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An Evening With: Men Of War: Assault Squad

21 Mar 2011  by   Paul Younger
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War (we’re often told) is total chaos. If that’s the case, then Men of War represents the most accurate videogame recreation of it to date. The series is so dedicated to its theme of disorder that the very interface itself is in turmoil. Whether you’re fumbling to control armoured vehicles in real-time strategy fashion or micro-managing a single soldier as he has his face machine-gunned off while trying to repair a broken motorcycle, the game manages to capture the scale, mis-communication and individual tragedies of mass conflict like no other I’ve played.

Men of War: Assault Squad is the latest in the brutally punishing franchise, and it’s also my hasty, boot-camp style introduction to the whole Men of War experience. It’s an entry with a heavy focus on multiplayer, so it seemed only right to don my plastic helmet, disguise myself with some bits of old twig and hunker down in a foxhole for ‘An Evening With’.
Game One

Map
Forest (5v5)

Game Mode
Combat

Team
The Good Ol’ US of A

Final Score
800/4000 (approx)

Practising with Assault Squad’s single player skirmish mode hadn’t exactly put me in a confident frame of mind for tackling multiplayer. Even playing on the shameful ‘Easy’ skill level, I was unable to progress beyond the third proper level. After getting murdered by AI troops for the umpteenth time, I started to feel as though I was preparing for the shark tank of multiplayer by coating my toes in BBQ sauce and pinning a label of nutritional information to my chest.

A 5v5 map seemed like a good start in order to maintain relative anonymity and mask my total lack of skills. ‘Combat’ also seemed like a pretty straightforward game mode to start with. If you kill stuff, you get points. If you lose stuff, the enemy gets points. Nice and simple. As the German side was already full of recruits eager to serve those zany Nazis, I threw in my lot with the USA.

Seconds later, I’m literally bursting with war.

For the opening few moments I try to vaguely ape what my fellow players are doing, in the hope that they’re slightly more informed than I am. I imagine this is a pretty common response among new army recruits. We set up a few anti-tank weapons along a central road and start building sandbag defences in a field to our right. Already I’m slightly concerned, because my limited experience with the single player has suggested that it’s necessary to push forwards at all costs, expending troops along the way in order to gain ground. Here, our team seems to be settling back for an entrenched slog-fest.

My worries are realised – the German war machine rolls gaily across our front with its mechanised tracks. While we’ve been building infantry, our opponents have been constructing a series of speedy, light tanks. Our anti-tank guns hold the line for a spell, but are eventually overwhelmed, while the infantry are simply cut down – unable to get close enough to deliver a fatal anti-tank grenade. A few brave souls try to slow the advance by tossing their own bodies underneath the tank-treads, and the once lush fields are soon littered with craters and corpses.

This is looking quite bad.
Even with tanks of our own, we’re gradually pushed back towards our base. It’s around about this time that I realise half of our team has buggered off, perhaps helping to explain why the war effort is not going terribly well. So soon guys, really? The spirit of resistance rising in my chest, I muster a collection of tank-destroyers and vow to end this German tide. My new constructions are promptly destroyed by the forces surrounding them.

Okay, this is looking very bad indeed.

It’s possible that my lack of military expertise could be holding me back here, as I realise (after gazing at eight fairly identical looking artillery pieces), that I have no clue which one to go for, or why. Each piece costs a certain amount of points to spawn (which regenerate during matches), but beyond that I’m at a loss for information. As the battle is already lost, I decide I might as well play with some of the toys on offer just to see what they can do. ‘Die quickly’ seems to be the answer.

With the match now a 2v4 (not in Uncle Sam’s favour) a gentleman on the German side says ‘let’s close this game, it is unfair’.

Soon afterwards, I’m booted off the server. Either the game collapsed on itself, or that was the gaming equivalent of the host giving us a mercy killing. The match was incomplete, but we’d scored something like 800/4000 points to their 2100/4000. Rather humiliating. Looking at the stats before the plug was pulled, I was surprised to see I hadn’t completely disgraced myself (7 vehicles destroyed to 12 lost, though with rather more infantry slain). Still, this was an inauspicious start to my Men of War multiplayer career.
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Game Two

Map
Heights (1v1)

Game Mode
Assault Zones

Team
Uncle Sam’s Finest

Final Score
10/100

A one on one match seemed in serious danger of exposing me as a hopeless player, but I optimistically answer an invitation from someone looking for beginners. I’m so naive. One of my new found pal’s first thoughts in the pre-game lobby is that he’s sick of hardcore players crushing him and wants to win one for a change. It seems I will be playing the willing lamb in this improvised production of Fluffy Visits The Slaughterhouse.

Once again I’m carrying the banner for the USA, as my opponent has already grabbed Germany.

The ‘Assault Zones’ game mode is rather more tactical than Combat. It’s necessary to capture and hold various points on the battlefield, rather than just murdering as many people as possible (though, of course, that helps too). As with Combat, players get a set number of ‘points’ to spend on units, and these points gradually regenerate over time.

Much of our match focused on the central area of the battlefield, which my foe took early and held for the majority of the engagement. I’m proud to say that my closest tactical point (over on my right near a delightful farmhouse,) never fell. A minor triumph. The point nearest to him, in a big field on my left, was briefly sent into neutral hands by a foray of my fine men, but, alas, was never truly in US hands.

