If I had to sum up Men of War – Assault Squad in one paragraph (which thankfully I don't) I'd say this – It's yet another World War 2 RTS with all the trimmings (authentic weaponry and armor, check, historically accurate battles, check). It's fast and hectic, and really gets across the need to think on your toes and plan your troop movements on the fly. It's also bloody hard. I'm not kidding, this is the toughest game I've had to play this year.
Developed by Digital Mindsoft and published by 1C Company (who have a reputable roster of games already under their belt, stretching as far back as the King's Bounty series from 1990), Men of War – Assault Squad is the second of three expansion packs for the Men of War series. Using the same engine and even the same troops and units from the original, Assault Squad builds on this by adding more units and another 15 missions to play through (although this reviewer never got that far).
Game play is, like most great games, easy to pick up, but extremely difficult to master. Most levels start you off with a group of soldiers and one or two special units like a medic, a vital member of any team since they allow your troops to heal themselves, or a sniper, who can pick off enemies from a large distance and is probably best sent alone on the flank. You'll have a series of strategic points to take, which are basically reinforced areas guarded by enemies. How fortified they are depends on their location, some may have a couple of soldiers patrolling and be extremely easy to take, others will be heavily fortified with gun turrets, armored vehicles and even air support to tackle before your men can take the point and turn the tide of battle in their favor. At intervals you will receive MP, which can then be used to buy more troops, vehicles and gun emplacements of your own either to fortify a newly captured strategic point, or to push the enemy back and claim more ground. Capturing strategic points increases the rate and amount of MP you receive and through this your army will grow into a formidable force.
In order to keep track of your army you are able to split and combine forces with ease, and every group of soldiers can be quickly selected from a list on the left of the screen. Joining two groups is as easy as shift+clicking the two groups, and splitting them just as simple. The interface you use in Assault Squad is very intuitive and works excellently, allowing you to quickly see what each unit's stats, skills and equipment are, who else is in their group and control their movements (what speed they move at, whether to stand or go prone, whether to engage any enemies or evade combat etc.). Another cool feature is the direct control function. By selecting a unit (or a group, in which you control the leader and the rest follow suit) and pressing 'E' you take control of that unit, using the WASD keys to move him around and the mouse to aim and fire. While this seems like a gimmick at first there are many points you'll use the main force of your group to provide covering fire and take the flak while you maneuver a lone soldier or two to the side to throw grenades or take the enemy down from a flanking position. Assault Squad gives you several different ways to control and move your troops around and it takes a bit of trial and error to find what you're comfortable with, but the end result of this is a strategy game that's suited to anyone's tastes.
The difficulty of this game is what really clinches it though. You'll either relish the challenge (like I did) and keep coming back for more after every defeat (and you will be defeated, many times), or become so frustrated with the difficulty curve, which starts at 'pretty hard' and goes up from there, that you'll simply give up on it. The enemy never really lets up, as soon as you take a strategic point you can guarantee a few waves of enemies will be sent from every other point which you'll have to hold off while your backup and defenses are being shipped into position. Dawdle for too long and keep your troops in one position and expect a backlash of more advanced enemies. Remember – With each strategic point under your belt the list of units grows, same with the enemy. It feels horribly unbalanced at the start of a level when they have access to everything and you can only call in jeeps and basic units, but as you take points and move across the levels you'll finally reach an equilibrium, then claw your way to victory, but this game will never let you walk all over the enemy and they will fight you tooth and nail every step of the way. When you do finally take the last point however, in what is normally a full scale assault with your best units, you actually feel like you've earned your victory, an altogether far too rare occurrence in games today, which seem to lead you by the hand in comparison.
The only real problems with Assault Squad are trivial ones at best. There's no tutorial or real explanation of how to play. While this is an expansion and you're expected to have played Men of War beforehand, this could turn away new players when you're simply dropped into the first level and expected to storm a beach full of Japanese soldiers without any explanation of controls or even basic unit maneuvers. A bit of perseverance on the player's part alleviates this though and most of the controls are what you'd expect (mouse controls the camera, right click to move/attack with your troops, 'I' for inventory etc.). Another slight problem is the pause feature; while it stops the game and allows you to view the battlefield to see where your units are and where the enemy is coming from, you can't issue commands or select units until you come back into the game. While this ties in with the notion that you have to make decisions on the fly, it cans sometimes be a bit too hectic, especially when you're trying to do timed maneuvers or controlling two different groups of units simultaneously.
Despite all this though, Men of War – Assault Squad is an excellent strategy game that gets across brilliantly the struggle of wartime battles and a sense of fighting an overpowering enemy with the odds stacked against you. In particular it's nice to have a strategy game come along that requires you to actually use strategy and tactics rather than the Total Annihilation/Supreme Commander method of 'build a bazillion ships and win by numbers.'
Note: Men of War – Assault Squad comes with online co-op play, allowing several players to work together controlling separate groups to fight the enemy. Unfortunately at the time of this review there was no online games running.