The Games of 2011 – ‘Men of War: Assault Squad’

So right off the bat Men of War: Assault Squad is going to win the apparently highly coveted award for MOST GENERIC NAME IN VIDEOGAMES 2011. I say ‘highly coveted’ because videogame developers/publishers can’t seem to get enough of this shit – Gears of War, Medal of Honour, Warcraft, World of Warcraft, Call of Duty, Killzone, Bodycount, The Shoot, and so on. There is no one more prone to this amazing literal-mindedness than 1C Company, the Russian publisher behind, among others, Soldiers: Heroes of World War II, Fantasy Wars, Faces of War, and the Men of War series. Faces of War, for crying out loud. At this point they could release a game called Battles of War, or Guns of Combat, and I wouldn’t bat an eyelid.

Anyway, despite the uninspired name Men of War: Assault Squad, developed by Digitalmindsoft, is actually a frightfully intelligent, inspired effort. And it’s hard as nails -harder than that, even. After tens of hours grappling with this real-time strategy game I could barely force myself to edge the difficulty level up from ‘Easy’ to ‘Normal’. And when I did I was met by a sarcastic slow handclap and a world of pain.

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In Men of War: Assault Squad we revisit familiar videogame territory – the Second World War. As the player, you’re given a top-down view of a battlefield and the ability to generally tell people what to do. Across the battlefield are control points, and it’s your job to tussle with the enemy AI to capture and hold them. Each control point gives you a steady stream of revenue that you can use to call in various reinforcements from behind the front lines, and throughout each level you make decisions about which units to field, where to send each of them, and what to have them do when they get there. The enemy is doing the same, and will fight tooth and nail to take back any control points you capture. They don’t always need an excuse to do you some harm, however.

This isn’t particularly original fare for real-time strategy games, though. What’s special about the Men of War series is the level of control you have over your army. When you put a squad of infantrymen into battle you can order each man around independently, telling the medic to go help another squad, telling your machine-gunner to set up shop behind a sandbag and protect a control point, and so on. Each soldier or vehicle also has a full inventory with ammunition, health kits, and other equipment, and by using the items each unit holds you can do things like swapping weapons between your soldiers, scavenging equipment from dead enemies, or using a repair kit to fix the broken treads of a disabled tank, sending it back into action.

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And the complexity expands – there are numerous different kind of every unit-type, each with different uses and weaknesses. And each of the five factions (Russia, Germany, USA, the Commonwealth, and Japan) has different units from the others. So while American anti-tank infantry will fire a powerful rocket, the Commonwealth counterpart carries a significantly harder to use anti-tank rifle, that has to be lined up perfectly to be of use against all but the lightest armour.

Fortunately, you have the ability to take direct control of any unit on the battlefield at any time. So while you hope that your defences on another front hold you can take control of a tank and drive it deep into enemy territory, ducking behind buildings to avoid enemy artillery fire and peeking out at just the right time to hit them when they’re reloading. It’s intensely satisfying when you throw a grenade into an enemy trench at exactly the right moment, and it’s hard not to be just a little bit amused when your expertly-thrown grenade collides with a tree branch and falls at your soldier’s feet before he has the chance to run for his life.

Units fire and return fire without your input, but otherwise they need direction – you’ll need to order them into cover and make sure they aren’t flanked or faced by overwhelming force if you want them to survive. And since the battlefield is so large you’ll be fighting on multiple fronts. So you’ll have to move back and forth across the map to ensure everything’s going as planned.

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The AI is particularly impressive, and though you’ll be alternately quietly seething and loudly calling it out as a cheater to no one in particular, it never really seems unfair. Sure, it has the advantage of being able to make calculations far better than most humans, but it never seems to cheat – it’s given the same information you have, and it acts exactly as you would act if your brain had about a hundred times more computational power. And let’s not even talk about the harder difficulty modes. On those levels you’re basically running up against a brick wall, except the brick wall is smarter than you by  orders of magnitude.

It’s a hugely complex game – overwhelmingly even. Jumping into this game with little to no experience with similar war games led me into a huge struggle to understand exactly what does what, what is useful against what, what this button does when you press, and just what the hell is actually going on at any one time. It’s not intuitive, but with so many controls and tactical options – explosive or anti-tank shells, crawling or running, machine gun emplacement or anti-tank artillery- it’s almost impossible for it to be intuitive. And it’s never going to hold your hand fully: while there are small-scale prologue missions that teach you the basics, after that you’re thrown into a warzone with countless possibilities and countless pressing concerns, and it’s really up to you to figure it out.

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And it’s probably one of the hardest games I’ve ever played, to the point where I imagine many people won’t have the patience to keep going after a few tries. But the difficulty isn’t even really in placing your troops and outsmarting the opponents, since if you focus on one part of the battlefield you can steamroll the enemy and capture control points with relative ease, at least on Easy and Normal mode. The real difficulty is in keeping track of the bigger picture. You need to think about what is going on at all parts of the battlefield at once, and you need to constantly respond to the enemy’s actions across the entire map. I can’t count the number of times I’ve moved my attention away to one side of the map in order to confidently advance troops only to come back to another front to find all my soldiers shot to pieces.

It can be frustrating at times, partly because it often just seems impossible to keep track of everything relevant all at once – if you focus on one front the other might suffer, if you focus on directing your reinforcements to the front lines your enemies will start to notice how enticing you front forward troops look. But that all-encompassing responsibility, and the vast scale of detail and complexity, leads to grand things once you’ve got your head around the way the game works. Grand things like intense encounters in which you succeed gloriously or fail embarrassingly because of overarching strategies and split-second decisions.

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There are countless little stories I could tell about my time with Men of War: Assault Squad. The time I spent ten minutes sneaking a squad of men behind enemy lines, where I eventually got them to commandeer tanks and decimate the enemy’s undefended artillery. The time a single surviving soldier held out, completely without my intervention, against advancing enemy tanks by hiding in a trench and throwing molotov cocktails at their engines. The first time I called in the Russian army’s special power, which flooded the map with hundreds of poorly equipped conscripts.

Sometimes, what with the huge scale of the battles, the game can become a bit too big for its own good. You sometimes find yourself facing a functional stalemate for tens of minutes with the enemy, and towards the end of a big game the process of slowly tipping the battle in your favour and then meticulously mopping up enemy forces can often be more of a grind than anything. But when it all works it’s a beautiful sight, and when it all blows up in your face it’s satisfying in its own strange way. Whether you’re taking out a heavy beast of a tank with a single canny rifleman, or seeing a whole squad of your advancing soldiers mowed down by a gun emplacement hidden behind a tree, it’s all endlessly, endlessly compelling.

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And with several (purchasable) mini-expansion packs you can now enter into different kinds of battles. Instead of attempting to advance across a sprawling, pockmarked battlefield you’re tasked with setting up a running defence of a fixed location while overwhelming enemy forces stream towards you. I haven’t tried that out too much yet, but  it’s entertaining as hell so far. So excuse me while I don my incompetent general’s hat and try not to set fire to my own troops.

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