It doesn’t take long for my opponent to demonstrate his superior skills. He sets up some cunning crossfire with a couple of machine gun nests positioned near the central position and cleverly marshalls a light tank to mow down anyone trying to sneak around the entrenched Germans.
Try as I might, I am completely unable to destroy that tank. I move in some anti-tank infantry (they’re mown down before they even get close.) I advance a tank-busting Hellcat (which is blown up before it even gets close). I construct some other tanks (blown up before they can even get close to a position that would be considered close to getting close). Finally, I send some brave, brave men on suicide missions with anti-tank grenades (should I draw you a picture? I’ll need a box of red crayons).

My measly ten points (out of a victory total of 100) come when I distract his thrice-cursed tank with a fake attack on my left, rush in and destroy the machine gun nests with frag grenades, and briefly (oh so briefly) take the middle of the field. Huzzahs, huzzahs. Break out the booze. Sadly, I barely have any men to hold it and my flag falls within a matter of moments. Bah.

It’s at this point I think my opponent went easy on me, because another of his tanks seems to embark on a leisurely sightseeing cruise around the battlefield. Not wishing to be patronised to quite that degree, I busy myself by trying to sneak a couple of snipers down my left flank towards what I think may be a lightly guarded tactical position. Meters away from their goal, they’re gunned down a lone guy hiding in a foxhole. Farewell, little guys, farewell. If only your commander hadn’t been such a buffoon you may yet have lived to see your homes again.

With that final act of idiocy, the match is concluded.

Still, this was something approaching an improvement. I had points on the board, and the chap I was playing against (despite my early misgivings) was courteous throughout. Yes, he evidently enjoyed an easy ride, but he also seemed eager to give complete beginners like myself a reasonable chance to learn parts of the game. In my case, how not to go about tackling a tank.
Game Three

Map
Road To Langres (4v4)

Game Mode
Assault Zones

Team
Ze Germans

Final Score
0/120

For the day’s final encounter, I opt to join another large game – but this time on an Assault Zones map. It’s the Commonwealth vs Germany, with yours truly donning the stick-on swastika and learning that funny goosestep (just temporarily, you understand).

My eyes can’t help but alert my brain that we’re once again fighting across an awfully picturesque battlefield, dotted with charming farms and forests. Such a shame they’ll soon be decimated.

Knowing how this works by now, I press forwards to my natural holding point at what appears to be a ruined fuel depot, just left of centre on the map. As I individually duck my guys behind various bits of cover, it strikes me as perhaps a bad idea to be using fuel barrels to hide behind. I reorganise, and put people behind crumbling walls instead.

There’s little time to sit and admire my cover-based micro-management genius however, because I spy a fellow German player pushing forwards for a enemy-held spot close by. I join the assault with a few men and begin what proves to be a vicious back and forth tussle for a barn.
This kind of fraught tug-of-war seems to be what Men of War: Assault Squad excels at. Even on larger maps, personal battlefield grudge matches develop quickly over tiny bits of land. The usual real-time strategy mindset has to be ditched, in favour of one which is ready for bitter wars of attrition and the steady push, push, push up the field. More and more men and tanks are sent into the meat grinder here, with minor triumphs (my small squad of paratroopers taking and holding the position for a matter of seconds) mixed with individual disgrace (my anti-tank gun not having a proper line of fire to an enemy tank and blowing itself and several hapless infantry up with it).

Try as we might, we can’t make inroads on the British positions. Their score is steadily ticking upwards while all of our resources are being used to simply maintain the status quo. If anything, they’re edging closer to us, as my fuel depot suddenly comes under attack from infantry and a lone tank. I’m able to repel this assault, but in doing so take my eye off the farmhouse which is now firmly in enemy hands.

With the opposing team needing just a handful more points to reach the victory goal of 120, and our score stubbornly remaining at 0, one of our team drops out. Maybe he disconnected, maybe he just quit in disgust. Whatever the reason, it encourages another of our side to leave and the game fizzles out with our tacit capitulation. Another embarrassing defeat to add to the collection. There’ll be no springtime for Hitler here.

Debriefing

Despite my obvious lack of skill, Men of War: Assault Squad was fascinating experience. The game tries to strike an unusual balance, expecting you to juggle your time between the ‘big picture’ strategic operations and hand-holding lone soldiers through complex, interface-hampered maneuvers. It’s a balance which is frequently lost in the pace and confusion of multiplayer, but when the system works it can result in some thrilling moments of virtual heroism.
Ultimately, everyone is having to divide their time between micro-management, spawning more units and usefully guiding the ones they have. It’s a relentless, impossible task, but one that makes equal demands of all players. Remember; while your opponent is taking direct control of that fearsome tank and crushing all before him, the AI is babysitting the rest of his forces – and she’s not a responsible adult.

I had no problems getting a few games on a Sunday afternoon in the US (yes, in the interests of full disclosure, this was actually ‘An Afternoon With’), and the community seemed generally welcoming and tolerant of new players (apologies to anybody whose team I was on, yes, I did suck). There’s a punishing, borderline unreasonable, learning curve to overcome with Assault Squad, but it seems to be a game well worth persevering with.

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