The second-sequel to the cult classic Soldiers: Heroes of World War II launched last week, and it looks like it's going to be one of those games that comes and goes without attracting a big audience. Which would be terrible shame. Like King's Bounty or Sins of a Solar Empire, this is a game that's pure PC - something only possible on this proud platform, but without being wilfully obtuse about it. Or at least that's the idea behind this freeform strategy/squad shooter/roleplaying game - allow me to judge whether it's the case or not...
I am a guerrilla haberdasher. In the midst of battle, as mortar bombs fall around me, as Panzers rumble ominously across the hillsides towards me, I have just one thing on my mind – what’s on my head. Tin helmet? Well, it’s okay, but... ooh! That hat’s got googles. Goggles! And it’s in khaki! Mine. Bullets zip past my ears as I rotate and zoom the camera to admire my newly-clad noggin. My poor soldier is probably going to die for this – but at least I’ll leave a beautiful corpse.
Stealing hats from corpses might seem entirely inappropriate to the spirit of this brutal, enormously challenging action-strategy game, but as well as revealing quite how sickeningly disrespectful I am to the trials of our forefathers, it’s also a deft statement of why Men at War is so spectacular. This is an organic strategy game, where others are artificial. In other words, everything you need is on the battlefield, as a pre-existent, genuine element rather than a magic power-up crate, a weapon upgrade that blinks into existence out of nowhere, or a capture point with an ethereal timer floating above it. If you want a hat, you take it from someone. The same goes for guns, ammo, grenades, health kits... All taken from the battlefield itself (usually from your enemies' cold, dead hands) and managed, stockpiled and replaced via a per-soldier inventory. Even reinforcements exist only if they visibly already exist in the level – if your team is low on men, borrow an extra pair of hands from a passing friendly squad.
There’s something startling complete about this approach. It’d be no surprise from a smaller-scale, more prescribed squad game – something like Commandos – but here it’s part of a vast, often free-form real-time strategy game. So Dawn of War II thought it was pairing strategy with roleplaying? Nah – it’s fun, but it’s so obviously compromised, so obviously mechanical. Men of War’s is a fully-functional world.
I am also a guerrilla mechanic. In keeping with an underlying ethos that nothing should be wasted, it’s often the case that a vehicle isn’t wiped out when it’s wiped out. Take a look – maybe it’s just its tracks, its engine or its turret that’s damage. Whip out the spanner, dodge the bullets and... there we go. Good as new, boss. At times, it’s a thrilling war movie moment – can you get ‘er up and running again before the enemy arrives? When you do, when you retreat your guys to safety or let loose that deadly turret just as a Nazi-filled APC screeches on the scene, it feels impossibly good: a thousand times more exciting and heroic than the blandly blank game name would ever have suggested.
This can even unexpectedly turn the tide of battle. A couple of times, I was all out of armour even as another wave of Germans approached. I reached to quit – and then I spotted the smouldering Panzer nearby. Dare I dream....? Yep – just a spot of track damage. The war’s back on, lads.
None of this is dry but invisible actions you only know are happening via blinking icons or scrolling text boxes. Again, this is a palpably alive world. True, the war-men’s faces may look cuboid and depressingly throwback if you zoom in close, but the beauty is in the animations – a vast, battle-torn world constantly spasming with tiny hints of life. It’s attention to detail in the broadest sense – exaggerations in the name of instantly-recognisable information. You know he’s fixing the tank because you can see him doing it. You know he’s in trouble because he’s lying on the ground with his hands over his head. You know he’s in real trouble because you see his helmet ping off his head. You know he’s going to be easy to sneak by because he’s sat down, staring at the floor. Dozens of tiny, characterful vignettes, and they’re all important information to boot. If you’re still in need of proof that World War II isn’t inherently a played-out theme, look no further. Men of War coolly proves there is still scope to do incredible things with the setting. Stealing hats, for instance.
None of this will come as much surprise to anyone who’s played forerunner games Soldiers: Heroes of World War II or Faces of War (the
Russian Ukranian devs ritually fail to give their games decent names, it seems), but this is certainly the slickest, strongest attempt at it yet. It’s not held back by Soldiers’ wantonly bizarre interface, nor does it have the stodginess of Faces of War. It’s modern, smart and explosive.
Unfortunately, there are some painfully rough edges. The voice-acting is flat-out disastrous, the cutscenes tedious and pointless. It’d be a better game without them: each level just opening up on another of the sprawling, astonishingly destructible battlefields with a message reading simply, “win.” It’s World War II. You know full well why you’re there. The AI, too, has some awful stumbles. Some lacklustre pathfinding can see your all-too-frail infantry charge into a pack of enemies rather than edge along the wall you were expecting him too.
The enemy are no better- when one of my tanks was confronted by a squad of riflemen who’d run out of anti-vehicle grenades, they clustered confusedly around it, vibrating slightly, seemingly aware they were supposed to do something but with no idea what. I felt a twinge of strange shame as I drove over the lot of the helpless goons. You’re not supposed to pity Nazis – but when they’re so dumb that they think they can defeat a tank by hugging it, it’s hard not to feel a little sorry for the goose-stepping cretins.
But these are teething problems, very likely patchable and never game-breaking. Perhaps a more serious impediment is that it’s a brutally hard game at times, require constant attention, reaction and awareness of what’s in your inventories as well as what’s in your line of sight. That’s why something like Dawn of War is so prescribed – the ancillary stuff is spoonfed to you so you can concentrate on simply fighting. This is vastly more satisfying, though – when you conquer a level, you know you’ve conquered so damned much, and genuinely triumphed against impossible odds. Again, it’s Hollyood war movie as war game, and yet retaining the traditional anonymity of strategy units rather than mawkishly heroising specific characters.
Right now, I’m dreaming of Dawn of War III. And all I want it to be is Men of War reskinned and with better voice-acting. This is a real war.
[Men Of War is out now. Demo here.]