Being innovative and progressive in the video game industry doesn't always require putting a genre upsidedown. German developer Digitalmindsoft seemed to have been fully aware of this when they created Men of War: Assault Squad, a standalone expansion of the original Men of War from 2009. Assault Squad mainly streamlines and builds upon ideas from the original game. The result is a highly entertaining RTS title that is bound to please the fans of the series, but strangely enough also feels like a breath of fresh air, even in the familiar World War 2 setting.
Like in the original Men of War, the player gets to take control of various World War 2 factions. Assault Squad features no less than 5 playable nations: Germany, America, Britain, the Soviet Union and, for the first time in the series, Japan. Each faction has a set of single player missions you can play through in Skirmish mode. As that name implies, the single player missions aren't connected through an overhauling story, but rather focus on letting the player take part in some of WW2's most notorious battles without being limited by storytelling or chronology. While Skirmish mode lacks the sense of progression you would feel in a story-driven campaign, it provides an incredibly deep single player experience that is challenging throughout.
Each map consists of various, near Battlefield-esque control points that have to be conquered. This is harder than it sounds: nearly every control point is very well guarded by enemy forces, so capturing a point often requires well thought-out tactics. It is often helpful, for example, to clear out enemy trenches with a mortar attack before sending in your infantry, while snipers come in handy when your armour is being plagued by enemy artillery. Once captured, though, a control point is by no means a safe haven. Breaking through a defense line will often trigger an enemy counter-attack, and seizing more control points will often cause resistance on your opponent's behalf to grow much more fierce. This means that, if you aren't careful, enemy tanks can take back a freshly captured checkpoint before you know it.
How much of the battlefield you control also influences your own combat abilities: The more checkpoints are waving your nation's flag, the more quickly you generate points, which you can use to 'buy' reinforcements. Breaking through a defense line will often unlock a special unit or ability, as well. These differ per faction, and can often be decisive in the final push. The Germans, for example, gain access to the Goliath, a small, remote-controlled tank that can infiltrate into enemy territory and cause a huge explosion upon detonation. The Americans unlock naval or air support, which allows you to take out enemy installations or units from a great distance. My personal favourite, however, is the Russian 'For the Motherland' ability. This will spawn a huge amount of AI-controlled soldiers that will attack wherever you want them to, leaving a trail of death, chaos and destruction in their wake.
While forcing your way through the enemy defense line by just throwing tons of units at it can certainly be an option at times, it's the small squad-based combat where this game really stands out. Each unit usually has a rich inventory that you would rather expect in a first person shooter. Soldiers possess various grenade types, weapons and items, and are even able to switch between fire modes. Better yet, you can take full control of one of your units with the press of a button, allowing you to get your squad out of sticky situations, or orchestrate daring one-man attacks on enemy installations.
The remarkable depth of the gameplay does come at a price, though. Most of the missions found in Skirmish mode seem to be designed for the game's co-op mode rather than the single player experience. Taking control over an individual unit, for example, means that you cannot control or oversee what happens elsewhere on the battlefield. As such, one of your squads might be butchered by a tank while you are trying to take out an artillery unit on the other side of the map. Coordinating attacks and making them play out like you want them to can be a bit problematic if you are on your own but insist on using every aspect of gameplay.
This does mean, however, that Men of War: Assault Squad has great potential as a multiplayer title. Being able to play the Skirmish maps with a friend against the AI hugely boosts the replayability of this component, which is enhanced even further by the dynamic AI. Players can also pit against each other in several other multiplayer types, which normally emphasise the combat rather than the 'capture the base'-type structure of the main game. The success of the game's multiplayer component will depend on how busy the servers are after a couple of months. But due to its rich, versatile gameplay, Men of War: Assault Squad has all the right ingredients to become a mainstay in multiplayer RTS.
Fortunately, Assault Squad also holds its own visually. While the graphics are not overly impressive, they are smooth and detailed enough to not divert your attention in the heat of battle. I've found that maxing out the bloom effect greatly improves the graphics, so you will want to make sure they're enabled.
The physics of this game also deserve a mention. Each environment is fully interactive, with buildings crumbling and objects exploding real-time instead of the destruction being dictated by pre-rendered animations. This makes the combat extremely satisfying from an environmental point of view, as the layout of the battlefield can change pretty drastically as the fight rages on.
In the end, Men of War: Assault Squad is surprisingly complete RTS game. While it is an expansion, it offers more depth, challenge and entertainment than quite some full-fledged strategy titles out there. Those who are looking for a streamlined campaign with an interesting story and difficulty that gradually builds up, will be disappointed. When it comes to deep and intense gameplay, though, there are few games that deliver more than Men of War: Assault Squad. The combat is deliciously satisfying, there's enough content to play for hours at a time and the dynamic nature of the gameplay, as well as the variety of options, make for an RTS title that you can just keep coming back to.
Jesse Dolman, NoobFeed.