Men of War is a legendary World War II RTS series, and not just because of its terrible voice acting. No, it’s known from being a game where you regularly control forces of platoon size and up, but you can also take control of an individual infantryman to rifle through a fallen enemy’s pockets. Digitalmindsoft are the people who worked on its Assault Squad spin-off, as well as the Call to Arms title, which is essentially “Men of War: Modern Day”. Did this experience help them create a compelling game with Men of War: Assault Squad 2 – Cold War? No, not at all.
Most strategy games that decide to tackle the what-ifs of the Cold War Gone Hot usually have some explanation of what is happening and why. However, Cold War is beyond such petty mortal concerns. You don’t need to know at what point in the Cold War timeline the game is set (keep this in mind), why the war is going hot or where you’ll be fighting. You have your dynamic campaign, your skirmish battles, and your online modes, and you should be thankful for that.
A campaign worse than Napoleon’s invasion of Russia
Oh, the “dynamic campaign.” Few things in a description of an RTS invoke as much dread as this phrase. Widely lauded, the Risk-style campaign of Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War – Dark Crusade convinced game developers that rather than putting sweat and effort into crafting a single-player campaign out of a series of bespoke story missions, one can get away with simply linking a bunch of skirmish battles via large campaign map. I was concerned that Cold War would be afflicted by this trend. It was not.
In fact, there’s even less pretense that the campaign is anything but a bunch of linked skirmish battles. A Men of War: Assault Squad 2 – Cold War campaign is measured in days, which is a meaningless exercise, as each day equals one battle, and doesn’t factor into anything else (like unit refits, supply levels and so on). You fight a battle, and a day passes. You get some resources to refit your force and to recruit new units and that’s all there is to it.
The campaign map, as it exists, is a glorified progress bar: it does not influence what map you’ll fight on, the conditions of the battle, or anything else. In fact, aside from not losing your starting territory, it has no impact at all. And once the required number of battles is fought, the game declares the victor by seeing who won more often. That’s all that matters.
To start the campaign you choose the difficulty, the length, resource level and whether Fog of War and Hardcore modes will be on. You also pick a side: US or USSR. Then you’re dropped into the army building screen. On the left, you see what units you can recruit – you can buy as many as your resources (that is, the single resource that exists in the game, fittingly named “resources”) allow and put them in your unit pool in the center. You then use those units to assign them to reinforcement waves in the window to the right.
Each wave is limited in size by command points (the other price of a unit), with later waves being bigger. You can usually guess a unit’s effectiveness by the cost – except for the 3 early tanks, which all cost 15 CP no matter what. You then take these forces into a randomly determined map to fight.
Men of War: Assault Squad 2 – Cold War doesn’t even know World War II
This force selection screen is your first solid hint that Men of War: Assault Squad 2 – Cold War is trash. True, the fact that the single-game intro is an eerily silent reveal of Digitalmindsoft logo might be a little disquieting, but once you get to look at your units, you can truly understand what kind of a ride you’re in for. For one thing, the forces of USSR and USA are, for all intents and purposes, identical. What differences in weaponry exist are so small they are nearly indistinguishable. Infantry loadouts and organization are entirely the same for both, which no doubt helped the developers balance the game with as little effort as possible.
So while the Americans get their three early tanks in the forms of M24 Chaffee, M41 Walker Bulldog and M4A4 Sherman, the USSR gets PT-76, BMP-1, and T-34/85. The biggest difference here is that BMP-1 is actually an infantry fighting vehicle (an angry APC), and so it can carry troops and that it has an anti-tank guided missile (ATGM) in addition to its gun. Other than that, these all basically function the same, and they all serve a single purpose. This in itself proves that the developers didn’t care at all about making a historical game, and just cobbled together whatever assets were at hand to release a game.
The astute reader will have noticed that Americans get the M4A4 Sherman. The US never used that version; of the ones they did use, only the M4A3E8 was retained after WWII. Meanwhile, the unit selection screen allows a rotate and zoom on every member of a unit, including this tank that the US never used, serving here in a configuration (75mm short gun and associated turret) that was abandoned before the end of World War II. In general, the mix of vehicles seen at hand is bizarre, to say the least. Going by dates when certain hardware was accepted into service or retired, you could place the action of Men of War: Assault Squad 2 – Cold War at around 1963, though it still doesn’t make sense.
