It’s hard not to notice that 2017 has seen a resurgence in World War Two films and video games alike. Just during summer, Blitzkrieg 3 and Sudden Strike 4 were released, while the game I’m writing about today launched at the end of May. “Dunkirk” opened in cinemas as a true summer blockbuster. You get my point: WW2 is back in the saddle. Even the upcoming Call of Duty, shall be a well deserved return to the series’ historic roots. Not a moment too soon. I first heard of the developer, Eugen Systems when I played their Act of War: Direct Action, close to 12 years ago.
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I was impressed by the amount of details and information poured into a strategy game, in a time when RTS titles were emphasizing on generic base building mechanics, churning equally generic units. In 2009, R.U.S.E. (no longer on Steam, sadly) introduced the developer’s signature style & proprietary graphics engine, IRISZOOM to the delight of most armchair generals wishing for a quality compromise between eye candy and in-depth strategy. Steel Division: Normandy 44 is proudly carrying the torch of its spiritual and technical predecessors. In more ways than one, it has surpassed them all.
Steel Division: Normandy 44 as its name suggests, focuses on a very specific WW2 campaign. The turning point for the entire war and the event which truly signaled, the inevitable end of the Third Reich. The Invasion of Normandy, D-Day, Operation Overlord, The Normandy Landings. Many names, a single great event in human history. The greatest seaborne invasion, in fact and Nazi Germany would slowly begin to crumble once the second, Western front would open in war-torn Europe. Steel Division features three distinct single player campaigns for the United States of America, Third Reich and the United Kingdom. In that order, based on the difficulty rating of the missions themselves. More on that below, but for now I shall focus on the raw numbers.
There are four missions for each aforementioned nation. I have to agree that they seem like quite a few, even if the amount of planning they involved, is visible even to the untrained eye. Everything from historically accurate maps, unit placement and sheer amount of intel, all point out towards the developer’s efforts in creating a D-Day video game unlike anything which came before it. I should know, since I’ve been an avid Osprey Publishing reader long before I even owned a gaming-capable PC or knew about the existence of Wikipedia. Ironically, for someone who pretty much abhors warfare and its innate violence, I like to keep myself informed about anything from tactics to seemingly “useless trivia” about caliber sizes and off road speeds of tanks from many decades ago. We all have our quirks, right?
Don’t expect a story. You get full interaction with history, in a title which brings the stress of managing a war room, back to life. And the rewarding aspects of it all, should your plans come to fruition. Saving the lives of your troops and hopefully forcing the enemy to surrender lest they suffer total annihilation. The US and UK campaigns are deeply embedded into historical facts, names and places, while the German missions take some minor artistic liberties. So, you shall first take full command of the US 82nd Airborne Division, providing support from behind enemy lines, in what Steel Division: Normandy 44 deems as the “Normal” difficulty of Mission Boston. I can assure you though that pitting paratroopers against machine gun nests and light tanks is anything but normal in terms of actual difficulty.
The “Hard” ones, within Atlantikwall, are from Germany’s 21st Panzer Division (veterans of Afrika Korps), which the game wishes to debate and imagine as a swift response from Field Marshall Erwin Rommel to the D-Day landings. A true “what if” the elite German units would have managed to counter-attack the Allies instead of failing to even predict the location or scale of the invasion. Almost as expected, leave it to the Scots, to face and overcome insurmountable odds. The “Very Hard” campaign missions in Steel Division: Normandy 44, focus on the heroic exploits of the 15th (Scottish) Infantry Division in Operation Epsom and the bloodbath which ensued around German-occupied Caen before its subsequent liberation.
Powered by the developer’s own graphics engine, Steel Division: Normandy 44 looks better than any title in the Close Combat series or similar and recently released WW2-focused RTS. The engine itself would be regarded as IRISZOOM V5 since it was called V4 in the latest Wargame iteration, 2014’s Red Dragon. Eugen Systems specialized in offering battle maps which shine both in a bird’s eye view and zoomed in perspectives. To put it in contemporary terms, it would resemble the support offered nowadays by UAVs (unmanned aerial vehicles, also known as “drones”) and convert that accurate, real time intel into the technology available 70 years ago. Keep in mind that even long-range and portable radio communication wasn’t available to the military until the Vietnam War, some 20 years after WW2 ended.
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Steel Division: Normandy 44 leaves very few details amiss. Apart from the resource-hungry graphical details, which I could only run maxed out at 2K resolution if I wanted close to 50fps, the players get access to a whole lot of information, relating to the units and the divisions present in-game along with short biographies for their commanders. How can I not love and respect strategy games, when they taught and piqued my interest in history back when school was doing the exact opposite? Stability through constant 60 frames per second can be achieved at 1080p, in case you’re wondering. No RTS game should be played at 30fps or less.
