Men of War is a well respected real time tactics game from 1C Company and here we are with the standalone expansion, Assault Squad. Real time ‘tactics’ is certainly the applicable title for this game, billing it as an RTS would not do it justice. It’s certainly a distinction i did not make when I first started the game up, perhaps to my cost. However, after a few hours of play, to me it appears that this distinction holds both the lures and drawbacks to this game.

As I suggested when I first loaded the game up I was expecting pretty much a straight RTS with perhaps a little more focus on the units you control. I was pretty far off the mark, though, and was thrown immediately into the single player campaign with little clue of what I was up to. To give you an idea of the extent of being ‘thrown in at the deep end’ that the game submits you to; the first thing you hear on beginning the campaign is “I wish we had more time for this – but war won’t wait!” Basically, this is you being told in no uncertain terms ’you’re not getting any help here pal’. Now the game is an expansion and I’d like to know if the original had a tutorial but this standalone expansion certainly doesn’t. It does have tips which appear at intervals while you’re playing and give the novice a few handy hints. Handy though these hints are its no real substitute for an introductory tutorial to the game.

I’ll give an example to try and clear up what i mean here; the tips were helping me to understand useful mechanics for each of my units, such as how to use the medics to revive, but after losing all my guys in the first mission with some clumsy control (the blame’s on me there) I sat for a couple of minutes looking at the AI controlled units wondering  ‘so when do I get the mission failed’ screen — it turns out I had the ability to call in reinforcements, which I’d managed to overlook. Now it may be the case that I’m completely incompetent, but generally if you’ve had an experience where you’ve got no idea what you’re doing playing a game there’s many other people who’ve ended up in the same place. Now that I have a little more experience, I have a little theory as to why there’s no helping hand for new players; basically it’s too complicated to put everything you’ll need to know in a short tutorial. You’re simply better off learning through figuring things out yourself. Although right at the start I’d have loved to have a few pointers.  The object of the single player missions is simple, you take your units to capture points on the map which are increasingly well fortified, in order to gain more ‘MP’ (the currency for buying in new units) and the ability to call in more powerful units. After this becomes clear you get into the real gameplay of Men of War: Assault, the tactics you employ to move up each map you are confronted with. It must be said that Men of War allows the player to have incredible control over every aspect of the units you use. Not only can you call in around 25 different units (not to mention faction specific vehicles and special units) from standard infantry to all manner of tanks, armoured vehicles, static defences, and specialised soldiers like snipers and anti tank personnel you can also manage the inventories and ammo of each of the units under your control. Frankly it’s a bewildering amount to control, I’ve played around 15-20 hours and am still really struggling to use the inventories. But strangely this isn’t a drawback, its one of the things that will keep me playing Men of War after this review is done and dusted. There’s always ways in which you can control and execute your tactics in a better manner and more precisely.

As I mentioned, tactics are basically the be all and end all of the game — within the execution of tactics lies the games greatest strengths and its biggest weaknesses. It is really satisfying to flank in on a position with two groups of infantry while shelling another point into submission. It becomes clear pretty quickly you really do have to use your brain and use tactics to get anywhere in Assault Squad. I found myself failing even on the easiest difficulty when I decided I had enough stuff to simply bum rush into entrenched positions. Even at the very beginning of the game maps with 9-12 points to capture were taking me in excess of 2 hours to complete. The missions aren’t cake walks but they’re certainly very satisfying when you complete them in a way where you feel you’ve used your units wisely.

There is a down side to the fact you can’t rush into well defended positions — if the game is demanding you control your units very precisely, then the game’s programming had better respond and let you do this.

Unfortunately Assault Squad’s unit pathing does not always allow you to do this. For example I had a group of infantry who’d salvaged a motor bike and side car from the debris of some skirmish — so I’d select this unit — about 5 guys and the bike and ask them to go somewhere. Unfortunately, as the group had the bike in, the game seemed to struggle to find paths that both the bike and the infantry could take and they basically stood inanimate when asked to move together as part of a single control group. You’ll also notice a few comedy moments with two poor souls lugging a heavy machine gun, back-peddling into the firing line of the enemy. Or when your only anti tank unit walks out into the middle of a road to try and hero down a Sherman tank. Only to get shot down before he can get anything done. Rating: 3/5I say comedy moments, but on occasions the unit’s path finding is down right frustrating.

After playing a decent amount of Men of War: Assault Squad I’m still debating how much I enjoy it, the first few hours spent were frustrating but the more I get to understand the complex controls and uses of each unit the more I enjoy it. Even with the frustrations around unit movement and decision making I still have an urge to log back in and try to get a little better so i guess that’s a pretty good recommendation.

Review copy was kindly provided by sponsors GamersGate.com | Men of War: Assault Squad in currently only available digitally, the game is set to be released at retail in the UK on April 15th 2011.