Monday, March 09, 2009

Men of War Review

Men of War, developed by Best Way and Digitalmindsoft and published by 1C Company and Aspyr Media on Gamer’s Gate.
The Good: Realistic ballistics and damage, direct control of units is fun and useful, robust multiplayer with numerous modes and options, slightly customizable interface, nice graphics, supports mods
The Not So Good: Difficult linear unoriginal campaign, no AI bots for skirmish games or dropped players online, laughably bad voice acting
What say you? Direct control of units, realistic mechanics, and enjoyable multiplayer makes this World War II strategy game stand out despite the outrageously difficult campaign: 7/8

One of the many (many (many)) World War II strategy games to come across the vast expanse of the Internet was Soldiers: Heroes of World War II. I tried out the demo of this tactical game (no resource collection, just units) when it came out in 2004 and decided it was extremely tough, and that was the end of my experience with Soldiers: Heroes of World War II. Well, the series is back five years later with a sequel to the sequel Faces of War (which, unfortunate for the game, came out the same week as Company of Heroes…oopsy!). Men of War has been out for about four months in Russia, but it’s finally gotten it’s English on and arrived on domestic shores. Has Men of War maintained the severe difficult of its predecessors (short answer: yes)? Will the multiplayer aspect of the game make up for this (short answer: yes)?

The graphics of Men of War are quite nice on several fronts. It’s clear that the developer has done well tweaking (essentially) the same game the past five years, and the result is one of the more impressive 3-D strategy gaming environments. The plentiful maps are quite detailed, with lots of houses, trees, fences, and other realistic elements. The military hardware appears to be rather realistic as well; if you are in to that sort of thing, I would imagine they are easily identifiable based on looks alone. The explosions are a bit overdone, but it does add a dramatic and powerful feel to the combat of the game. Notable is the deformable nature of the levels: houses can be partially or totally razed with the appropriate weaponry, and craters dot the landscape after heavily fought battles. Not only does blowing up a house look cool, but it is of strategic value as well. No game that I can remember has come this close to replicating Hollywood-style war action as Men of War has. The interface is also well-done, listing all of your available units along the left side of the screen, and reinforcements along the right. The interface along the bottom can also be somewhat customized, by right-clicking and dragging icons to a persistent middle bar for easy access: pretty impressive. It’s too bad, then, that the sound design didn’t get the same wonderful amount of attention the graphics. The effects are good: weapons, explosions, and other assorted chaos is done well. However, the voice acting is absolutely atrocious: there are “Russian” units that sound English, and even the ones that sound Russian are wimpy and uneven in their quality. It’s better if you simply ignore all of the poor voice acting that is present in the game. Still, screenshots sell games, and Men of War certainly delivers the goods in this aspect of the presentation.

Men of War gives you two ways to (virtually) kill lots of people: the campaign and online multiplayer. The campaign consists of twenty-three missions spread amongst the Soviets, Germans, and Allies; it is completely linear, unlocking the next mission after the successful completion of the previous one. The campaign missions are long and hard (must resist urge…to make…cheap joke), lasting thirty to sixty minutes each with multiple progressive objectives. The objectives could be a lot clearer, as indicators are not present on the minimap or on the main screen unless you click on the “objectives” list. The difficulty isn’t due to the AI being good, because it is not: enemy units will routinely stand around and do nothing (waiting for orders, I guess), and scripted AI sequences (invasions, retreats) are obviously obvious (obviously). No, Men of War is difficult because you are fighting superior numbers and equipment with unlimited resources. Sounds fair, huh? Yes, the enemy always outnumbers you both in sheer numbers and quality of gear. The only thing preventing Men of War from being completely unfair is the poor AI: you can use real tactics (flanking, et cetera) against them and they will almost never react appropriately. Now, difficulty is a very subjective assessment, but, based off the vibe I get from the Internet, I don’t think I am alone in saying that Men of War is really, really, really difficult. Men of War shies away from the single-squad-stealth mission, putting you alongside friendly units in large, impressive battles that would be great if the game wasn’t so hard. You can play any of the missions (even ones you haven’t unlocked) online with some allies. This makes the sometimes large unit count easier to manage, but the game does a suspicious job of equally dividing the troops: sometimes you are given the truck but your ally is given the attached artillery piece. Cooperative play makes the campaign scenarios more pleasant, but the missions still last too long without somewhat guaranteed success to make the campaign worth the effort. Add in the lack of a tutorial (apart from some very basic instructions in the first mission), and I was ultimately not very interested in the single player campaign. It is a positive sign, however, that Men of War is relatively easy to modify, creating new or different units and maps; in this sense, you can compensate for the large difficulty of the campaign.

