen deflecting from strongly armoured sections, or punching through weakpoints.
My tank may not have been able to move, but it still provided excellent cover, absorbing machinegun fire, and allowing the infantry to move up behind and lob grenades. Both infantry and armour can be brought back into the fight, using medics or repair vehicles. The latter can even reactivate vehicles left abandoned on the battlefield. Repairing and resupplying are essential parts of combat flow. Rather than falling into patterns of building, expanding and striking, Sudden Strike 4 supports a loop of planning, attacking and then regrouping. It’s a rare RTS that supports tactical retreat rather than constant forward progression, but in Stalingrad at least I found it necessary to pull back and rethink on occasion.
Whether the tension between maintaining military resources and committing to battle will be maintained when the focus shifts to larger confrontations, it’s impossible to say. The Stalingrad level, as presented, is at the perfect scale for the kind of close quarters skirmishing that best demonstrates the details of the damage system and precise control. I cared about every unit and every click, even when the repeated reveal of new enemy groups just around the next corner became predictable before the mission was done.
I can’t say whether there’ll be enough variety in the final game to prevent every mission from feeling like a similarly tight but eventually predictable hybrid of tactical tension and puzzlebox, and it’s also hard to say whether the promised changes in scope and scale across the missions might be to the detriment of Stalingrad’s better qualities. Sudden Strike 4 is refreshing though; an RTS that treats units as precious resources, to be understood, protected, maintained and only sacrificed when the gains have been carefully calculated. I remember its predecessors fondly (the first two at least) but hadn’t realised how much a faithful sequel would stand out in 2016.
The brief time I’ve spent with it suggests that this is a faithful sequel, and while it doesn’t quite appear to have the mischievous intelligence of R.U.S.E. or the superb atmosphere of Company of Heroes, it’s a World War II game with something to offer that we haven’t seen in some time. Slow-paced, deliberate and focused real-time tactical combat, with hand-crafted battlefields that change subtly with every encounter. When one destroyed tank created a deadly traffic jam that saw my support units and armour alike queueing up to die, I felt entirely responsible. And more than a little tactically inept. When so many games allow for recovery from all but the most long-term blunders (or the poorest of foundations laid in the initial stages), I’m glad to play an RTS in which a single error of judgement or planning can lead to panic and a complete collapse.
That said, given that the Stalingrad map feels like a problem to be solved as much as a dynamic series of encounters, I'm not sure that twenty missions will provide a great deal of replayability. That's why I'll be interested to see how the new-to-the-series leader abilities come into play: specialising in either infantry, armour or support, those leaders provide bonuses in the form of new abilities to certain units. That should at least lead to new ways to progress and to find solutions to previously insurmountable problems along the way.
Sudden Strike 4 will be out in Spring 2017.