World War I marked the bloody, painful transition from heavily romanticized 19th Century-style battles to the brutally efficient, modern warfare of the 20th Century. Generals were forced to experiment on the battlefield, learning in real-time which tactics would defeat static defenses like barbed wire, trenches, and machine guns (tanks and combined arms warfare) and which ones had become obsolete (cavalry). I was reminded of these battlefield experiments when I first started playing Men of War: Assault Squad 2 – Cold War.
A seasoned Total War veteran cast into a strange theatre, I felt like an old cavalry commander sending countless men and horses into the meatgrinder. One might think that such a feeling is a good thing for a strategy game to evoke. But let’s not forget, the Great War was not fun. Generals of that conflict famously suffered from immense stress and pressure to deal with an unprecedented situation, and some broke down as a result. I didn’t break down after my first hour with the Cold War, but that hour was the absolute worst first impression of any game I’ve played.
- What is Men of War: Assault Squad 2 – Cold War? A standalone expansion and the latest addition to the Men of War series. It is primarily a real-time strategy title set during the Cold War, but it also places a heavy focus on action and simulation.
- Reviewed On: PC
- Price: $29.99
- Developer: Digitalmindsoft
- Publisher: 1C Entertainment
- Release Date: September 12, 2019
- Multiplayer: Up to 8 players
Knowledge is Power
Tutorials get a bad rap. Admittedly, some games take it too far, but generally speaking, there’s a very good reason that they’re standard in most games. Cold War is a perfect example of that reason. The game includes no tutorial. In its place are tips, accessible through the Main Menu and visible on loading screens.
Before playing for the first time, I suppose new players are expected to read all these tips. That reading assignment includes the full list of controls in the options menu. This lack of guidance seems like a lazy approach on the developer’s part, but an attempt was made to teach the basics.
The first few hours are an arduous slog, and the tips section offers no help in understanding faction differences and playstyles or the utility of units like flamers.
However, there’s an art to making tutorials. You’ve got to be able to introduce new concepts to players in an engaging manner without overwhelming them. It’s also an opportunity to give general advice on how to succeed in-game — for example, introducing a common obstacle and providing instructions on how to deal with it. Finally, tutorials are a crucial element in mitigating the frustration and intimidation factor inherent to complex strategy titles. It can be annoying to lose a big battle, even knowing what you’re doing. Add uncertainty, confusion, and an overwhelming number of options to the mix, and that annoyance increases tenfold.
The grand result is a profoundly, needlessly frustrating introduction to Cold War. The first few hours are an arduous slog, and the tips section offers no help in understanding faction differences and playstyles or the utility of units like flamers. I understand that there are plenty of analytical people who would be perfectly happy reading through every tip (oh, I did it too, I just wasn’t happy about it) and meticulously comparing armor penetration to hull thickness, making an effort to understand the capabilities of each unit. But disregarding the experience of the rest of us by omitting a tutorial is an oversight. Not everyone has time to obsess over details, and a proper introduction to the game would help people get straight to the good stuff.
Baptism by Fire
And there is good stuff — lots of it. There’s a visceral satisfaction in sending a payload of high-explosive missiles to a position, watching as men, vehicles, and buildings are blasted apart in the firestorm. Another way developer Digitalmindsoft breathes life into battles is with their sound design. Men cry out in English or Russian, walls and fences crumble under inexorable tank treads, and bullets snap and crack as they strike concrete.
Uniforms and equipment are also impressive. I’ll use the Americans as an example. The exact era of the game isn’t stated, but the vehicles and gear seem to indicate the period between Korea and Vietnam. You’ll see infantrymen carrying M-1 Garands and wearing uniforms that wouldn’t be out of place in the Second World War. On the other end of the spectrum, you’ll see elite units wielding M-16s, along with extensive use of helicopters as you’d see deployed against VC forces in real life. And once you’ve passed through the crucible of the first few hours of play, you’ll have more to appreciate than aesthetics.
I dealt with a few crashes during loading screens throughout my playtime, and those were annoying. With the campaign, however, my game crashed after every single battle, win or lose. And those crashes count as losses, by the way, so you can’t ever have a saved win in the game’s current state.
