It was something of a surprise when developer Nival announced that it was making Blitzkrieg 3, given that the franchise had lain dormant for almost eight years. In a world where games like Company of Heroes and Dawn of War have rather rewritten the rulebook on what players expect from an RTS, I was intrigued to see how Nival intended to bring the series up to date.
Actually I was surprised at just how familiar the core gameplay is to 2003’s Blitzkrieg. None of those fancy cover mechanics (well technically you can hide in a house, but that merely prolongs the inevitable) or upgradeable unit skills so popular in modern RTS games here, just stripped down tactical combat that’s fast-paced and demands your constant attention. Careful manoeuvring, scouting, and clever use of combined arms are still all key. Tanks hit hard, but are worryingly vulnerable to any kind of anti-armour counter-punch. Infantry and light vehicles are essential for scouting and locating possible threats, but once again, they’ll crumble like a wet biscuit under even a modest crossfire. Each new zone must be cleared quickly, efficiently, and with brutal force, otherwise your troops will be whittled away to nothing by the time you reach your objective.
In terms of gameplay then, so far, so familiar, but Blitzkrieg 3’s major innovation is its asynchronous multiplayer mode. What you’ve got here is a riff on established free-to-play game mechanics. You’ll construct a military base, complete with pillboxes, patrols and anti-tank defences. Instead of battling you in the traditional one versus one manner, other players can jump into a multiplayer session and attempt to destroy your fortress. Not facing you directly, but going up against an AI-controlled representation of your base. Their objective is to take out your key structures, your main HQ and your manufacturing plants. They’ve only got ten minutes to do so, so the more dastardly your defensive set-up the better. It’s an RTS version of Clash of Clans, if you feel a need to reduce things to a very simplistic level (which I do). As you destroy enemy bases, you’ll earn upgrade points for your base, giving you access to new maps, units and structures.
Nival’s aim here is to provide a quick burst of gameplay that’s perfect for today’s helter skelter world, where you don’t always have time to settle down for an hour-long match. It’s a risky move, I think, considering the game omits the more traditional competitive match-ups that a certain portion of RTS fans typically focus on. For lily-livered cowards like me, who do their best to avoid any sort of direct competition, it’s a neat way to jump into the game and mess around for a bit without committing to a full match. There’s a couple of nice touches here, too; for one, you can try to destroy your own base in what Nival calls”selfie multiplayer”, and you can also watch a full replay when an opponent figures out how to defeat your base. There should be some nice strategic decisions to be made as you narrow down obvious weak points and construct withering defensive crossfires.
The asynchronous multiplayer provides a quick blast of action, but for a real challenge you’ll head over to the singleplayer campaigns. There are three included with the base game, each studying a period of the war that hasn’t been covered in exhausting detail already – the Allies are in Italy, attempting to break through to the Italian mainland by capturing Sicily, while the Germans are at the height of their powers as they push into France with frightening speed (that would be the Blitzkrieg part).
Campaign missions are only too happy to ditch the combined arms approach and instead plonk you right into enemy territory with only a few paratroopers under your command. Enemy bunkers and fortified buildings shred your poor squaddies as soon as they peek out of cover, while patrolling tanks and armoured vehicles are a constant, roving threat. This isn’t Company of Heroes, either, where you can take a breather to resupply and ship in new troopers – you get a limited use squad-wide heal ability, but once your guys are dead, that’s it.
It’s an uncompromising, hardcore approach that occasionally crosses the thin line marking out ‘tough but fair’ from ‘needlessly harsh’. Certainly the first time you sneak into a quiet French town only to be met with half the German army with howitzers, Tiger Tanks and flak-88s all levelled in your direction, you’ll feel a little hard done by. If you’re patient and willing to learn from your (many) mistakes though, there’s usually a route that can be picked through even the most densely defended maps. Missions last around forty minutes or so, so the campaigns are a lot lengthier than the multiplayer match-ups.
The lack of concern that the single-player campaign has for your mental well-being and your pitiful human reflexes sits a bit oddly against the drop-in, drop-out ease of Blitzkrieg 3’s multiplayer, but it does mean that if you’re looking for a challenge Nival has you covered. The developer says it has plans for further campaigns down the line, which will make up the majority of the game’s DLC. Nival is keen to point out that while elements of Blitzkrieg 3 bring to mind free-to-play and its slow ‘death by micro-transactions’, the only content they will be offering post-launch will be meaty slices of single-player, and probably a couple of new armies.
An admirable approach, slightly undermined by the fact that they’re offering a paid monthly premium membership option that will help you level up your multiplayer base more quickly. Nival assures me that this won’t mean the base-building is a slow grind for the non-paying customer, but it was still the one point that struck a note of caution with me in a game that otherwise feels very solid indeed. Still, Blitzkrieg 3’s in in the early days of alpha testing right now, and it’s set to move into Early Access in the next couple of months. Plenty of time for Nival to settle those concerns by explaining in more detail just what exactly that premium membership offers. Other than that small caveat, Blitzkrieg 3 looks likely to offer a polished, retro slice of RTS combat that should cater to both casual and hardcore fans.
Most anticipated moment: Digging deeper into the asynchronous multiplayer, and building the ultimate fortified position. None shall pass.