Steel Division: Normandy ’44 Review – Off To War We Go

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Platforms: PC
Reviewed On: PC
Developer: Eugen
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Singleplayer: Yes
Multiplayer: Yes

Review code supplied free of charge by the publisher.

From behind a wall of trees far in the distance my artillery unleashes a barrage of smoke to blind the MG42 heavy machine gun that would otherwise rip my infrantry apart. With cover in place my troops run across open ground and flank the position, only to find an enemy tank has been waiting patiently behind a nearby building, and my own lack of recon means I was unprepared for it. Stupid me. My troops get pinned down, rendering them useless, and then they get demolished. Fine. Time to bring up the heavy armor, complete with air support that smashes the anti-tank guns sitting way back before my own tanks roll in. On another front I’ve got some infantry holding a town with anti-tank weapons supporting them from across the open fields where they can get a good bead on anything big and ugly rolling in to cause trouble. The enemy are starting to reinforce, though, presumably seeking to push their frontline forward by smashing straight through my town. With recon I can see them bringing in artillery, anti-air guns, infantry, and tanks. War it is, then.

If you’ve ever touched an RTS most of the stuff here is going to be instantly familiar as Eugen haven’t broken the mold. You’ll be ordering troops, tanks, artillery and other assorted machines of bloody warfare around the lovingly rendered maps of Normandy in a bid to win, utilizing the roads to move everything around quickly where you can and the many, many hedgerows to set up ambushes. Since this aims to be a reasonable facimility of warfare real-world tactics prevail over churning out units and sending them en masse at the enemy. Except, of course, that’s exactly what they did in The Great War. And sometimes in World War II. People are stupid.

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The campaign is unsurprisingly less of a story driven affair and much more of an elongated tutorial to prepare you for the rigors of multiplayer, albeit a rather difficult tutorial as even the first mission of the first campaign is a fair challenge. I don’t mind admitting it took me three attempts to beat it. From there it’s quite typical stuff as you shoot your way through three campaigns, and while you Steel Division doesn’t get itself near some of the best RTS campaigns it’s still completely enjoyable and very satisfying to complete thanks to its difficulty.

Unlike other RTS games you won’t be building bases or any other structures. Instead, you’ll have an initial amount of points to spend on deploying your first batch of troops and armor onto your portion of the map. Here you also have a chance to give them their starting orders before the match starts, examining the map for points you’d like to assault straight away or perhaps even setting up a full-blown rush for enemy territory. Once you hit the launch button you’ll begin acquiring more requisition points every minute, and the number of these depends entirely on the division you’re playing as. With these you can bring new units onto the field, although they’ll always enter from your starting area so if you’ve captured a huge chunk of the map it can take some time for reinforcements to trundle across the road network to your position. As the match progresses you’ll move through three phases, with new units becoming available in each phase. Sometimes these will simply be more powerful and expensive troops, tanks and weapons, but other times it may simply be MORE of the same units since you have a limited amount of each to chuck into the fight.

The frontline of the war is visually present as a moving line. This is important because many of your units push that line forward, a visible indicator that something is moving across the battlefield and grabbing more territory like some sort of Pac-Man. However, some units, such as many recon troops, don’t move the frontline, letting them sneak into enemy territory in order to see what is going. Indeed, recon is absolutely vital in this game as the regular troops and armor don’t typically have the best optics, and thus without some recon units running around you’ll often find yourself being ambushed by soldiers or watching helplessly as your army gets annihilated by anti-tank guns and artillery.

Perhaps the most important thing to consider is line of sight as the many buildings and hedgerows of Normandy will block the vision of your units, and can be used to set up ambushes for unsuspecting players, which is why recon is so important, especially in the early stages. A line of sight tool can be brought up by holding C that will display line of sight and range for the currently selected unit wherever your cursor is hovering, but obviously over time you should becoming adept at glancing at the map and figuring it out yourself.

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While tanks and jeeps can’t move through forests and such infantry certainly can, and are also able to use it as cover. Not only that but troops can occupy buildings, and some of them carry weapons capable of damaging tanks if you can get them close enough. However, infantry are vulnerable to becoming pinned down under heavy fire which renders them utterly useless, the only command they’ll accept being to fall back to the nearest cover. Most infantry will also become pinned down much quicker if they find themselves past the frontline in enemy territory without support, although airborne infantry don’t suffer this penalty because, as they say, they’re meant to be surrounded. In many cases pinned down units will surrender to an enemy unit that gets close, too.

Another important thing about infantry is upon deployment they arrive in a vehicle that will ferry them to wherever you wish, but once you opt to disembark them the transport vanishes and thus they’re not able to get around as quickly. They can also run out of ammo, too, so in a prolonged battle an ammunition truck needs to be brought up to keep them firing. In other words infantry can be mighty useful and are cheap to produce, but also need a lot of support to use effectively, although you could say the same for just about everything in the game. No single type of unit is truly effective without the support it needs.