Similarly, infantry equipment continues this trend, with the humble Soviet squad taking to the field with 8 SVT-40s (a rifle that was rare at the start of WWII, replaced by SKS after the war, which was in turn almost instantly supplanted by the AK), a DP LMG (the WWII “record player”) and an NCO armed with an AK (because WW2 Sergeants had SMGs, and what is assault rifle if not a big SMG?). This is a nonsensical loadout no matter what period of history you look at. Ye olde Cuban Missile Crisis game had the excuse of it being the aftermath of a nuclear exchange after said crisis went wrong. Cold War doesn’t. Sure, you can say that most mainstream RTS are just arcade games with a history-inspired skin, but Cold War doesn’t even get the skin right.
It’s a losing battle
OK, so we saw that the developers put zero effort into units and just reused a bunch of models from other WWII titles, I am guessing modern weapons were donated by MoW Vietnam. But maybe they put all the effort into the campaign battles?
Campaign battles take place on a strip of a randomly selected map (the game comes with 5). For the first battle, you and the opponent fight for the control of a single checkpoint. For the second, you fight for two checkpoints. Once these battles are fought, you can buy better units. It’s worth noting that this doesn’t require victories, just battles – so your performance has little impact.
The wave mechanic doesn’t matter at all. The troops don’t come in automatically, and you can only get them on the table once the CP ticker in the match reaches the price of the wave. You still have to waste time manually spawning your first wave though. Players start the match with 50 CP, which is the limit of how big the first wave can be, so you literally can’t do anything else. You can try to mess around with constructing understrength waves, but that’s just hamstringing yourself for no real benefit.
Where’s the AI?
Do you know what else the game can’t do? AI. True, it has been rubbish as far back as the series goes. Assault Squad capitalized on it by making most of the missions take place in a narrow corridor, and in these circumstances, you only need to script AI to send units towards the opposite end of the map, and it’s good to go. It hasn’t changed in Cold War.
Campaign battles happen on narrow strips for a reason and it’s the difficulty that you set at the start of the campaign. It only determines how much the AI cheats, by which I mean how many more units it gets than you. If you set up an ultra difficulty campaign with no fog of war, you can see how the AI spawns hordes of infantry and a handful of tanks to bear down on the two squads you were able to bring in as the 50 CP first wave. My two paratrooper squads managed to down 79 infantry rushing them in a single file before being overrun, mostly due to aforementioned tanks stopping at a good firing position.
Literally nothing new on the Western front
It’s somewhat less noticeable once you take to skirmish battles (available in 4 vs 4 and 2 vs 2 flavors on the same 5 maps), where the AI will do something other than just beelining towards the nearest checkpoint. Then again, it seems that much harder to win while playing as Soviets, so it means that the devs still didn’t manage to balance a game with two nearly identical factions.
There is always Hardcore if you really want to play Cold War. The ‘regular’ mode adds ugly health bars, which makes infantry only a little more durable, but turns tank battles into an absolute farce. On Hardcore, you’re already treated to the insanity of M113s (the aluminum boxes with an American filling) surviving 76mm (and higher) hits, but tank health bars make it painfully obvious. A Chaffee is a World War II light tank that would not survive an encounter with a WWII-era medium, so it wouldn’t even have a snowball’s chance in hell against a T-55.
Yet there I was, my T-55 fruitlessly putting shot after shot at the Chaffee while a flanking Walker Bulldog was attacking my side armor (a BMP-1 sent to sort out the Bulldog did so in 5-6 combined gun and ATGM shots). You will still encounter dumb situations like that on Hardcore, but less often.
If you remember how meticulous armor penetration and system-damage mechanics were in the original MoW, you do have to wonder what has happened here. But that’s the thing: nothing happened. Men of War is stuck with the Stronghold syndrome: the series barely progressed any in the last ten years, always trying to replay or remix the same formula. Assault rifles are just reskinned SMGs, the only ATGM in the game doesn’t act any differently from a tank gun, and helicopters are just tanks that hover above the map (it’s one of the few games where you can take down a Chinook with a T-34).
There has been literally no effort put into simulating changes to warfare that occurred during the Cold War. More than that, they removed smoke grenades from a game set in the era where tanks were gaining smoke launchers left and right. They didn’t even bother to get new unit barks – US soldiers still scream “for Uncle Sam!” – but at least they stopped the Soviet soldiers from praising Stalin.
War is hell
Men of War: Assault Squad 2 – Cold War is a game that is sub-mod in quality and looks very much like an official asset flip. It’s the most disappointing mish-mash they could have possibly made. Maybe the game will improve as it gets patched, the September 6 patch did make it no longer possible to call in all the three waves at the start of the game. However, it also made a campaign mission ending crash the game, so I am not holding my breath.