In Russia, where these games are made, they’re collectively known as the Outfront series. Elsewhere they go by a series of names – the first one (back in 20004) was called Soldiers: Heroes of World War 2, the next one was known as Faces of War, and the most recent was Men of War, which came out in 2009 but had an expansion pack, Red Tide, added to it last year. This new game in the series shares a name and a premise with its ancestors – players are expected to guide a diverse assortment of men, vehicles, and guns to victory on a wide array of maps towards a wide array of objectives – protecting a perimeter, breaching a line, sinking a moored ship, escaping a prisoner-of-war camp, etc. The action is real-time, tactical, and complicated by a detailed physics system, inventories for each soldier and vehicle, and the ability to directly control any unit on the battlefield, e.g., grab hold of Ivan and steer him up to a wall so he can toss that grenade oh-so-delicately over the edge into the courtyard on the other side.
Assault Squad seems to be more balanced than the last expansion to Men of War, but it really isn’t. Red Tide focused exclusively on a single (very good) single-player campaign in a very specific historical setting. There was no multiplayer, not much in the way of new sides (finally, we can play as the Romanians), and not even a lot of hardware, aside from some clunky boats and a few new tank derivatives. Assault Squad goes off in the exact opposite direction: multiplayer steals the show this time.
The reason why it seems that Assault Squad is more balanced is because it includes a skirmish mode, which is supposed to be a concession to single-player gamers. However the skirmish mode isn’t like any other skirmish mode I’ve ever played. It consists of a bunch of scenarios, several per nation, which give you a progression of increasingly well-defended points to capture, a running total of resources (which you add to by capturing points and killing people), and a buy menu similar to the one you have to use in multiplayer to get your soldiers, guns and vehicles. Some people have called it “repetitive,” and that’s true but also not terribly relevant: it’s meant to hone your skills for the crucible of online matches. The early enemies you face are infantry and light gun emplacements, but by the time you’ve reached the end of the map you’re facing high-level tanks and powerful artillery. This progression is the same against human players online, as everyone has to fight first with infantry, then with light vehicles, then with medium and heavy ones.
"Even if you’re an old hand, you might want to beef up on Men of War before you head online…"
Even if you’re an old hand, you might want to beef up on Men of War before you head online, because the base game has been tweaked. In addition to normal infantry and normal guns and normal vehicles, there are now super-units for each nation that are more durable and potent than regular units. The British, for example, have the ANZAC infantry unit, which has better anti-tank capability and is harder to kill than normal infantry, even if it is still vulnerable, like all infantry, to cannon fire and machine guns. The Japanese have a special long-rang rocket launcher which is more of a mixed bag, since it’s very inaccurate and slow to reload but has one of the biggest blast radii in the game. The Germans get a really nice tank and a big remote-controlled bomb that you can run up to a tank and detonate.
And then, aside from the hero units, there are things that move even further into war mythology. Each side has its own special move; the Japanese and the Russians both have a mass infantry charge they can direct at any point on the map, and the Americans can paradrop an individual airborne soldier anywhere (typically I stick him right next to a gun emplacement way in the enemy’s rear).
The rest of the changes are more mundane. There are a number of new vehicles and weapons, the armor penetration system has been changed (it’s now easier to get a hit, but hits are less likely to do lethal damage), there are a slew of new multiplayer maps, and the AI has allegedly been beefed up (I didn’t really notice this).
The total effect of the expansion pack is still positive (multiplayer is still fun; even the single-player has its uses) but there are a few worrying signs – the introduction of hero units and special abilities and the inward-looking nature of the entire game (SP as preparation for MP). Hopefully the next entry in the series is more balanced and provides a more classical Men of War experience – solid multiplayer, single-player for its own sake, and a lot of white-knuckle fire-and-maneuver.