Reviewed with help from Jonathan Brown (Yogdog)
The Second World War may well be back in vogue, but the way that Steel Division goes about it is with an almost unmatched degree of detail and historical accuracy. This isn’t so much for those who fancy stepping back in time once again with their video games, it’s for those who want to live and breathe WWII. Eugen Systems’ latest follows in the footsteps of their modern era Wargame series, with a similarly clinical take on the RTS, but manages to make it feel like a less daunting task to learn all its quirks and vagaries.
This is most certainly not an accessible game. Combat is both a slow and painstaking affair and one that can be over in a matter of moments, if you’re not careful. Units can stick it out in a ferocious hail of enemy fire until they’re demoralised and fall back, but unless you follow up and make sure they’re wiped out, they’ll soon turn back around and come at you again. At the same time, it’s easy to think of tanks as these immovable objects that enemy fire will ping off, but anti-tank artillery is ruthlessly effective, and the enemy AI seem to have an unerring sixth sense over where to place them.
It does, however, lead to a feeling of imbalance in some areas of the game. Because morale drops far quicker than health, there are often instances where a particular tank or unit can hold out against the odds in a manner which might not quite make sense. Despite being bombarded and falling back numerous times, a particular Firefly Sherman tank could easily be the thorn in your side (or a linchpin in your defence), where other tanks are killed almost instantly by strikes that hit the ammunition reserves or fuel tanks. Airplanes in particular stand out as units that seem to be near impossible to kill. Even with multiple aircraft batteries dealing damage, they manage to escape far too often to be repaired, refuelled, rearmed and then sent back into the fray.
One thing that Steel Division gets absolutely right is how it depicts the frontlines and fog of war. A clear red-blue line stretches across the map denoting the level of control you have over the battlefield, which dynamically shifts, whether you can see the enemy or not. It gives you a few hints and clues as to the enemy’s current disposition and lets you try to move and adapt to incoming threats. Perhaps more important is the ability to hold the ‘C’ key and get the exact lines of sight that a unit will have in a particular spot. With twisting roads through the woodland, hedgerows and small towns of Normandy, it’s vital to place units correctly and see where enemies are, or setting up ambushes and defensive positions.
The first of three four-mission military campaigns sees you take control of American forces around the D-Day landings. It’s the easiest of the three, but even here you can be tested by Panzer tanks probing your lines, artillery zeroing in on your defencive emplacements, and ambushes from units hiding in the tree lines – line of sight really is everything here. Things get progressively more taxing through the German and British campaigns, with the Germans having greater firepower but fewer numbers and less resilient conscripted soldiers compared to the American weight of numbers and resources, while the British have to endure the armoured might of the German army – the strength of AT guns against tanks naturally comes into play here. Each evolves over the course of the campaign, with unit losses making them unavailable for later missions, while reinforcements can be grabbed at a few occasions, potentially giving you a better or worse position come the final battles.
Before each battle, you have an opportunity to customise your Battlegroup, first picking a division to draw units from and then adding them to your Battlegroup with a card-based system. Each of the three countries you can play as have a number of different divisions, each with their own unique personalities and backgrounds that Eugen have researched and recreated. One German division is made up of the low morale conscripts from the Eastern Front, Polish troops fill the ranks of the Allies’ Black Division, there’s infantry divisions, paratrooper, and armoured divisions, just as you’d expect to see in Normandy 1944.
Units come in various categories, from recon and infantry to support, tanks, artillery, and so on. On the whole, you want to get a good balance of units, though I have an inclination to more troops and artillery than the tanks that I find are all too easy to kill. Of course, that means I’m often more passive and defensive, which can be a key failing in a territory-based game, where holding territory. Playing against the AI in skirmishes, they are again quite ruthlessly effective in a lot of situations, able to grind out a stalemate while also probing defences. On the other hand, multiplayer can come much closer between the imperfections of different players.
Victory is determined by who can control a majority of the map, as shown by the shifting frontline, but this tends to go to the Allied players, in our experience. The German military at its best is more specialised and that shows in how much units costs, but they can also have a lot of downsides, and can often struggle against the Allies, who can get more units into battle and flood the Axis players.
Picking your units also forces you to think about the long game and the length of battle. You’re given more resources to spend every minute, which you can pool up and spend together or dole out a little bit at a time, but the rate of resources changes through the three stages of a battle – A, B and C. Some divisions have more resources early on, others have more later on, and unit cards unlock during different phases as well, sometimes letting you redeem them multiple times. Do you want to have one tank early on, or the ability to call in two or three tanks later? Are mortars enough in the late game, or will the long range of howitzers help turn the battle? It’s a clever system that doesn’t devolve into the cheapness of card systems in some other games.
While the game can look fantastic, letting you pull all the way out view the entire field of battle and the shifting red-blue frontlines and then zoom all the way in until you’re closely examining your troops and the thick grass in the French countryside, there are other points that detract from the overall experience. The UI as a whole feels like something from at least half a decade ago to my mind, audio sometimes doesn’t match the gunfire shown in game, and the introductions to the single player missions are not what I’d expect from a product by such a long standing studio. Having simplistic cutscenes is fine, but the lines of audio that read out the mission briefings haven’t been read by voice actors, but rather fed through audio banks, with all the unusual inflections, stilted speech rhythms and Siri or Alexa-isms that leads to. It’s such a small point, but one that really detracts from the overall experience.
Update: After posting our review, we were informed that the review build did not have the final voice overs. Having returned to the release build of the game, it’s much improved, which has helped alter our review score.
While there’s a distinct appeal to Steel Division: Normandy 44, this is a game that caters to a particular niche audience of hardcore strategy fans. Its depiction of the Second World War focuses on realism, with a reliance on ambushes and weight of fire in infantry combat and a surprising fragility to the tanks, but this difficult to master game won’t be for everyone. There’s some clever ideas in the shifting front lines, the fog of war and Battlegroups, but there’s problems with the presentation and some elements that feel unbalanced.
Update: After posting our review, we were informed that the review build did not have the final voice overs. Having returned to the release build of the game, it’s much improved, which has helped tip our review score from a 7 to an 8/10.