The period of World War II seems to have been covered to such an extent in games that you’d rather actually fight in it than play another game based on it. These days, a successful WW2 title really needs one of two things to be at least marginally good: Epic, in-depth action or a deep personal connection with the protagonists. Exceptional games will have both – Men of War from 1C and 505 games mostly has the former, and makes a half-hearted stab at the latter.
Technically the third game in its ‘series’, Men of War is the sequel to Faces of War and Soldiers: Heroes of World War II (also known as the ‘Outfront’ games). A curious blend of Commandos and Company of Heroes, Men of War lets you take control of the Allies, the Germans or the Soviets as you replay crucial moments over the course of the war. Each campaign has their protagonists and a general locale– for example the Russian campaign focuses on two friends and you will follow these characters as they participate in some of the less memorable battles of WW2. You can also play the Germans as they invade Greece, and also play as the Allies as they duke it out in North Afrika.
Whilst this goes a fair way to ground the game into some sort of context (since you’re not just playing out a series of random engagements), developers Bestway and Digitalmindsoft don’t do enough with the characters to make you actually care about them. The fact they can also die during missions without consequence (and then mysteriously reappear in the next level) or are sometimes not even present, kind of prevents any ‘emotional bond’ forming between the player and the character. That and the voice acting is atrocious.
It’s a shame really, because there are a lot of gamers who appreciate the side story more than most, and like watching a poorly dubbed anime, they will probably cringe at poorly accented English. Still, apart from the briefing segments, you can pretty much skip the story scenes, as they lend little to the overall experience.
The game’s ‘themes’ can be split into two groups. Whilst it all falls under the category of ‘real-time tactics’, there’s two paces to the game. The first one is more Commandos style, where you take control of a small group of men and attempt to carry out objectives using limited resources. The other is on a larger scale, where you control an entire army and you generally have to either assault an objective, or defend one. This second category is really what makes the game shine, as the challenge of controlling a range of units at once, and using them to perform an offensive/defensive strategy is quite gratifying. The difficulty levels are suitably hard and challenging as well. Whilst easy mode will let you pass through most levels in the first go, it doesn’t let you off easy. Those wanting a real challenge can then check out Normal and Hard for a very rough time.
The more stealthy aspect of the game however can be quite tricky. The stances especially can get a bit confusing, as sometimes you think a unit is one stance, but is in fact in another. Also, given that the large scale battle segments are so much fun, sometimes you don’t even feel like doing the commando bits, especially if you have to keep restarting.
The gameplay itself is actually quite intuitive, if a bit fiddly at times. By selecting up to 10 troops, you can give contextual orders based on the map surroundings. This mechanic mainly refers to cover, as if you hover the cursor near almost any obstacle in the game, it will give you a give ‘image’ as to where your troops would station themselves if sent to that area. Once you’ve clicked on a spot, your troops will move into position and then behave as they normally would depending on how you’ve set them. It’s a very clever system, and the AI that governs it performs reasonably well. Each individual soldier under your command also has finite resources available to him, so if he runs out of ammo, he will have to start scrounging. It’s the little things like these that really bring out the games strengths, especially in the larger battles. At the same time though, you almost wish they could write in a script that takes care of micro-tasks like that, as it can often be hard to keep track of who still has what.
Of course you will have to play the game to appreciate what we mean. Men of War will allow you to take control of over 50 different units, spread across a range of types from penal conscripts to panzer tanks to artillery. All these units need maintenance and equipment, and as the commander it will be your job to provide them. If the mood strikes you, you can also take direct control of any unit under your command, utilising the mouse and keyboard like you were playing Diablo. This can be handy at times, as the AI isn’t perfect, and it is even quite fun, however most of the time you’ll find yourself so swept up by the ‘big picture’ you’ll probably not have the time.
There will be a multiplayer element to the game; however it was not available to try out in this build. From information there is however, up to 16 players able to compete against each other by choosing from 5 different armies, and 6 different game modes. There is no ‘base building’ only a point system with which you can summon reinforcements. (You come across this in some of the single player scenarios).
Modifications will also be supported, and like Mount & Blade or Sins of a Solar Empire, you can choose which ‘modules’ you want to play using a menu in game. The release date is set for the opening months of 2009, although some outlets indicate you’ll be able to get your hands on this game as early as February 13th.
Specifications are also looking like they will be pretty reasonable. A lower-end rig of only 1.7ghz and 512mb of RAM ought to do the trick, however usually they require a GeForce 9600 series or above graphics card.
All in all, Men of War is looking like it could be the best game of the series so far. Provided they polish the mechanics and AI off a bit, and do something about that horrible voice acting, this could be an easy competitor for the likes of Company of Heroes.