Men of War: The Verdict
Men of War: 91%.
Little men with guns
burning tank provides cover
tank explodes, they die.
Men of War is quite a good game and I think you should probably buy it.
No. Damn it.
Men of War is maddening.
Ah, yes. There. Got it.
It is immediately obvious the Men behind Men of War mean War. War against the Foundation, the Man, the basics you think hold true about all games. These metal-hatted men will rock your world (baby) if you let them, the only question is whether this rocking is more like the Beatles or the Vesuvius in AD 79.
Eh, really? No. Not really. Sadly it’s way more complicated, and attempting to avoid clichés about how hard this game is to write about is futile: man, this game really is bloody hard to talk about.
Madness, then. Very well. Shooting a tank shell through two open windows of a house without damaging the house but setting fire to the armored car behind it. Blowing the track off a tank driving over a bridge, causing it to plunge into the water, its occupants escaping, and then mowing them down with a burst of machine gun fire. Hiding a martyr you’ve stripped of all equipment but a handful of AT grenades in a few bushes where you can expect the enemy to advance and then letting him blow the turret off a heavy tank driving by. Immobilizing a lone tank, ultimately capturing it and using it as a gun turret. Driving your tank through the wall of a building, taking a few shots at the surprised defenders and then retreating through the hole you came from. Attempting desperately to cripple an enemy tank with your small-caliber gun while it slowly turns its turret towards your position. Launching hysterical human wave attacks at a nearly unreachable enemy trench. These are all unscripted events and happen by the dozens in each mission. And they’re every bit as dramatic as described, if not more so. Mad? So yes.
What soon emerges from behind the admittedly lame title and extremely generic box art is something I can pretty much guarantee will blow your… hat off. Possibly your socks too, but that’s not the point. Let me explain.
To put it quite bluntly, the developer Best Way/Digitalmindsoft (the developers of this thing) have created battlefields, whereas all other games so far have created aspects of them. The battlefields feel complete, with virtually everything you’d expect from a real one. Indeed, you can just play this by using common sense, not figuring out what it is the game now expects of you. So what have they done to make it feel so (and I don’t use the word lightly) real? Well, firstly they’ve managed to create a rather intelligent AI. The thing is that they’re quite able to run to a position where they feel they’d get a better shot at the enemy – or would be better protected from them. And instead of then staying in that spot, they scan the battlefield and make decisions what to do next; in theory it’s possible to win a few missions by just leaving your men (of War) alone. Yes, they do occasionally run across fields guarded by very obvious machine gun nests. They do indeed sometimes run directly towards enemy tanks. But if you think such an outcome may be likely, you can just tell them to stop. And it works, too (unlike in an AAA game we’re reviewing quite soon, cough-cough). Or take direct control over them, another groundbreaking concept I’ll come to in a few moments. What the AI achieves though is the feeling that there’s constantly something going on, someone being pinned behind what was once an aircraft, launched in the air by an 88mm shell doing its job… and when those men (of War) happen to be yours, you’ll actually feel something – sadness it’s not, but guilt is a good bet. While you were fiddling around another area of the battlefield, possibly scavenging for molotov cocktails, one of your men (of War) got ended. It would have been easy to prevent, but now it’s too late, and his body’s going to stay right there until the end of the battle. Of course, this is less of a “problem” when the amount of troops nears a thousand on each side, but allowing your men (of War) to be fired upon is not something you’re likely to allow for a long while.
Nearing my promised point now.
Then there’s the physical battlefield itself, which you can merrily take apart, piece by piece. And “destructible environments” is not just another marketing buzzword – this time it’s real. You bear witness to how slowly but surely an industrial complex is turned from a perfectly ordinary gray neighborhood to something you’ve seen on pictures from Verdun in 1916. House in the way of your mighty tank? Plow through it, leaving a satisfying tank-shaped hole. House in the way of your not-so-mighty tank? Okay, you may need to drive around, but cutting corners is still an option. And when things finally do get blown completely apart, they don’t usually just disappear: pieces of flying houses, tank turrets, gun barrels, fan-hitting shit and whatnot are sent flying, gravity eventually reconquers them, they fall to the ground and stay there – sadly, often without the “satisfying thump” you probably hoped to see after those lines. Sound is something that’s often lacking in the game, and I have a hunch much of it is due to bugs, not that they forgot about them. Be prepared to imagine colossal silencers in front of naval guns though.
