Games based in and around World War II, with varying degrees of historic authenticity, were all the rage a few years ago. Today, themes of modern conflicts and settings have replaced the wars of old, with most popular titles favouring the Middle East over Eastern Europe. Thankfully, for the history hungry bedroom warlords out there, we've seen some high quality World War II titles like the Company of Heroes series, as well as more recent release R.U.S.E. Those following releases closely will also remember the 2009 title Men of War, a critically praised strategy title by Ukrainian developer Best Way that emphasised deep micromanagement of units above all.
In order to expand the content of the original Men of War, collaborative developer DigitalMindSoft has put together a stand-alone expansion pack of sorts. Men of War: Assault Squad offers new maps, new missions, and an extended focus on mutliplayer. While this might all sound good, and for most part actually is (as we will explain shortly), our initial impressions of Assault Squad were far from impressive.
As all PC gamers will attest, sometimes the platform can be a fickle beast. Tinkering and tweaking settings might seem intimidating to some, yet to others it's half the fun. But there's a line, where tinkering becomes repair of broken content. Unfortunately for us, Assault Squad features just that. Using the dreaded SecuROM digital rights management, we found the built in internet activation impossible to execute. A quick Google of the problem found that not only where many others suffering the same problem, but that the official forums has a stickied thread detailing the solution; download and run a DLL from a third party source. Stamp of approval from the developers or not, shipping a game with broken activation is unacceptable, and bound to catch many gamers off guard.
While we did manage to get the game running via the above fix, we also discovered an alternative that makes the whole installation process much easier; Assault Squad supports Steam. Entering the included GameSpy key into Steam will activate the title and download the entire game contents, just as if you had purchased it from the Steam store. Unfortunately both the casing and the game manual make no mention of Steam, and without reading an off-hand forum post we would have never known.
So, for those out there planning to purchase Assault Squad, please take note of the above. Standard activation is clumsy and unacceptable, while the unmentioned Steam support improves installation dramatically. If bandwidth limits are not an issue, we advise gamers to chose the latter option.
With the technical hurdles beneath us (well, mostly, as you'll soon find out), we finally had a chance to dig into the content on offer, which is split between a single player focused skirmish mode and a rather plentiful selection of online options, the latter of which is hardly surprising. As we mentioned previously, Assault Squad is predominantly an online focused game, though the core game mechanics are shared between both solo and multiplayer modes.
Mechanically, Assault Squad functions very similarly to the original Men of War, and that means it essentially redefines the term 'micromanagement'. This is not a strategy game built for generals who want to build cities, control colossal armies, and smash thousands of units together in battle. No, Assault Squad is all about the little details. Managing units requires awareness of their line of sight, friendly fire, surrounding terrain, and even their inventory, with players given the option of swapping in and out equipment found on the battlefield, as well as keeping track of ammunition, and that's just for infantry. Vehicles require management of fuel, while tanks are built on a completely separate damage system, which abandon universal 'health bars' in favour of mechanical damage that allows specific parts and functions to be destroyed.
Micromanagement extends even further with the 'direct control' feature, which was also present in Men of War. Direct control doesn't just mean taking control of an individual unit, is means directly controlling every action they make, mapping movement to keys rather than the mouse, and allowing players to aim and shoot with absolute precision and control. While this mode can be a little clumsy to control, mixing 'third person' style movement and shooting while still having to operate the game's camera via traditional RTS means, it quite literally changes the way the game is played, offering a degree of strategic precision and controlled unseen in most RTS games.
This focus on high level control is both a blessing and a curse. On one hand there are few games that offer such an unparalleled level of precision and depth than Assault Squad. Yes, that includes other heavy hitting micromanaging titles like StarCraft 2. Emphasising so many intricacies of unit movement and management really accentuates the definition of 'strategy'. Truly this is what defines a strategy title, as every movement must be made with planning and care, and up-most attention must be paid to all information, both literally and in the form of your surroundings and game world.