Where Men of War really shines is in a multiplayer environment. You can choose between four nations (Japan is coming in a future patch): the all-round Soviet Union, the early-game USA, the mid-game English, and the diverse Germans. There are a lot of game modes to enjoy in Men of War: there are more conventional modes like combat (deathmatch) and frontlines (assault/defense), but also control modes like victory flag (one point) and battle zones (several points). The interesting thing is that the number of points in the battle zone mode changes according to the number of players (although the map stays the same size): it’s been done before, but it’s still a nice feature. Men of War comes with a large number of maps: twenty-one for most modes and ten for frontline. They are well-designed and have a good variety in design and setting, offering up plenty of cover, changes in elevation, and multiple pathways to victory. The territory modes (battle zones and victory flag) are the most interesting as they cause more concentrated battles instead of the less organized action found in the combat modes. Men of War does not involve any resource collection or even resources from controlling specific points on the map. You are given two options (set by the server): slowly gain reinforcement points over time, or start with a set value that never regenerates. In either case, you use the points to purchase a large variety of units. Typically, the matches start with infantry and transport units, and slowly introduce armored cars, tanks, and artillery. The units seem to be well-balanced: the powerful units are powerful, but they can certainly be countered by several other units. Games are equally enjoyable with a small or large number of players (the game supports up to sixteen players at once), and the chaos associate with combat taking place in several locations is quite lovely. Because the game has been out in Russia for a while, you’ll always find plenty of people to play against, assuming to play at the correct time of day. The game also gives you a number of options to customize the amount of realism (displaying enemy damage reports) and size of conflicts (amount of reinforcements). Sadly, nothing can be perfect, so Men of War lacks one key feature: skirmish AI players. While not having skirmish matches is a relatively minor inconvenience, it really does matter online: players who leave the game early are not replaced with an AI substitute. This means if your team loses a player, you most often will lose simply by being undermanned. I don’t expect an AI opponent to be necessarily good, but it should at least be able to serve as a stand-in for players who left. This means large games with sixteen players usually become unbalanced before the end; the long game times (30-60 minutes) don’t help matters. Still, the quality of the online gameplay can’t be ignored, as Men of War executes the multiplayer aspect of the game beautifully.

Men of War features pretty much every major unit that took part in World War II. The units cover all aspects of this period of warfare: infantry (riflemen, machine gunners, rocket launchers, anti-tank rifles, flame throwers), special forces (combat engineers, snipers), transport vehicles (jeeps, trucks), artillery (machine guns, towed items, mortars), tanks (light, medium, and heavy, with many models per side), and self-propelled artillery. It is a very comprehensive collection of military hardware (and software, in the case of infantry units). Controlling units is a straightforward affair thanks to the interface: single units can be combined into groups by a selection box or with the interface. The use of waypoints is a must because the pathfinding is questionable at best (tanks will routinely smash right through buildings and trees, instead of using the roads): holding down shift allows you to queue up orders. One of Men of War’s unique aspects is direct control of units. While this was more of a gimmick in games like War Front, it’s fun and often necessary (especially during the campaign) in Men of War. Once you select a unit and press the “end” key, you can move it with the arrow keys, use the mouse for aiming, and switch weapons, reload, and change stance with the keyboard and mouse buttons. It takes a little getting used to, since the camera is not tied to the vehicle at all; this is actually a good thing, at it allows you to zoom right up to the enemy tank to get a perfect shot. You do lose track of your other units while you use direct control, but it found it to be quite useful and a blast overall. Surprisingly, the friendly AI seems to be more capable than the enemy AI at engaging enemy units; I think the planning AI is where the problem lies (as evidenced through the pathfinding issues) and the tactical AI is fine. Units left alone in multiplayer can handle themselves well enough, firing on enemies that come within range, although they won’t move to better locations (probably a good thing).

Men of War gives your units realistic weapons: machine guns, armor piercing and high explosive rounds, mines, grenades, repair kits, and more. You can pick up weapons and ammunition from fallen comrades, as ammo can become an issue during longer matches (although fuel usually never does). There is a wide range of actions your troops can perform with their weapons, such as aimed shots, suppressive fire, in addition to healing, returning fire, reloading, planting mines, and repairing tanks (which takes a realistically long amount of time). Men of War focuses on the use of cover, highlighting the positioning of infantry units before you move them to a new location: this has obviously been seen before in this series and other games, but it’s just as impressive of a feature here. You can target a specific part of a tank (tracks, hull, turret), and Men of War features a pretty impressive ballistics system that calculates angle of impact, penetration, and armor integrity; these values are translated into a color-coded percentage chance of success for easy processing. Tanks are more easily defeated by infantry units with rockets (and other tanks) in Men of War then in other World War II strategy games; I imagine this is more realistic, although I obviously cannot say for sure without trying it out myself. The result is a seemingly realistic and visceral gaming experience where the results seem to be more dependent on strategy and planning rather than luck and hit points.

Men of War is a fine third iteration in the tactical strategy series. The game in firmly entrenched in realism, from the weapon ballistics to the wide selection of units at your disposal. The single player campaign does not stray from the high level of difficulty seen in previous iterations of the series: it’s hard on any setting, and this will deter all but the most dedicated grognard. The campaign is also very linear and quite unfair (adding to its difficulty), featuring enemies with superior numbers and usually superior weapons. Despite these shortcomings, I am willing to give Men of War the “buy it” rating based off the strength of the multiplayer: Men of War is the best World War II multiplayer strategy game I can remember (this included). The mix of realism works exceedingly well online: with no cheap tactics or build orders to rely on (since everyone receives the same reinforcement rate based on performance), you can focus on proper positioning and the compelling direct control feature (which no other strategy game has executed as successfully as Men of War). Online play also has several game modes and plenty of maps to destroy (and they will destroy in real time, providing new areas for cover). The only blemish in multiplayer is the lack of AI bots to play against or substitute for players who have dropped: a minor but significant enough exclusion. The interface lets you easily access all of your units, and the graphics are top-notch (although the voice acting is terrible). Men of War is an excellent game for those players looking for realistic tactical online gaming.