Here's something staggering: a game about the second World War, localized into English, that doesn't even pretend to appeal to a western audience by detailing the campaigns of western armies. Here's something even more staggering: a game about amphibious operations in the second World War that doesn't feature Normandy. To someone who grew up on Call of Duty and Medal of Honor and Saving Private Ryan, the absence is so conspicuous it almost seems sinister. Are these Russians making fun of how infatuated we are with our own battles?
"It isn't meant to fill the hole in our hearts that a sequel or even a major expansion pack would."
They probably aren't, because Red Tide is meant to be a stopgap measure in between 2008's Men of War and the forthcoming Heroes Badge expansion pack. It isn't meant to fill the hole in our hearts that a sequel or even a major expansion pack would. It's just meant to give us more of what we've been happily breezing through since 2004's Soldiers: Heroes of World War 2: a lot of lavishly detailed missions, a robust physics engine, long odds, and pyrotechnics.
That is the Red Tide experience, basically. More specifically (for those of you who've been snoozing), the experience is real time, tactical and somewhat nonlinear. From a top-down perspective, you maneuver a small band of soldiers (grouped in squads or individually – your choice) around a fully destructible map on which there may be vehicles (or large guns) you can commandeer, buildings you can knock over, soldiers you can kill and then loot equipment from, and objectives you must accomplish. You accomplish these objectives (which typically boil down to destroying the enemy, defending a location, or simply stealing a special item) with your own special blend of sneaking, gunplay, diversion, and assault. Your soldiers start out each mission with a set of equipment you can completely discard and replace with captured loot if you desire. They may or may not begin with vehicles, but if they don't, you can either steal them from the enemy or disable them, kill the crew, repair them, and then steal them. Every tank has a dozen or so key parts that can be destroyed and repaired, every soldier has health and stamina, every building has pillars and load-bearing walls, and every gun has an ammo count. In addition, you can take direct control of any of your soldiers at any time. This means you aim his weapons with your mouse and move him precisely with your arrow keys. It's perfect for hitting the tank engine with the Molotov just so, or nailing the camp guard in the watchtower on the first hit. The detail is slightly insane, but once you get used to it, every single bit of it is crucial.
Red Tide takes the mechanics and plops them down on the battlefields of the Black Sea during the fighting on the eastern front. Things generally play out the same way as they did in Men of War, with the addition of a more robust naval componen. There are a couple sequences in which the player has to prepare the way for friendly landings by bombing the shore, and there are others where the player has to land his platoons on the beach himself by driving the boat up to the shore and ordering every soldier to jump into the water and swim for it. This is a bit jarring, again, for someone used to Omaha, but perfectly effective nonetheless.
The other difference, aside from the naval component, is the sheer size of some of the missions. The final mission sets no fewer than four discrete sets of objectives in front of you throughout the course of the mission. You clear the dock, then advance inland, then attack Germans at key points throughout a city, then prevent them from blowing the town up as they retreat, then catch them retreating and destroy the plane they flew in on. It's an extreme example but not too extreme. Expect to spend well north of an hour on some of the hairier missions (and on longer mission-chains, such as the intricate, nail-biting breakout of a decimated marine company that plays out over several missions).
Not only are the missions lengthy, the campaign itself seems interminable, even when you're enjoying it. I'm not sure if there is more to play here than there was in Men of War, but the fact that I even have to ask myself that question should tell you something. It should take you a week solid of spent evenings and a lot of brow furrowing to put this game behind you.
The campaign is augmented by an encyclopedia the entries of which are gradually revealed to the player the further along he travels through the game. The developers (and scenario-writer Alexander Zorich) have graciously provided grognards with detailed information on the weapons, tactics, and history of the Soviet marines during the war. I was more interested in the memoirs from former Marines, especially those of the Soviet woman who was drafted and wound up at the end of the war leading a squad and going on raids deep into occupied territory.
The major flaw of this mission pack is that it lacks multiplayer. I'm not sure how compelling naval MP would have been, given the sketchy nature of the ship controls, but it's still disappointing to know that we've not even been given the chance to try the boats out against others. Other flaws include the fact that some missions are essentially repeated with minor variations at several points throughout the campaign, and the fact that the encyclopedia and the in-game narrative don't do a very good job of getting the history of the campaign across coherently.
This is nitpicking next to the game's merits, though. What the game does – a single-player campaign – it does very well, and if you enjoyed the rich scenarios of previous games in the series you probably own this game already. If you don't, and if you're looking for an entry point into the phenomenon, this is as stellar a place to start as any.