War doesn't kill people. Nick Horth's command incompetence does
Men of War: Assault Squad 2 is the sequel to a stand-alone expansion in the real-time strategy series that began with the original Men of War back in 2009, and seems increasingly determined to make its own chronology as baffling as possible. It gives you command, direct and total command, over various land forces from the major powers of World War II, then breaks them in two and makes you fix them back up.
Forget everything you think you know about tanks being invincible metal boxes shrugging off round after round of bazooka fire. Men of War's vehicles are a precious, delicate breed, vulnerable to everything up to and including cannon rounds, enemy armour, sticky bombs and Russian soldiers throwing frozen potatoes. I lost count of the number of times I roared confidently into enemy territory with a heavy tank only for a lucky shot to knock my tracks out, at which point said enemy would take turns using my stationary hide as target practice. Your troops will die in Men of War and even your heaviest armoured vehicles will come apart like wet tissue paper. Often.
Nice screenshot, Men of War, but I'd like to see you line those tanks up in-game without getting their metal backsides all blown up
The ultra-detailed damage system might occasionally frustrate, but its also the source of a lot of the good things about Men of War's combat. Combined with the series' staple direct control feature, which allows you to zoom in and take manual command of any unit on the field, it makes for dynamic and exciting battles. Grabbing control of an anti-tank gun during a pitched fire-fight and sending a round straight through an oncoming tank's armour plating to detonate it in a satisfying fireball is always a good time. Talking of explosions, the environment in Men of War is almost entirely destructible, which, quite apart from looking pretty bloody sexy, leads to some interesting tactical options – carving a path through a village for your footsoldiers by smashing through it with your tanks, for example.
This is all part of the series' creditable and ongoing focus on realism and hardcore startegy, which stretches to providing each and every soldier on the battlefield with their own inventory and equipment. This is both a good and a bad thing. Scavenging high-explosive rounds from a destroyed enemy tank to load into your empty artillery battery is satisfying. Making sure your troops always have enough ammunition? Not so much.
In the middle of a protracted siege, the last thing you want to have to do is start rationing out ammunition between your footsoldiers. Combined with the constant need to repair damaged vehicles and rebuild emplacements, the added hassle of having to distribute ammo makes lengthy missions feel very fiddly and cumbersome. You constantly feel like you're spinning plates, always slightly distracted from your grand tactical manoeuvres because Z troop have run out of grenades and oh look, your Tiger tank's cannon just fell off. In fact I took a novel approach to resupply, simply because I couldn't be bothered with the excessive micromanagement. Fired all your ammo, soldier? Right-o, just charge across open ground towards that machine-gun nest and I'll order in some more troops to take your place, that's a good lad.
There's an appearance from every major army involved in the war, which means there's plenty of different environments to battle across. Here's the sunny Pacific
This fractured, messy, costly skirmish governed more by efficient logistical supply than tactical genius is, of course, almost certainly more true to the reality of conflict than tank-rushing and spamming special unit abilities. The sheer scale of it, the fact that every shot fired by every trooper is accounted for, is an impressive feat. Still, Men of War too often gets bogged down by these well-intentioned but cumbersome systems. An option to auto-resupply ammo from the nearest source would not have been a difficult addition, and would have improved the pacing of the game's bigger battles no end.
Rather than a narrative campaign, the singleplayer options in Men of War are a series of unconnected skirmish missions, though for some reason you still have to complete each of them in turn. The five armies (USA, Commonwealth, Germany, Japan and Russia) have their own set of missions to complete, and by and large they're quite entertaining. Though there's far too much recycling of a few core concepts – base defense, single squad stealth missions and slow battles of attrition up a narrow corridor – they do largely let you handle things your own way, which is a nice change of pace from the typical hand-holding RTS campaigns suffer from.
Requisition points are earned from completing certain objectives, then used to buy pretty much whichever units you like the sound of. It's a great feature that encourages the use of whatever style of play you prefer. Personally I recommend massive bastard tanks and as many mortars and artillery units as you can grab hold of, but there's a place here for every unit, and none feel superfluous once you realise what their function is. Okay, time for another quick gripe. I love this unit purchasing system, but please Men of War, tell me what the hell I'm buying. It took me hours to finally learn the difference between a Chi-Ha model 1 and a model 2, and I'm still not sure what the Anzacs give me that regular troops don't, besides an awesome hat (reason enough?).
As much fun as the core combat is, enemy AI is unfortunately rather unpredictable, and not in a good way. Sometimes it will launch a blistering assault on your weakened flank, other times it will leave huge swathes of infantry and vehicles sat there in the open while you shell them to pieces. The computer makes up for this deficiency by spawning hundred of units, which lessens the effects of tactical mistakes, but feels a little cheap.
Tank armour and damage is modelled realistically, which means you'll have to sneak up behind the super-heavies like this Tiger to do optimum damage
Despite the occasional AI screw-up, singleplayer is largely enjoyable, and thanks to the tonne of skirmish maps available it should keep you occupied a good while. If you really want to experience the best of Men of War though, you should head over to multiplayer. Playing human enemies largely eliminates the feeling of constantly being swarmed, and allows for a more tactical, measured game. That's not to say you won't get blitzkrieged off the map in short order, but at least you know the other guy is playing under the same limitations that you are. 8v8 multiplayer is the main new addition here, and it's just as chaotic, spectacular and unpredictable as you would hope.
MEN OF WAR: ASSAULT SQUAD 2 VERDICT
Men of War: Assault Squad 2 won’t be for everyone, but there’s something endearing and impressive about its utter lack of concern for your well-being. It’s not a perfect game, and indeed can often be a frustrating one. While it throws off the unwanted shackles of unit trees and resource management, it introduces its own clunky sub-systems that take almost as much time to master. The interface could do with tidying up, and the AI is occasionally dunderheaded. Not without flaws then, but it’s a game still capable of providing you with some epic cinematic showdowns, particularly in those new 8v8 multiplayer matches. If you like your war games expansive and unforgiving, and don’t mind overcoming some lingering issues with awkward presentation and excessive micromanagement, Men of War: Assault Squad 2 provides an exciting and singular war gaming experience.
TOP GAME MOMENT
Defending an entrenched position from a sudden tank assault. The graphics engine might be slightly aged by now, but it still handles widespread devastation impressively well.