This latest installment of the Men of War (MoW) series has you controlling the soldiers of a Russian Penal Company. If you are giggling right now, let me explain: penal company means criminals forced into battle (you jackanapes).
These Russians were so tough Vladimir Putin would have asked them for advice on how to appear more macho. Often these soldiers were given the most difficult assignments and the game tells their story (although it never really feels like the game is telling you a story at all).
You are greeted by a very basic and accessible intro screen. My first stop in the MoW series is always to change the default control scheme. Reaching for the number pad to move the camera simply doesn’t work for me. I don’t have Dhalsim-like super reach, nor the room on my desk to scoot my keyboard around. I set the direct control to WASD and the camera to the arrow keys for a more familiar experience.
There are four campaigns with several missions in each, for about nineteen total. They can take a long time to beat, as many missions actually span several segments of an evolving story. Sadly you will not be playing as the Germans or anyone else in this installment of the series.
The missions start you off with a message about your objective, often accompanied by a nasally voice over. Although it tells the story of these rough and tumble Russian “expendables,” you never really get an emotional attachment to any of them. When one gets vaporized you won’t be yelling “Oh no! Private Ivanov!”
Any story elements are illustrated by the brief intros, there are no cut scenes between missions or deep personalized insight into the soldier’s lives. If you really want to know about the Penal Company, you must use the “Historical References” tab in the main menu. There you will find pages and pages of text about as exciting to read as a 2005 Honda Accord user manual.
MoW games remind me a lot of playing with action figures. There are many different weapons and vehicles, and anyone can commandeer them. A conscript fresh off the farm can just hop in a tank or artillery piece and shoot the wings off of a fly. He can even jump between all the operations of that unit like a pro. MoW has certainly never been a “simulator,” although it often feels like it’s trying to be one. But this doesn’t get in the way of the fact that the game is still fun.
The direct control system is back, and leads to a lot of fun. With it you can control any soldier or vehicle, drive or walk with the keyboard, and shoot with the mouse. It lets you pull off tricky shots and better place rounds where you think somebody may be hiding out of sight. It means you can aim exactly where you want that grenade to land and decide what part of a tank you want to hit.
Vehicles all have several components that can be destroyed: wheels, treads, engines, guns, and turrets are all up for grabs. A tank can go from a game-winning unit to a piece of cover with one well placed shot. Your men can fix these broken components, but in a pitched battle it becomes a risky endeavor.
Combat is chaotic. Battlefields slowly change as artillery and mortar fire rains down on cities, and rumbling tanks drive through homes while knocking down trees. All the craters, and debris that scatters the landscape become a place for soldiers to take cover from zipping bullets and whizzing shrapnel. Buildings that remain standing are riddled with bullet holes and the once pleasant countryside will become a hellish landscape. Soldiers caught by a lucky tank round or mortar strike will evaporate into nothing, while survivors are knocked to the ground.
This chaos is where the games truly shines. In one play through, my men held one side of a bridge. Frantically, they searched for a tool box to fix a broken down tank. An IL-2 fighter screamed overhead, guns blazing and made a hole in the German lines. As the plane turned around, it was shot to pieces. Its wing came off. In flames it dove directly into the path of my men. “Run!” I yelled at my screen, as I selected them and quickly ordered them to flee. The plane careened directly into my would-be tank and a group of soldiers who were too slow. A giant explosion, a fiery wreck, and a few mangled bodies was all that remained, along with the smile on my face.
Pindar once said, “War is sweet to those who have no experience of it.” I believe he later added, “and to those who play Men of War.”
You will need to tell your soldiers what stance to take, where to take cover and when to loot fallen soldiers and burned-out vehicles. It’s great that you have so much control over the soldiers, and this works when you are charged with one or two squads. When the game starts to give you four, five, and six, however, a battle gets pretty hard to manage.
Your men will use med packs when hurt and occasionally throw out a grenade to dislodge entrenched foes all on their own. When a grenade comes at them, they will jump out of the way and hit the dirt. When ordered to advance they will move up while finding cover.
Yet, several times I had given my men a good tactical position, went to check on another, and returned to find them huddling together as artillery was incoming leaving a lot of dead men. When you are managing one squad it’s no big deal since you can break up the squad and spread everyone out, but in big battles that is impossible. It would be nice if the AI treated incoming mortars the way the do grenades, by ducking, diving, and spreading out.
Overall though, the AI has improved over the previous games, and as a veteran of the series, that is a very welcome thing.
Character models and textures have been updated from the old games. Getting the camera close to a soldier, you can see the crisp new textures. Yet, the rest seems to have been neglected. Terrain and many vehicles are ruddy, muddy, and washed out. They appear to be the same assets from the previous games in the series. It’s a real shame that only characters were improved, as the rest of the game looks dated.
Still, the environments play a big part. Explosions are followed by debris, and burned out vehicles leave a long black trail of smoke. Trees fall down and just about everything has a realistic and interactive destruction model. These are the keys to the more fun aspects of the game, as it means the battlefield is ever changing.
A bright teal fog exists on the edges of the battlefield to draw a line between the theater of war and non accessible areas. Where many games have seemingly infinite draw distances and make more use of technology to maintain the illusion of a larger world, MoW:CH still uses that old “You can’t see it so it’s not there” approach. This is likely also why the camera is pulled in so tight. I would really have liked to zoom out more so I could have a better idea of what was going on around the battlefield.
Tanks rumble, wood splinters whiff through the air, and guns crack off rounds. Bombs whiz to the earth while buildings crumble loudly. Battles sound as chaotic as they play, and it compliments the gameplay well.
But music is predictably simple in MoW:CH. It fluctuates between acceptable and just plain bad. I found the main menu to be the worst offender, with its synthesizer orchestra giving me undo stress. In battles (although you will likely take little notice of it) the music is a bit better and blends into the explosions and gun shots, but is still undeniably mediocre.
Voiceovers sounds more like David Schwimmer than hardened criminal soldiers. Also, said voiceovers are devoid of any Russian Accent at all. Yet, in battle, soldiers respond to your commands in Russian. Because of this, some intros come across slightly comical, which is not what the game is aiming for with the stories of these ultra-tough, kill you with bare hands, soldiers.
On the GameSpy-powered interface is a chat window, and a list of current games. Sadly I was unable to find any during my time with the game. Of course I was playing with a pre-release media copy of the game, so it may very well be up and running by the time this review goes live. Options for setting up games include eight players max, with four maps and two game modes: Capture the flag and Victory flag.
All things multiplayer appear to be very simple. I saw no signs of a leveling system, avatars, or unlock-able perks. It appears to be the bare minimum and has obviously taken a back seat to the single player game, to which MoW:CH puts more focus.
The Bottom Line:
Men of War as a series seems reluctant to evolve, with each new installment seeming like an expansion pack rather than an entirely new game. Graphics are muddled, with some great new textures among stale, old ones. Battles sound wonderfully hellish, music is utilitarian, and voice overs (as usual for the series) fall flat. Every battle is pitched, swirling with chaos, and the sounds of battle. At its best, it feels like an epic cinematic war movie. At its worst, if feels like a four year old game. It’s really a mixed bag, but in that bag there’s a lot of fun to be found.