If there's one game this year that the leader of the Autobots didn't expect to enjoy, then it was the next one you'll find behind today's door in the seasonally festive advent-o-calendar. He just loved it, and thanks to Hivemind's cheery commentary, you can learn to love it too.
Jim: While I have long been an advocate and disciple of the real-time strategy, I have seldom shown much love for a World War II setting. Countless excellent games have found themselves embedded in that noble conflict, but I've always looked elsewhere: to something more fantastical, to something with a little more imagination. I'd only really end up in the realms of the WWII game is the job demanded it, and that was the case with Men Of War. Fortunately, I'd already had a taste of this particular game. Having missed Soldiers: Heroes Of World War II entirely, my first encounter was with one of the developers at KRI in Moscow. Speaking through a translator, the weathered-looking producer told me all about how armour piercing rounds would shoot through a building, while high explosive rounds would detonate, and bring it down. The Russian PR man rolled his eyes, but it was pure gold. The demo had me entranced.
Six months later the game arrived in the UK and I was tasked with reviewing it for PC Gamer. There wasn't much excitement, until I showed the team the second level of the game, where a huge number of Russian troops must defend an evacuating factory from the inexorable German advance. At this point, seeing the astounding detail and effortless complexity of Best Way's battlefield strategy, people started to get hold of the game for themselves. The next day we had a co-op game at lunchtime.
It was classic Men of War: a battle to take a fortified hill that we'd then have to defend from the German counter-attack. Having seen most of our troops massacred by the defending Germans, we finally took the hill with a tank that we'd rescued from a nearby village, and patched up to fight another day. It was clear that our lone tank couldn't defend the hill on his own, so I took two of my men to crew an abandoned artillery piece further down the road. The grabbed a motorcycle and sidecar. I might not be on the hill, where my co-op chum was defending with the tank, but at least I'd offer fire-support. The Germans arrived before I got there, and a well-placed shell blasted the sidecar out from under them. Miraculously, they were not dead, and - under fire the whole time - the crawled the finally twenty meters to the gun, and begun firing back at the German column. I had become progressively more excited as they made their victory crawl until, finally, my arms were in the air, and I was screaming: "They're TINY FUCKING HEROES!" It was a scream I would utter several more times as the year went on.
Men Of War is probably my personal favourite game this year. There are better games in lots of wars - ambition, craft, art, originality - but this was the one that made me whoop with joy.
Alec: If it were just Jim and I chiselling the holy RPS games of 2009 list into the stone tablets of the internet, this’d be a strong contender for the Bestest Of Them All slot. The denizens of this electronic debating room would grumble and gasp, of course. This? It’s a dated-looking World War II strategy game, it can be infuriatingly brutal, and it’s by a developer most folk have never heard of. Oh, look how achingly arch and anti-mainstream we are.
Our love for MoW has nothing to do with that, and everything to do with this being the finest real-war RTS since Company of Heroes - and it’s a whole lot better than even that in a bunch of key ways. Tactics, variety, challenge, logic, destruction: it is strange and difficult king of all these things. But what really makes it is something that no-one else has really thought to do. It’s something I’m amazed has been so overlooked – all this frenzy to make singleplayer RTS relevant again by adding a cavalcade of experience points and unlocks, and it’s all missing the obvious, the one thing that could comfortably rescue any campaign from the formulaic doldrums.
RTS levels aren’t believable places. They’re not living worlds, full of people going about their business or actively sniffing around for trouble. They’re resource points and magic tank factories and glowing flags. You can’t lose yourself to the fantasy with all that crap on the screen. Men of War, though – that’s in a real place, a collection of huge, dense environments waiting to be destroyed, pillaged or snuck carefully through. Chaos theory governs it – a small misstep on your part leads to a breakneck sequence of guerrilla skirmishes, desperate hiding and feverish attempts to swipe scraps of ammo from dead men’s pockets before you’re caught in the headlights of a Panzer.
It’s never as simple, as obvious, as sterile as Go Here And Fight Until Someone’s Dead. It can never and will never play the same way twice – MoW is a series of war stories, played out organically, and with all the troughs of disaster and peaks of against-all-odds victories that this entails.
It’s a strategy game, but more importantly it’s a roleplaying game – putting you square in the boots of a few outnumbered, under-provided 1940s Allied soldiers. The land and its contents is all they have – and the source of far more meaningful interactions for these particular hero archetypes than any amount of dialogue options could ever be. It also has a fine selection of lootable hats, and there’s no more sure sign of a game being an RPG than that.