However, this depth comes at a cost, and it is unsurprising to see the aforementioned details heavily impact the learning curve. At times, Assault Squad is an extraordinarily difficult game to master, and it doesn't help that neither the single player nor the multiplayer are designed to ease players into the mechanics. Though the single player does feature some tutorial-esque messages to instruct the player on control and details, they fail to truly involve the player in the game's tighter play requirements.
Thankfully, when mastered and understood, Assault Squad comes into its own, and it's easy to understand why the learning curve is so steep. Unit management, damage values, and the depth to strategy might be complicated, but it's also very well balanced, encouraging high level play over cheap rush tactics or exploitation of power units.
As we mentioned, the playable content is split between single and multiplayer. Sadly, the former is somewhat of a throw away feature. Though not without engaging tactical battles, all of which take place across historic WW2 battles like Iwo Jima and The Battle of the Bulge, and allowing the player to see conflict from five different nations, the sub-par length of the campaign coupled with its rather mundane pacing results in a feeling of emptiness. Impressions that single player content was perhaps an afterthought are encouraged by the revelation that the entire campaign can be played as multiplayer co-op. Splitting control of units with a friend, it is clear that this is how the campaign was meant to be played. Juggling tactics and unit control, and plotting together to execute the perfect strategy, significantly increases the level of enjoyment and challenge, and is without a doubt the best way to experience the campaign.
Accompanying the co-operative campaign missions is a sizable selection of competitive multiplayer modes, which function as one would expect, allowing players to pit their tactical brilliance (or hilarious failures) against leaders from around the world. Though plenty of defaulting and match making options make for entering a game quick and painless, several deeper customisation tweaks allow for more specific battles, limiting unit types and levels of realism.
Though unlikely to grow to the size of bigger name strategy titles, we found the Assault Squad community quite large, and had no trouble finding games. The niche quality of the titles likely attracts a very specific type of player unable to get this particular fix elsewhere, and so we expect the community to remain supportive for quite a long time, just as it has with the previous Men of War title.
On the presentation front-lines Assault Squad neither overwhelming impresses nor disappoints. Characters and environments are detailed appropriately for a game of its type, budget constraints considered, and the combination of colour tones and sounds manages to capture an authentic World War II vibe. The emphasis on realism has lead to convincing animations and some impressive special effects, including building deformation from explosions, such as fired tank rounds, which itself plays an important part in the game's tactical edge.
Unfortunately attempts to max out the graphical options lead to an obscure roadblock; the water ripple effect. Despite being able to comfortably maximize all graphical features, enabling the water ripple render effect flat out broke water rendering entirely, displacing reflections in an unattractive and buggy way, while removing the animated water texture entirely. Searching the internet high and low, we were unable to find a solution to this problem, and while it is possible that the issue was caused by our test machine, we have not had issues with any other games. Because of this, we were forced to turn the effect off for the entirety of our play.
Rendering bug aside, Assault Squad's presentation can be simply defined as serviceable. It won't blow your socks off, but it convincingly captures the art and feel of the title, peaking with impressive special effects and an attention to historic detail.
When all is said and done, the appeal of Assault Squad rests entirely on the type of strategy gameplay it presents and the patience of those playing. As we have detailed, Assault Squad is not a friendly game. It's hard as nails, both mechanically and to learn, and is often unforgiving in its depth. However, there is no superficial depth here, and Assault Squad offers genuinely thought provoking and intensely tactical gameplay that helps establish itself as a unique title on the market, even if this comes at the cost of failing to hook the masses.
For these reasons, Assault Squad will likely appeal most to huge fans of Men of War. It is, after all, a stand-alone expansion pack and extension of the formula. It retreads much of the groundwork of the original game, choosing to expand the multiplayer portion over truly revolutionising or overhauling the already impressive mechanics. This is presented as online Men of War, and that is exactly what you'll get.