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Leading The Line In Steel Division: Normandy 44's Realistic WWII Strategy

It’s been nearly seven years since Eugen Systems last tackled the Second World War in their real time strategy games, before shifting gears and eras with the Wargame series. However, unlike RUSE, which you might remember as one of the few games to make use of PlayStation Move, Steel Division: Normandy 44 – which comes out next week for PC – is a much more serious and realistic affair.

Truthfully, there’s a kind of sterility to Eugen’s style of real time strategy that might turn people away from the game, but there’s also a fascinating depth and a number of new ideas that will appeal to those that want that kind of accuracy, that authenticity to their strategy games.

One of the biggest contributors to that is the way the game handles fog of war, drawing thick coloured lines across the battlefield that denotes the shifting frontline. It’s a fascinating way of dealing with an integral part of the genre, actually helping to give you more information about how the battle is going and the disposition of the enemy forces. You can see if the other side are cutting you off, pushing and probing a particular part of your defensive line, or see where points of resistance are as you advance.

However, you’re still largely blind and getting line of sight is still vital to success. Pressing ‘C’ with a unit selected shows exactly how their line of sight cuts through the hedgerows, trees and towns of France. It’s a fantastically simple mechanic that presents this key piece of information so crisply and clearly.

At PDXCON last week, we got to try the single player for the first time, sampling a mission from the American perspective and the German side, with the British campaign set to be the most difficult. Each follows a particular part of the battle for Normandy in June 1944 – hence the game’s name! – with both defensive and offensive actions. The first American mission, for example, has you clearing an area so that a tank group can roll through in safety, while the first German mission has you trying to hold key roads from the Brits trying to break out from their initial beachheads.

Similar to RUSE, to my mind, the large rectangular battlefields in single player feature other battles raging between AI. You might only have one small portion of the map, a single town or a single road to defend, while the AI prop up other parts of the frontline, or perhaps battle in another town hoping that you can break through and save them. You can’t trust them absolutely, however, and I failed a mission as a neighbouring AI didn’t keep up their side of the fight and I was too slow to prop up their defences with my anti-tank weapons.

One thing that will really define the game is how it handles units. Prior to the mission, you put together your battlegroup, before calling them in with resource points during the battle to reinforce your army, with three different levels of unit that define the stage of battle in which they can be requested. It’s easy not to pay attention and suddenly realise you can call in a dozen or so units all at once.

Once in the fight, units can actually have a surprising degree of survivability, which is a blessing on the one hand and a curse on the other. It’s easy to be pinned down by enemy fire, but it’s difficult to actually finish a unit off and as I defended a small town, the incoming units would repeatedly be demoralised, run away and regroup. That’s not to say that units can’t be cut down though, and so when you’re advancing, you do want to leapfrog units gradually across the battlefield. Also use mortars in practically every situation.

The reason for that, in the context of the single player campaigns, is that your division only has a certain number of units, and any casualties you take during a mission will carry forward through to later missions. It’s something that could make the final stages of a particular campaign become impossibly difficult, simply because you weren’t cautious enough earlier on.

That need for caution will one of a few other areas where I feel some of the niceties of more mainstream strategy games would have been nice to have. In particular, I was constantly caught out by the need to unload a unit from a vehicle once they arrived on the battlefield, as they’d quite happily hang out in their jeeps and trucks instead of laying down covering fire with machine guns, mortars or whatever else they have equipped.

Where I bounced off Eugen’s Wargame series, Steel Division has done a lot more to capture and hold my attention. It’s still a rather realistic and focused real time strategy game, but there’s a number of clever and intriguing ideas running underneath it that can attract a more casual strategy gamer, such as myself. We’ll have to see how that fares across the entire game, when it’s released next week.

One Comment
  1. coruscant
    Member
    Since: Oct 2010

    RUSE is still one of the best RTS’s to come out on console, shame it didn’t do very well…

    Comment posted on 20/05/2017 at 00:16.

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