Right, so we’ve established that when men (of War) die, they don’t go anywhere. They’re not just morbid eye candy from that point though: instead they are now quite handy as ammo stockpiles!
Ah. See, they’ve incorporated inventory management into the game. And not just generally: every single unit has its own manageable inventory, which houses everything he’s carrying, be that an MG-34, tens of clips for your Lee-Enfield or a hatchet you picked up beside a campfire. Obviously, vehicles have their own, separate inventories. Everyone can exchange objects, and while you don’t necessarily have to indulge yourself in this kind of incredibly detailed micromanagement (Dungeons & Dragons, but your party size is 1000?), it certainly helps at times. Fortunately it’s been made as simple as possible and everyone can use everything, although some men (of War) use some things more efficiently (which is clearly indicated and easy to work out.) What all this signifies however is that the ammunition everyone carries is finite and needs to be replenished at one point. Vehicles can scavenge other vehicles for similar kinds of ammo (75mm and 76mm rounds aren’t interchangeable, for example), and every once in a while you’ll find a stockpile with crates filled with ammo and weapons for either vehicles or infantry (of W… oops, never mind).
My long-awaited point? The men (of War) have helmets and hats. This apparently being a warzone, you can shoot the owner of said hat. Alternatively you can shoot at the hat so it flies off and lands nearby. And so there you have it. The most crucial fact you need to know about Men of War is that you can take your fallen enemies’ hats.
After all that, you’d expect me to have explained all of the cardinally different mechanics that you’ll experience in a genre (but let me remind you that technically, this is Real-Time Tactics, not Strategy, even though most of the times the two genres share traits) you thought you were familiar with, right? Wrong. There’s still a number (incredibly dynamic and quite realistic vehicle damage, ballistics with detail you can’t imagine, the scarily unconventional yet quite functional control scheme, the occasionally annoying but mostly fairly good soundtrack and of course the graphics), but I’ll only pause on one of them: direct control. This has apparently been present in the previous games of the series (Soldiers: Heroes of World War II and Faces of War), but as I’ve not played those, it came as a surprise at how well it played. See, while the bulk of the game is spent issuing orders like in any other RTT game, you can assume direct control over an unit, be it a stationary gun, tank or infantry unit. This way you can conduct precision attacks when needed, carefully sneak behind an enemy before opening fire, throw an AT grenade to the path of a vehicle… it’s really very useful, not just a gimmick. Apparently the people behind the mother of all WWII RTS’s/RTT’s (Company of Heroes, you weird hermit) have realised this, and their next release – Tales of Valor – will incorporate direct control. Blatantly stealing ideas? Maybe, but I trust that they’ll put it to at least as good use as Best Way and Digitalmindsoft have.
As we now have most of the specifics out of the way, let’s see how all has been put together to create campaigns. As it turns out, despite the shockingly bad voice acting that throws you off the tracks when you first start the first, Soviet campaign, the missions are actually really bloody spectacular. Old ideas are rarely reused from previous missions, and even the story doesn’t turn out to be as bad as expected: it manages to connect the successive missions reasonably well, whilst not being overly obnoxious.
One thing that Best Way and Digitalmindsoft have clearly miscalculated is the skill of players. Even playing on the Easy setting was certainly the most demanding thing I’ve played in the past few years. Normal is pretty much impossible and Hard… well, let me remind you of the film again. Feeling like that guy? You’ll still get raped.
But getting raped is fun! Seeing how you’re being destroyed on one flank, then allocating some of your reserves to that position, only to be destroyed at a completely different spot is all very exciting. The chance that you’ll still find a spot where you can break through, isolate the enemy and then counterattack never leaves the table, and I’ve had the most spectacular close calls of any game I’ve ever played in some of the missions.
