In between leaving pumpkins uncarved and scary masks unworn, I have been playing 1c's new RTS, Men Of War: Red Tide. The standalone expansion features twenty-three new missions with naval bent, and a small museum of new units. But is it any good? Here's Wot I Think.
Men Of War is beginning to look like my game of the year. Nothing else has kept me coming back, nor experiencing that nagging "brain-still-quietly-working-on-it" feeling you get from the finest gaming obsessions. The messy ultra-functionality of a game that models environmental destruction so meticulously, and throws out missions like handmade cryptic death-puzzles, is somehow an inevitable subject of admiration for the Rossignol brain. Defeating the enemy with a stolen howitzer is my kind of emergent entertainment. Not that this expandalone really changes that sentiment one way or another, because many of the faults of the original repeated here, and much of the new content isn't worth getting excited about, as I'll explain in a moment.
Red Tide returns to familiar territory, that being a take on the complex Eastern front campaigns throughout the war. With the naval focus you can expect plenty of coastal skirmishes around war-ravaged cities such as Sevastopol. In fact much of the campaign is given over the exploits of the Black Coats, Russian marines operating in the Black Sea theatres. That means boats. The boats are, sadly, a little choppy. Some of the larger scale stuff, such as when boats come in off a coast to add fire support, is well done. But actually moving dingys and motorboats around to navigate the mpa coastlines is decidedly clumsy. You have to click several times to get all the soldiers off a boat, and then they'll probably jump into the water and paddle around for a bit before they actually make it onto land, possibly getting shot in the process. It's occasionally infuriating.
Additionally, I feel as if path-finding isn't quite as good in this game as it had been in Men Of War. It's exacerbated enormously by the problems with the boats, so much so that I went back and played the original to check. Of course it's exactly the same engine, and so the same glitchiness is still there: men retracing their steps before actually setting off in the direction you've pointed them in. Nevertheless it does seem more prevalent in Red Tide. Perhaps that's because of the boats, or because of the amount of focus on small unit action, where you're focusing on the exploits of just a few men. The up-scale enormo-battles are here, but I they're not quite as regular as in the original.
That's not to say there aren't some sweet engagements. Storming a pier at night is brilliantly done, and another brief defensive mission lasts mere minutes, but is ludicrously intense. The stuff that makes Men Of War so brutal and fulfilling remains, and I found myself yodelling with horror as my tiny heroes were gunned down by yet another poorly conceived assault.
The unbelievable difficulty of some of the levels will put some folks off. The second level is a ludicrous epic that unfolds in three stages. The first stage sees eight marines capture an officer protected by dozens of Romanian troops and armoured vehicles. The second stage sees the same handful take out a tank-escorted convoy, and finally you have to escape the village, avoiding a heavily armed base, a tank patrol, and a minefield. I was screaming in the RPS chatroom, so indignant was I at the challenge laid before on the second level of the game. The satisfaction from beating it was overwhelming. Ultimately though I felt let down, because it was unfair level design in which it was impossible to bodge the execution. I had to have played and failed, and already known the sequence of events if I was to have a chance of getting through. Quicksave clairvoyance always bugs me, and this is an ugly case of it. No matter the absurd escalation at the end.
Once again Red Tide reflects Best Way's peculiar approach to their campaigns, which I think might have come about thanks to the way Men Of War, as a repurposed chunk of Faces Of War, was itself basically an expandalone release. The second level of that game, you may recall, was similarly out of pace: a vast defence of a trainyard that ticked towards your inexorable defeat over a huge chunk of time. It seemed somehow inappropriate, but was nevertheless brilliant, and its these moments of brilliance - the times when the level designers really demonstrate how a single level can balloon outward from a single man to an entire battlefront, that keep me fixated, fascinated and engaged with the game. They're here in Red Tide, of course, along with all the historical detail that makes the game so appealing for those gamers who want to play a World War II game that doesn't involve anything to do with Normandy or the Battle Of Britain.
And of course that means this is very much more Men of War for the existing adherents, and is unlikely to win any newcomers over to the cult. It's understandable that many folks have ignored this, a World War II real-time strategy, but I cannot stress how much its creaky complexity as won me over in 2009. If you've not take a look at it yet then at least play the demo of the original game, and then consider that it hardly touches on what the game has to offer. Of course, if like me you're already transfixed by the complex quasi-simulated battlefields of the original then you're probably already on course to buy this.
One peculiar observation to finish: the one thing they've "fixed" is the voice acting. Instead of being enthusiastically spluttered by a faltering amateur the vocals are now supplied professional American voice actors. That's certainly a more professional finish, but the Americanised delivery of dialogue uttered by hardened Black Sea officers doesn't sit quite right. It also seems like a peculiar thing to have fixed.