Saturday, March 05, 2011

Men of War: Assault Squad Review

Men of War: Assault Squad, developed by Digitalmindsoft and published by 1C Company.
The Good: Cooperative skirmish mode features escalating offensive battles against the AI, well balanced rare hero units, improved ballistics and damage beget realistic tactics, custom infantry squads, more maps and an editor, direct control remains extremely useful, marginally easier difficulty
The Not So Good: Still lacks AI bots for human replacement in competitive modes, somewhat pricey for previous owners, no verbose tutorial
What say you? This multiplayer standalone expansion delivers notable content thanks to spirited cooperative missions and more complete competitive online games: 8/8

One of the most interesting real time strategy games of recent memory is Men of War, a game that combined realistic combat, destructible terrain and buildings, and direct control of units. The multiplayer portion of the game was quite enjoyable, but could have benefited from a little more polish. Enter Men of War: Assault Squad, a standalone expansion that features enhanced multiplayer games and a cooperative skirmish mode. Add in new hero units and the empire of Japan, and we have a good reason to go back to World War II…again.

The graphics and sound of Men of War: Assault Squad are generally the same as before; I did not observe any noticeable differences or improvements. Obviously, better hardware installed since the original game’s release two years ago will result in improved overall performance. The graphics still hold up quite well, as each of the units and environments are finely detailed, and the destructible terrain looks great. Explosions and weapon effects are nice as well, evoking the feeling of burning chaos. The voice acting has gotten better: none of the mission briefings contain heavily accented caricatured characters (say that five times fast), though the unit saying remain the same. Overall, little has changed in Men of War: Assault Squad, but the game still provides a great assortment of eye candy.

Dust off your Gamespy user account, because it’s time to head back to World War II with Men of War: Assault Squad. This standalone expansion places the emphasis where it should be: multiplayer. The new skirmish mode features a suite of fifteen missions that pits you and up to seven of your friends/random people against the AI in a cooperative setting. You have to start with the first US mission (which serves as a very bare tutorial; reading the manual is strongly suggested), but then the first maps in each three-mission campaign open up. Luckily, all of the maps are unlocked for online play, so if you are itching for the third Japanese mission, you can simply host a LAN match. Of course, you can’t save during a LAN game, so that’s the tradeoff for accessing all of the missions. While you can tackle the missions alone, it’s clearly intended to be enjoyed online working with others (three people seems to be the suggested minimum based on the objective locations, although it supports up to eight). The missions are long (hour to hours), but you can save your progress in a single-player setting. Capturing flags across the map unlocks more units and air strikes to assist with your attacks. The game gives you all of the objectives at once and tasks you with fighting towards the finish, clearing all of the flags in an order of your choosing. Reinforcement points are shared in co-op play: the players who has the least number of units gets the new recruits, though you can transfer units if you don't want to get blamed for losing that precious tank. Men of War: Assault Squad features infrequent auto-saves: while the game should save after each captured point, it does not. Joining the fray is Japan, complete with their selection of units and vehicles. Men of War: Assault Squad also features the same suite of competitive modes are before: assault zone (conquest), combat (deathmatch), and frontlines (one-sided assault). The game comes with a lot of maps that support up to sixteen players (eight in cooperative play): fifteen missions for the cooperative skirmish mode (three for each of the game’s five combatants: US, UK, Russia, Japan, and Germany), five frontlines maps, and thirty-two maps for the assault zones and combat modes. Men of War: Assault Squad also includes a map editor to expand the game even further. You can join the fray online using the Gamespy server browser (which works well) or over a LAN. Sadly, AI bots (still) will not replace human players who have dropped from a game, putting their team at a distinct disadvantage.

Men of War: Assault Squad features some minor tweaks and improvements to the basic gameplay system. First, ballistics and damage fidelity have been improved, including better balancing to incorporate the new ammunition types. The method of obtaining reinforcements remains the same: points are slowly accrued over time and spend purchasing new units. Other key features that remain intact include direct control of any unit (moving and issuing orders manually), vehicle repair, picking up weapons or gun emplacements, and accurate inventory tracking like ammunition and fuel usage. The interface continues to do a good job (considering how many options you have), allowing quick unit access and the ability to add abilities (heal, grenades, repair, reload, stance, place mines) to the quick bar permanently and in an order of your choosing. The game also uses cover in a fantastic manner, displaying a shadow where you troops will line up and incorporating the destructible terrain (like fallen trees or destroyed tanks) as options for cover. Of course, there’s always room for minor improvements: I would like the ability to spread out my troops more automatically using the mouse wheel (instead of placing them around the same rock), and it can be hard to tell units to enter buildings.

OK, new features time. First: hero units. Yeah, I know what you are thinking, but they are actually handled quite well in Men of War: Assault Squad. You are given ten points you can use to purchase more powerful units (like assault infantry, paratroopers, or the best tanks) that do not regenerate. New units are unlocked every couple of minutes, and it’s up to you to decide when to use your precious points. What this does, in effect, is decrease the likelihood of having really powerful units on battlefield, which results in more realistic conflicts. Another new feature is the ability to customize your infantry squads when you order them, choosing the specific members of each team (rifle, machine gun, anti-tank, et cetera). “Normal” infantry squads include a leader, two submachine guns, six riflemen, and one machine gunner, but you can alter this lineup if the tactical situation warrants it. Because of the high cost of tanks and versatility of infantry units, you can’t ignore the men of war (see what I did there?), which is how it should be. You can also call in off-map naval bombardments or aerial assistance to supplement your attack plans.

