If you're of the school of thought that there aren't enough WW2 games, these days you're probably in the minority. However, it's been a while since we got a really stellar WW2 RTS. I mean, sure, I really enjoyed Company of Heroes 2, and for the grand strategisers among us there's always Hearts of Iron IV to keep us happy, but still, there is space for something ... well, something else. A gritty and realistic company-scale strategy game that focuses on the bloody, close-quarters combat of the bocage in Northern France during Operation Overlord.
Is that my opinion? I'm not telling you! But I bet it's almost a word-for-word transcript of Eugen Systems pitching the idea for Steel Division: Normandy '44 to Paradox Interactive. Basically, Eugen took its familiarly crunchy, numbers-and-historical-accuracy-heavy brand of modern-ish wargaming and send it BACK THROUGH TIME Time time time, to the fertile videogame soil of 1944. Of course, Paradox being Paradox would have just responded by wordlessly throwing money.
And well they should. Because for a certain breed of wargamer, Steel Division: Normandy '44 is basically the entire point of owning a computer. Everything that made earlier Eugen Wargame titles so wonderful are still present: a complicated battlegroup building tool (in fact, in a way it's more complicated than in the past - more on this in a minute), realistic maps, and a combined-arms approach to the battlefield that will have newbies wailing in confusion and grognards salivating. But oh, there's plenty more.
Let's start with the basics. You build up a group of troops that can be called into the battlefield under certain conditions to reinforce a front-line that is always shifting. It's in your interests to push this front line back as far as you can by projecting your power into areas that have been controlled by your enemies. You can do this easily, by moving fast units like trucks and jeeps along wide, open roads into areas devoid of enemy troops, but much more frequently you'll be doing it the hard way by advancing your infantry into well-laid traps and then having to endure a withering hail of gunfire as you bellow for backup.
You call fresh troops into the battlefield along certain supply lines (so best keep these open - once the front line shifts over these avenues, you'll no longer be able to send in your boys along the specific route) with requisition points (which tick up over time, often based on how much of the map you control) from a series of available unit cards that you select at the beginning of each mission (so long as the correct battle phase has already begun).
So far, I've managed to scratch the surface of explaining how to bring your units into the game, and it's taken me two paragraphs and has raised more questions than it's answered. Welcome to the world of Steel Division. So let's take a look at these battle phases. Each mission is broken into three phases: A, B and C. When you're choosing available units for the mission, each grouping will be assigned to a certain phase. So, for instance, you might choose between a group of three rifleman units which can be brought in during phase A or later, or you might go for a grouping of six identical-ish rifleman groups who are only available after phase B has begun. This is a tough choice, and based on the mission parameters, it can make a lot of difference. While in multiplayer, often phase A represents contact with the enemy, the establishment of front lines and probing strikes, certain campaign missions might start out with you needing to conduct a frontal assault on a fortified position, and phase B might be holding that territory from a scripted counterattack. These different profiles will force you to start strategising from the outset before the first units have even been deployed.
Once the shooting starts, there are a ton of things to be focusing on, and weirdly, your engaged units are one of the things you need to manage the least. If your riflemen are shooting from the treeline at an enemy MG team in a farmhouse across the road, that's a set of known conditions which can be left to play themselves out. You'll be too busy organising mortar and other artillery units to rain indirect fire onto the farmhouse, and bringing a .50 cal jeep around the back to pin the defenders, or maybe marshalling an airstrike on the position, keeping an eye out with your recon teams for enemy AA assets in the vicinity. Oh, and before you spend too much of your artillery or heavy support units on the assault, you'd better ensure you have supply units nearby to make certain nobody runs out of ammo at the last moment...
There's a lot to think about. No base building, no harvesting resources, no piddling around with weird special moves. Establish a front line, push forward where possible, feint-and-thrust into contested territory, master the recon game and react to the constantly changing nature of warfare. It really is a high point in RTS design.
Perfect? Oh, come, come now. It never is, is it? Some may find the difficulty to be a little unforgiving, particularly at first, even on low skill settings. True, there is a steep-ish learning curve, but this is minor compared to some of the Wargame titles. I had a few crashes to desktop as well, and if you've not saved this can mean a LOT of replaying the same bit. But Steel Division is so fun, this wasn't a problem for me. Also odd is how your units will occasionally speak the exact lines that units spoke in Company of Heroes, word for word. I guess this is an homage? Sometimes, though, it can be strangely off-putting.
New for this version of what is to all intents and purposes the latest iteration of the Wargame series, soldiers can be pinned down by sustained fire, and sometimes even forced to retreat. In fact, I think if I was to come up with a criticism for this, it does seem that they're pinned very easily, and once pinned they're next-to-useless. A huge advance with multiple truckloads of infantry can be absolutely halted by a cheeky MG unit in a nearby farmhouse. It is probable that this is simply a tactic that I've not yet learned how to counter, and with a little more practice this will be something I can solve for myself, so I'm loathed to really consider it a flaw - it's probably merely a marker as to my limited proficiency so far.
Steel Division: Normandy ’44 really is my game of the year so far. As a realistic wargame based in a familiar setting with nods to all of the tactics and considerations a real-life battlefield commander needs to keep in mind, from supply to morale, it is second to none. I’m acutely aware that this is a game for a certain type of gamer, and not the sort of thing picked up for a casual ten minutes’ gaming, but as a hardcore multiplayer experience or a grueling (if short) series of solo campaigns, there is so much to recommend Steel Division to wargame fans (not to mention Wargame fans), I happily award Steel Division the Game Debate Iron Cross with Oak Leaf Clusters and a cherry on top.