Steel Division: Normandy ’44 is the start of something brand new for Eugen Systems and walks a fine line between real time strategy games and wargames. Here is our review.
Eugen Systems and their games may not be household names for a lot of gamers, but we’ve been enjoying their Wargame series for years now and still feel that Act of Aggression didn’t get the love it deserved. Leaving the Wargame series behind for now (it ran for almost five years), Eugen is now shifting their attention from the modern arena of war to the World War 2 era – with their first game in their (no doubt) new series focusing on the Normandy invasion in 1944.
We focused mostly on the game’s single player campaign and the skirmish options against the (more than competent) AI, and didn’t play a lot of online multiplayer during our testing. Luckily, there is plenty of offline content to enjoy as well – including three campaigns made up out of four missions each. In these campaigns, you control either the US, British or German forces – with the Germans in particular being a different kind of experience.
Relying much more on firepower than on manpower, the Germans are on the defensive and have to be careful with their resources. This translates to how many men they have available, but also to how costly it is to replace them and their weapons. The allied forces, by comparison, have a much more steady supply of resources coming in – making for a completely different dynamic.
Steel Division is a much more tactical approach than your average Command & Conquer or Company of Heroes title is, and rushing headfirst into battle is a surefire way to lose. Instead, you’ll want to keep a close eye on things like cover and line of sight, because the invading allied forces will easily be picked off if you don’t. One of my personal favorites was to try and employ surprise tactics, moving units under the cover of the French woods to a position near the enemy first. Then, moving in with a heavier unit that’s unable to hide, I’d distract them before attacking them from behind with my hidden units. It doesn’t always work because the enemy is often very alert, but it’s very satisfying when it does.
What makes my surprise-oriented tactic harder to execute is the visually dynamic frontline that’s always visible. This gives you a rough idea of where on the battlefield troops are located, and thus an idea of who controls which area. Obviously, this has the potential to give away your secret hiding spots to a degree, so you need to make sure you keep the frontline into account when you move into position.
Steel Division isn’t just more tactical than the average RTS, it’s also more difficult and intricate. Jumping into the game very late into its early access period meant we missed out on a lot of development and information that Eugen has provided in the previous months. I have a feeling that by playing more and reading more community feedback, I’ll discover a lot more about the intricacies of the game in the coming weeks.
During my playtesting, I found that I was spending more and more time with my unit selection before each battle. No matter which side you pick, you always have a wide range of divisions to choose from – and the game provides you with ways to balance the group you end up sending into battle by mixing and matching some of the qualities and perks that you think might come in handy. All these units are also designed with historical accuracy in mind, which makes playing all the more interesting. Mission design accommodates this as well, since tactical options and challenges vary greatly depending on the mission you’re tackling and/or the units you’re sending in.
There’s a “boot camp” that serves as a tutorial and the single player campaign introduces you to a diverse enough set of scenarios that something new will come up every mission, but I can’t shake the feeling that there should be more in-depth tutorials on some of this stuff. Sure, I bet I could learn a ton from playing more experienced players in online multiplayer, but my focus has always been on single player and right now I’m feeling an invisible barrier towards the online multiplayer that I have to take down by reading up on the game rather than playing it.
Of course, a great way around this very steep learning curve is to play online with a couple of friends. Steel Division offers options to play matches up to the scale of a 10 vs 10 conflict, but we stuck to a couple of matches of the 2 vs 2 variety. Having people of similar skill levels really makes this game shine, because with all of its historical accuracy and tactical depth players are constantly trying out new tactics and no two games are the same. Hopefully that means that we can push each other to higher levels as well, so that we’re ready for the no doubt very competitive online arena that will flock to this game and its impending expansions and sequels. Steel Division: Normandy ’44 is a daunting experience that’s not for everyone, but it has a lot of staying power for those willing to invest in it.