Normal competitive multiplayer has undergone subtle changes: overall, the game just feels better, smoother, more balanced. Infantry is much more useful thanks to significantly increased sight ranges, and cheaper tanks put up more of a fight as there is less of a difference between them and the more pricey versions. You have to approach Men of War: Assault Squad more like a simulation than a traditional RTS: just because you can see the other tank doesn't mean you can destroy it, as you must worry about armor angles, penetration amounts, and other factors that more simplified games simply ignore. Armored units are also very expensive, making their preservation important; this makes taking out an enemy tank even sweeter, since it really sets back their economy. The general strategy (which took a number of games for me to figure out) is to place infantry in the front to scout and put tanks behind cover (buildings, preferably) until they can flank or out-range the enemy. This is a rare RTS rooted in realism that gets the balance of infantry and armor roles right. Artillery now fires a barrage of shells at one location instead of one a single shell at a time for a more realistic adaptation that removes the capability of using long-range artillery to snipe opposing armored units.

The skirmish mode is the big draw of Men of War: Assault Squad (though, honestly, I find the competitive battles to be more fun), offering large maps with many objectives to capture, so you can unlock the additional units necessary to fend off the increasingly dangerous capabilities of the AI. You must also hold the objectives, as the AI will (given enough time and ignorance) sneak around and retake them. Putting the human players on the offensive is when Men of War works better, so the cooperative missions are great fun, despite being a bit repetitive due to the always-attack mindset and an identical assortment of units available each game. Reinforcements always come from the back of the map, making slow, methodical, measured movement across the map a must for victory. It’s always prudent to let your long-range assets (mortars, artillery) soften the enemy first, and then come in with a mix of infantry and armor on the flanks. This is where the cooperative options work well: you can split up the responsibilities, since the scale of the skirmish scenarios are a bit too large for one person to handle effectively. Dividing the units also forces you to work together with your allies, since you each have a relatively small but equal amount of units.

As always, direct control is great for picking out specific targets; while infantry units are usually fine to give generic movement orders to, controlling armor and support units yourself is recommended to keep them out of harm’s way (plus, pathfinding for tanks is suspect: they will happily drive through a house (or three) on the way to their destination). Men of War: Assault Squad features visceral combat, very intense and chaotic, like real war or something! The AI isn’t the best, but it is good enough to be a challenge in numbers: it uses cover, attacks at ranges appropriate for each of its units. It does, however, exhibit some really dumb moves at a noticeable frequency, especially moving units through exposed terrain (though a lot of human players do this, too). Still, the AI is a tough beast when they have the right weapons in the right place, and it knows where you are the most vulnerable. Overall, Men of War: Assault Squad is not as impossibly difficult as before (a definite improvement, since that was my major complaint of the original game), even when going at it alone: I was actually able to win most skirmish battles on “easy” using careful tactics, and some on “medium,” too. However, don’t ask me about “hard” or “heroic”: I am not a sadist. Overall, the addition of cooperative offensive skirmish missions, polished competitive multiplayer modes, more approachable difficulty, and other notable features makes Men of War: Assault Squad clearly superior to the original.

This standalone expansion to Men of War improves what I like most about the series: offensive missions and multiplayer. I’ve always felt that the game worked best when you are put on the assault, and that’s what’s clearly highlighted here (it’s in the name, people!). Men of War: Assault Squad retains the highly detailed ballistics, damage, and attention to realism that has defined the series. Infantry is always a force to be reckoned with, thanks to vulnerable tanks that can be disposed of quickly when dealt with using plausible tactics. Assault Squad adds the ability to customize your infantry squads by ordering individual units, further increasing their flexibility and usefulness on the battlefield. Another new feature is hero units: while they are more powerful and versatile versions of infantry and tanks, they are appropriately rare, as you can only order a couple of them per round once a specific time limit has passed. This actually makes the game more balanced overall, especially late in the match when before everyone would be fielding an unprecedented amount of high-end hardware. The new skirmish mode takes the best parts of the single player game, attacking enemy positions, and morphs it into a cooperative mode with increasingly more violent encounters as you slowly advance across the map, capturing locations to bring in more powerful reinforcements. Men of War: Assault Squad retains the high level of difficulty the series is infamous for, but it’s slightly easier than its predecessors and direct control of units allows you to attack specific targets and maneuver in a precise way. Of course, you can still just order troops around using more conventional methods and they will intelligently carry out your commands. The game still lacks AI bots to replace dropped human players online, but this is really the only significant area in need of improvement. I’d feel even better if it was $10 cheaper, but Men of War: Assault Squad remains an increasingly rare expansion that adds meaningful content and adjustments to an already spectacular real-time strategy game.