As for your heavily armored tanks they naturally tend to cost a lot more in terms of resources, but can be used to push the frontlines provided you don’t run them headfirst into anti-tank weaponry which can make sure work of them. While tanks can’t become pinned down too much sustained fire will force them to retreat just like infantry, and they can also have things like their engines destroyed. Like real life careful attention needs to be given to positioning tanks as they are typically more heavily armored on the front, so flanking powerful tanks is important. You also need to consider the armor values and armor penetration of tanks as sending in an armored unit against something with thicker armor than it can cope with is a recipe for disaster. Again, it comes down to knowing what each unit should be used for.

Speaking of which perhaps the most difficult part of the entire game can be understanding the subtle differences between the staggering 400 units available to you across all of the various divisions. The user interface is generally pretty good, but when you begin staring at the various stats it’s easy to feel like you’ve stepped into a maths lesson half way through and have no idea what the hell is going on. Making it more difficult are the foreign divisions since many of their units have unfamiliar names. Regardless of that even once you spend a while learning the differences trying to remember them all in the middle of a battle is a hell of a challenge. The basics of the game aren’t too hard to learn, but it’s a difficult to master the mechanics.

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That’s what makes the game so rewarding, though. The core of the mechanics is the same standard rock, paper, scizzors system that most strategy games employ, just with a lot of units to keep track of and hefty dollop of tactical thinking involved in making it all work out in your favor. You can’t just box-drag to select a bunch of units and then click on the objective like you so often can in other RTS games. using sheer force of numbers to swarm the enemy position. You’ve got to make sure infantry is using cover to close on their targets, that tanks are being supported, that artillery is laying down smoke or covering fire where needed and that you have air superiority. Rush in and the enemy will likely wipe you out because a reasonable defensive position can hold out against a simple charge with ease.

You can learn these lessons in skirmish mode where the A.I. is surprisingly adept at ripping off your head and then using your spine as a pointer stick. Luckily the friendly A.I. is just as good and like multiplayer you can have matches with up to nine other opponents, meaning you can hide your terrible strategy behind everyone else’s brilliance if need be. In skirmish you can also learn the ins and outs of the two game modes; the first demands that you capture and hold more of the map than the enemy team in order to score points, so early aggression is often the key before settling into a defensive position. The second mode awards points purely for wrecking enemy units and is therefore closer to the traditional RTS mode.

Once you get online proper you might start noticing a couple of potential balance issues that players are currently happy to take advantage of. Anti-air units, for example, don’t feel as good as they perhaps should. Now, in fairness the job of ground-based anit-air is more area denial than actual annihilation of enemy planes, but even in large amounts they seem to suck at that particuilar job with planes often manages to dive in and wreck vital units before the morale system forces them to flee. Thankfully I didn’t feel like there were any balance problems large enough to really damage the experience too much.

While you can hit the battlefield with a random premade force based on one of the eighteen available divisions there is a lot more joy to be taken from choosing a division and then customising what units will be available. You do this by essentially building a deck of sorts from cards that represent the troops, tanks and support gear you wish to field. The division you opt for dictates exactly what you have available and how many slots there are for each type, but apart from that the exact makeup is your choice and which units will become available during the three escalation phases. Cost versus sheer numbers versus exactly when a unit becomes available must be thought about, and of course you can create and save numerous battlegroups so that you can build decks designed to counter specific enemies.

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All of this feeds into one hell of an RTS where both the micro and macro feel fleshed out and wholly engaging. The limited resource points and the way certain units won’t become available until later force you into really thinking about each and every purchase. Is it worth bringing in a lot of infantry now for a strong push, or should you wait until later when some serious firepower will become available in the form of a nice artillery piece? Do you try to field a bit of everything, or focus yourself more? It’s also nice to see a realistic take on unit speed so that you’ve really got to take the map’s road network into consideration and the amount of time it takes to cart anit-take guns around. You can’t simply rush some troops over from one side of the map to another, nor can you just buy more because it will still take them time to get there, and so recon is always important so that you can see potential problems coming and be ready for them. At the same time you’ve got to be managing the micro side of things like ensuring your infantry are using cover and taking full advantage of the morale system to pin down troops and force tanks into retreating.

There are a few other small problems, like how when troops and units are being moved using their transports it doesn’t display the unit name, so if you’ve got a crappy memory like me you may wind up trying to remember exactly which infantry unit is in a truck. There’s also the fact that when units fall back they’ll simply head for the nearest cover, which can often mean running straight into enemy fire and getting demolished. Of course one could argue that this is a somewhat accurate representation of battlefield panic and confusion. As for tanks retreating I did occasionally note that it could take into a cat and mouse affair as a tank would retreat, then return, get shot at, run away again, come back and repeat the whole thing.

Coming from the slightly dissapointing Dawn of War III, Steel Division: Normandy ’44 is a welcome surprise, an RTS that doesn’t feel the need to hold your hand through simplified mechanics, and indeed aims to kick you in the nuts thanks to very challenging A.I. Of course the real longevity stems from the multiplayer where some balance issues make themselves known, but it’s nothing an update or two can’t fix. In the mean time what we’ve gotten is a damn good game that I’ve sunk dozens of hours into already, and plan on sinking many more into.

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