I've always found it hard to get excited about the Men Of War series. This is admittedly partly down to the name. Short of outright calling your game "War", Men Of War is about as generic a title as you can get for a video game. And I think this was at least partly reflective of the games behind it. Men Of War has generally delivered dependable real-time tactics games, but the series has never excited me in the way that, say, Relic's Company Of Heroes does.
So it's a promising sign that, at the end of Best Way's demonstration of the just-announced Men Of War II, I came away keen to play it. Not only does it look slicker and more user friendly than earlier games (without compromising on the depth that appeals to the series' core fanbase) there are a couple of ideas it’s playing with that lodged themselves in my mind like chunks of grenade shrapnel.
One thing that hasn't changed over the original Men Of War, which launched in the primordial mists of 2009, is the setting. Men Of War II returns the series to its World War II roots. But according to developer Best Way, which features several members of the original development team, it won't be revisiting popular fronts and battles replicated ad nauseum by other World War II games. "We would like to show the other side of World War II," says designer Alexander Babin, "without the classic battles such as D-Day or Stalingrad, because at some point players started to feel like they have already seen everything."
The game's campaign will be split into two separate storylines, one focusing on the Allies, and the other on the Soviets. The former follows Allied forces as they push through Normandy in the aftermath of D-Day, with scenarios built around historical engagements such as Operation Lüttich, a major German counterattack during Operation Overlord, and the battle of the Falaise pocket, in which Allied forces surrounded a large portion of the German Army following Lüttich's failure.
The latter, meanwhile, centres around the Soviet defence against Operation Barbarossa, with the Red Army fighting for every inch of ground as the German war machine advances. The idea of fighting a defensive campaign is particularly intriguing, given that strategy games so often prioritise conquest and pushing forward. Best Way offered a glimpse of how this is likely to work, demoing a mission in which the Red Army had to destroy three bridges to halt the German advance.
What's immediately clear from the demonstration is how comprehensive Men Of War II is in depicting World War II battles. The game features over 300 vehicles and 45 different army battalions, covering just about every imaginable role in the three major armies represented. Alongside a wide range of infantry and armour types, your forces can be supported by artillery weapons, which must be kept concealed from the enemy using camouflage to be most effective. There will also be limited representation of air support, with you able to temporarily call-in planes for strafing and bombing runs. You'll also have some ability to shape the battlefield yourself, with infantry able to dig trenches and construct various defensive fortifications to help them hold key points.
More broadly, your strategic approach will be governed by the frontline mechanic. Control of the battlefield is marked by a visible frontline on either side, and there are many things that can only be done on your side of the battlefield. Summoned troops can appear only at a certain distance from the front line. Engineers can place anti-tank hedgehogs, dig trenches and set up minefields, but only on your side of the battlefield. Medics can take wounded soldiers on your side to the hospital and vehicles can retreat to get repairs done or to replenish ammunition.
In addition, there's also no fog of war on your side of the frontline, so aside from a few specialized stealth units, you'll immediately be able to see enemy troops crossing into your territory. It's also crucial to note that the frontline can only be pushed forward by infantry units - tanks and other vehicles have no effect on the frontline. Therefore your most vulnerable units are also your most valuable, so it's vital to provide your soldiers with appropriate support. A general who is careless with lives will struggle to maintain control over the battlefield.
The tactical potential of the frontline is immediately clear. I love the idea of pushing down the flanks to surround enemies and deprive them of reinforcements, constructing defensive fortifications along the frontline to hold it, watching for salients in your enemy's line and sweeping sideways to cut them off. It seems primed to reward careful planning and flexibility.
Alongside these more abstract additions, Men Of War II also seeks to improve the game's more direct representation of the war. The sequel is running on a new version of Best Way's GEM engine that has been "purpose built" for it and has been upgraded to support HDR, 4K resolutions, modern lighting effects, and so on. The audio has been overhauled too. Composite sounds will change in real-time and depending on the distance of the source from the player.
Direct Vision means you can now get up close and personal with the battlefield, viewing it in first-person from above tank hatches and behind mounted machine guns.
The result is a game that rivals Company Of Heroes for its audiovisual spectacle. Tank shells and artillery barrages land in thundering bursts that'll reshape the game's destructive battlefields, while the detail on individual models is also impressive. Indeed, Best Way’s confidence in Men Of War II's visual presentation is demonstrated by the introduction of "Direct Vision." The series has always let players assume direct control of individual soldiers and units, letting them try to personally influence the battle, but this was always from a bird's eye view. Now, you can get up close and personal with the battlefield, viewing it in first-person from above tank hatches and behind mounted machine guns.
One element of Men Of War II that's less clear is how straightforward the game will be to grapple with. Everything in the demo footage seemed to move more slickly than in previous games, but it's hard to discern how that translates to controlling your army without getting hands-on. During the demo, Best Way said that they're trying to balance accessibility with depth, but it sounded like the latter remains the primary focus for the studio, which will no doubt please the series' existing audience.
As a direct sequel to Men Of War, the game will be more singleplayer oriented than its Assault Squad spinoffs, but multiplayer is still being heavily catered for. The game supports skirmishes of varying sizes, including massive 5v5 battles, with players able to choose not only the army they want to fight as (whether that's Germany, Russia, or the US), but specific battalion pre-sets geared toward specific fighting styles. Best Way also mentioned that the game will launch with full mod support, including a bunch of new tools for more creatively-minded players to adapt the game.
I'm excited for Men Of War II, which I did not expect to feel like going into the demonstration. It looks and sounds fantastic, while the frontline mechanic has me genuinely intrigued for the sequel's strategic potential. The game is due to launch sometime next year, so between it and the upcoming Company Of Heroes 3, 2022 is shaping up to be a banner year for World War II-themed strategy games.