Of course, while I’d love to say this is always the case, it certainly isn’t with some of the missions – and even if the best do keep you amused for upwards of twenty retries, this “upwards of twenty” still doesn’t mean “indefinitely” (the Commandosesque stealth missions, while not bad at all, are not that interesting to retry again and again). What’s even more sad about these encounters is that many are actually perfectly solvable, but it’s easy to overlook a specific tactic or game mechanic that you should use but haven’t. Thus, what it ultimately comes down to in such cases is the game developer expecting you to take something for granted, while you’re not even aware such a possibility exists. It’s definitely sad when it happens, because when you finally figure it out, and even if the outcome is spectacular and the solution obvious in hindsight, it’s really hard to appreciate it when you’ve been exhausted this thoroughly. Aye, with its complexity, it’s inevitably exhausting, but it’s much more than you’d expect. After a one hour-long battle, I just stumbled off the chair, backwards onto the bed and stayed there for a rather long while, far from sleeping.
Thus, frustration can and will occasionally seep in. I fully expect many of you to Alt-F4 out in anger several times, only to return in some time with a new hunch, a possible way to solve a problem – when you then inevitably do solve them (it’s hard not to come back even after countless defeats), at least you’ll experience some relief. Get used to this: even if you’re far from being defeated, you can never bet the tide doesn’t turn. War’s war. The game doesn’t even necessarily attempt to convey the usual “War is Hell” obviousness, but independently of that, it can certainly say “You’re in Hell” from time to time.
After you’ve lead the Bolsheviks to the heart of Germany, you can pay yourself (you bastard you) back by playing the German campaign. There’s an Allied campaign and also a handful of un-campaignified “bonus missions” (most of which you still need to unlock by playing the previous mission). Then what? Sadly, not much. While some of the missions really are so bloody impressive it’s likely that you’ll never tire of attempting to achieve a victory by applying a new tactic you’ve constructed in your head (usually insane, unsuccessful, other derogatory words. The included and fully functional co-op mode should help in that respect), the obvious next destination for a hermit like me is the skirmish mode. Which is very much missing in action. I was so confused by the decision not to let you play against the AI in the existing multiplayer mode that I explored the menus for a good fifteen minutes before arriving at the shocking truth.
Holy shit. No skirmish mode. This is at present the one great failure of the game. Although you can get online using the (predictably) GameSpy-powered service and also play LAN games with your chums, the urge to just fuck about with the physics and simulation engines by yourself is really, really strong. This is all before mentioning that the arsenal of war machines in multiplayer is actually larger than in the campaigns. Yet currently the only two ways you can do and try all of that is either by entering multiplayer alone and shooting at your own little men (of War) or having an extremely patient friend. Coma could be put to great use.
Multiplayer itself is certainly unusual, but was reasonable amounts of fun for the brief periods I tried it. There are all kinds of unusual game modes, most of them are tied to a “reinforcement currency” that oddly doesn’t seem to work correctly if I’m not misinterpreting the menu and other indicators. Nevertheless, it’s playable. The maps are really meant for four players and up though, and feel a bit empty with just two people. It’s certainly different than what you’ll experience in the campaigns and worth trying out at least once.
We’re nearing the end, and as I wish to finish on a good thought, let me get the following annoyance out of the way.
Publishers, damn it, stop using disk checks. Everyone’s connected to the internet and what you’re doing is not going to make you sell more games. I was positively amazed by seeing the check prompt, as I don’t usually deal with disks. It feels like technology from the nineties. And damn it, it didn’t stop people pirating the game then either. Just cut it out.
Okay, but let’s now set everything I’ve said here aside for a second (Ha! There went your precious five minutes!). With all its (nearly indescribable) complexity, flaws and amazing features, the game does have one thing that makes it massively easier if you’re still unsure whether or not to buy it, and it’s called a “demo.” Apparently these things have caught on in the past twenty years, and it’s a rather nifty concept: they let you play a small portion of the full game for free!
What I’m trying to say (communication with people is hard!) is that if you’ve tried the demo (it’s just a meager 250 megabytes or so, you don’t have much to lose) and enjoy it at all, the likelihood of you not enjoying the full version is, I believe, very low. The first mission from the full game offered in the demo is a good representation (and a relatively good introduction) of what you’ll be doing in the rest of the missions… yet often in an entirely different way.
And even that’s not really important.
If you kill someone, you can take his hat.
You’ll enjoy the game even when you’re gnawing on its most frustrating parts. And when I say “you”, I mean you, because I really, honestly don’t see how anyone who liked the demo at all could regret buying this game.