The tactical depth at play is superb. On the macro-level, you’ve got to deploy the right assets, at the right time, at the right location. It behooves you to maximize the efficiency of your war machine, using helicopters, trucks, and armored personnel carriers to ferry people from your staging area to hotspots on the front. On the micro-level, Direct Control changes the way you play the game. When playing as an individual soldier or vehicle, a hands-on approach to timing and aiming can turn the tide of battle. You might seize control of an anti-tank soldier, carefully lining up a shot and knocking out enemy armor at a critical junction. Or you might precisely adjust the angle and positioning of two vehicles so that your mounted machine guns have overlapping arcs of fire, creating a kill zone in front of your static defenses. The game lurking underneath the ill-conceived introduction (or lack thereof) might have redeemed Cold War. Keywords being “might have.”
If you go to the Steam store page for Men of War: Assault Squad 2 – Cold War, you’ll see “dynamic campaign generation” being mentioned a few times. Sounds interesting, right? An opportunity to min-max an army, then take the fight to the enemy with randomized maps and persistent progress? I’m in. Until the game kicks me out, that is. I dealt with a few crashes during loading screens throughout my playtime, and those were annoying. With the campaign, however, my game crashed after every single battle, win or lose. And those crashes count as losses, by the way, so you can’t ever have a saved win in the game’s current state. But even still, I gave the game the benefit of the doubt. My computer’s no spring chicken, so I borrowed my brother’s gaming laptop to see if the results would be different. You may be able to guess what happened based on nothing but my tone.
Think about that: one of the most prominent modes in Cold War, one of the game’s major selling points, is unplayable as intended. Where was QA? Why wasn’t this game delayed? When is it going to be fixed? Not to mention, there are less obvious effects of big bugs like this. When units don’t respond to orders, when controls seem not to work, it can be hard to tell whether that chalks up to user error or software problems. An easy way to make an issue more frustrating is to obscure its causes and potential solutions.
High Ground View
I want to like this game; it’s right up my alley, genre-wise. And when the bugs are fixed, I probably will. After all, the modes you can play, Combined Arms and Annihilation, are fun.
The former involves capturing flags and holding your ground, often fighting tooth and nail to maintain control of military checkpoints and terrain features. Individual games can overstay their welcome, but it’s fun to establish reliable defenses, then divert your attention to little missions — outflanking and destroying enemy armor, repairing and resupplying your vehicles, stuff like that. Annihilation, meanwhile, is a little more fluid. Objectives may be revealed to players over the course of the game, shifting the focus of combat dramatically. And points are racked up by earning infantry and vehicle kills, so a well-placed RPG just might win you a game.
As I said, I want to like this game. The core gameplay of the campaign is solid and the other modes are immersive. But, right now, the campaign mode is busted, and the game seems oddly hostile to newcomers.
Game title: Men of War: Assault Squad 2 - Cold War
Game description: Men of War: Assault Squad 2 - Cold War has suffered a painfully disappointing release. Despite offering a core experience characterized by deep tactical combat and the unique, exciting Direct Control mode, the game is an embarrassing mess. The learning curve is absurd, and it makes the first several hours of play needlessly frustrating. This reflects a significantly flawed design philosophy, but on its own, it wouldn’t be enough to topple Cold War’s launch. Shipping the breathlessly-marketed Campaign mode in a broken, nigh-unplayable state, however, is more than sufficient to do so. What a shame.
Campaign Mode - 2/10
Skrimish Modes [Combined Arms & Annihilation] - 7/10
Direct Control Mode - 8/10
Heat up the Cold War by pitting the US military against Soviet forces in mechanized tactical combat. Mobilize your army, seize control of fortified positions and defend them, and take direct control of individual soldiers and vehicles to turn the tide of battle.
- Combined Arms and Annihilation are fun
- Tactical depth, thrilling combat
- Direct Control mode
- Broken Campaign mode
- Challenging learning curve, exacerbated by the lack of a tutorial
- Fiddly controls, unhelpful interface