When it comes to most traditional real time strategy games, indulging your infatuation with war can be such a long drawn out affair. Before you can even think of mounting any kind of offensive you have bases to build, economies to expand, defences to establish, research to complete and units to recruit. You enter the game just looking for some light relief, and end up dragging yourself away at around two in the morning; psychologically exhausted by the relentless pace of all that multitasking. However, when it comes to Order of War's streamlined and highly accessible approach to RTS gameplay, Wargaming.net have provided players with a format which focuses more on the challenges of war than the nauseating chores.
This is a principle which continues to endure throughout their latest addition, Order of War: Challenge. A standalone, exclusively multiplayer game 'set in the world of Order of War'. Expanding on the somewhat limited multiplayer offering provided by the original - which only included six maps and one game mode where players had to capture all control points to win - Challenge provides 12 maps and totals six game variations. A few of the more interesting include 'Mercenaries', where players must fight it out using armies purchased with equal resources, and a cooperative 'Survival Mode', where players must work together and try to hold out for as long as possible against continual waves of enemy attacks.
As already stated however, the basic set-up remains the same from OOW. And for those who have not played the original, it's an RTS which doesn't involve building fortifications or bases, but centres solely upon purchasing off screen support using command points gradually accumulated from captured strategic positions, similar to Company of Heroes. Combined with its uncluttered interface and an intuitive control system which allows you to easily move, arrange and position large numbers of different units, OOW trims much of the fat from RTS gameplay, and allows players to dip in and out of intensive, fast-paced battles which don't take an eternity to resolve.
But while it can be easy to view OOW's simplicity as shallow, it also caters for the hardcore strategy gamer with an impressive roster of different units. Playing as the Soviets, for instance you're presented with an extremely diverse choice of tank squadrons which all vary in terms of strengths and weaknesses. While some are light, fast, and good for flanking manoeuvres, others are slower, more heavily armoured, and can be relied upon to form the stubborn backbone of your frontline. Deciding how to reinforce units under fire, or how best to balance out an attacking formation can cause even the most decisive wannabe general to momentarily falter. So, to its credit, even though OOW: C throws you straight into the action, it does still manage to provide players with plenty of strategic depth.
But regardless of the degree of scope, it's not long before you're craving some additional layer or dimension to the gameplay. You know the famous tank rush? Well, despite the fast pace, the continually shifting frontlines, and the need to be selective about what you recruit, OOW: C can often just descend into a slogging match between massive concentrations of armour. Once you clash with your opponent at one particular point on the map, it's not long before you find yourself manically recruiting units and sending them into the fray almost at random. Unfortunately, this often causes victory to fall to the player who manages to grab the most strategic positions in the first few moments of the match, as they inevitably end up with more resources at their disposal.
With Ubisoft's forth coming RUSE, which allows you to trick your opponent it would be nice to see a similar hook in OOW: Challenge. Its emphasis on autonomous units, who act with a degree of initiative during combat, is a good step towards this as it doesn't require the player to step in every few seconds, but it does mean you often find yourself reverting to spectator. To help keep the player involved the game does fills these voids with its cinematic camera mode, which switches the perspective from bird's eye to a movie sequence perspective. When your units are committed to some large scale engagement that you don’t feel you need to be micromanaging this feature can help entertain. Maybe the next step forward would be a first person camera view where you can swing the battle Rambo-style like in Battlestations Pacific.
Wargaming missed a trick as they don’t allow the player to re-watch favourite battles with a replay feature. The game's overall visual quality is becoming tired and even though there's something truly epic about watching armoured formations tear across the detailed landscape the graphics are just a little dated to really deliver the modern level of immersion we are becoming familiar with. Although Challenge is an expansion it's not long before you've made your way through the game's 12 maps, a few more battlefields would have been nice.
Despite some undeniable potential for tactics, winning matches on Challenge often feels like repeatedly beating your opponent over the head until he falls. However, OOW: Challenge is, like its predecessor, an RTS capable of appealing to gamers who would normally have no time for the genre's traditional complexity. Opening the multiplayer experience up as a standalone product was a worthy endeavour and provides some RTS action that is definitely worth a look at this price.