I’ve always been fond of the soundtracks from the strategic titles I’ve played over the years. From Age of Empires and Cossacks/American Conquest, to Company of Heroes and Blitzkrieg 2. Steel Division doesn’t disappoint with its audio assets. Voice acting is present in briefings and throughout the missions themselves while the units don’t suffer from repetitive spoken lines, a sin that was more prevalent in past RTS’. Sound effects are adequate and I really can’t think of another method in which all that shooting and engine noises, could have been rendered better. The OST has yet to surface online as separate songs, but I shall still link below a small audio sample which I prefer regarding as the game’s main theme since it’s also featured in Steel Division: Normandy 44’s Main Menu.
It was no understatement, that armchair generals and all-round strategy enthusiasts have no reason not to enjoy what they’re seeing and controlling in Steel Division: Normandy 44. Any game which features a well structured tutorial along with Achievements for going the extra mile in those training missions, is quite certainly a sign of complexity which goes far beyond “build this barracks and watch soldiers popping from it”. Steel Division, along with Sudden Strike and Blitzkrieg series, are what I like regarding as “hardcore WW2 RTS” titles. No base management whatsoever. Instead, players can focus on the battles and the tactics that transcend the clichés of a rock–paper–scissors unit organization by perceived strengths & weaknesses.
Real life warfare, especially the urban subtype, ensures that a well determined grunt with a handful of grenades or a rocket launcher, can shred a tank to bits or at least render it immobile. It’s all about finding cover and flanking your opponent. Being two steps ahead or thinking outside the box, can make the difference between life and death on a battlefield. Steel Division: Normandy 44 simulates armored vehicles in a very accurate manner. They’re not the invincible war machines portrayed in countless games so far. They’re slow, vulnerable “tin cans” with poor optics and crews with shifting morale, same as the case with any soldier from other branches of the armed forces.
Scouting is almost as important as always ensuring cover for your infantry. Recon units provide the eyes and ears of the entire army and that means that those mighty tanks aren’t worth much without on-foot spotters. Same deal as with snipers, in fact. It’s teamwork that gets the job done, not “ace” lone wolves, even if propaganda begs to differ. Aerial recon won’t always be an option and you must learn to adapt and improvise. The Artificial Intelligence is excellent albeit unforgiving. Before starting the missions, players need to form their Battlegroup. In this menu you can observe the available units, their types and ultimately their sheer numbers, since you’ll rely on clever use of those finite reinforcements.
I was pleased by the assistance offered, even during missions outside of the tutorial. Hovering over certain troops (which are neatly organized in categories, based on their specific combat roles), the “narrator” explains what and why you should pick for the upcoming battle. You’ll definitely need all the help you can receive. Pay close attention to the rounds per minute information since suppressing fire will be a lifesaver when defending towns against more numerous aggressors. Both machine gun fire and artillery shells (mortars & howitzers) shall pin down the enemy, essentially stopping or even forcing them to surrender. Coordinated attacks must be responded with coordinated defenses. Reinforcement points are awarded constantly and it’s far better to keep ordering new units on the battlefield, than to fall in the other extreme of being too conservative or cautious and just trying to rely on a handful of units. You will become swarmed by the enemy who already outnumbers you.
No one said this would be easy and I’m here to confirm that. I consider myself a skilled strategy fan, perhaps not close to the Korean-level of RTS mastery, but decent enough to beat the AI and mediocre players in skirmishes without breaking a sweat. Steel Division punished me at every opportunity it had. Once you stop thinking that “Zerg tactics” will even remotely work, you’re starting to understand the game. It never helps that as far as I’ve noticed, players won’t get the same quality of available personnel and even the numbers seem to favor the enemy you shall face. You also can’t change the SP difficulty setting. It’s been set into stone, so to speak. Either you learn from your own mistakes or you give up. I hope you know which of those options, is the right choice.
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Another issue I had with Steel Division: Normandy 44 is the lack of a pause button. One which might allow players to issue commands at ease, without the stress of being under fire and surrounded from all sides while trying to maintain their composure. But war will never be that forgiving so why should this game? You have “Bullet Time” as a minimum game speed and that shall have to prove an adequate, albeit fictional manner of issuing orders in the absence of a real pause. The battles are divided into phases from A and B to C. Some more advanced or powerful units won’t be able to reinforce you in the initial A phase, for example. And just when you thought that the game can’t get any more difficult…
You must revel in its challenging potential, not disregard it. Learn to improve your tactics and once you consider yourself ready, the Skirmish Mode shall be the perfect testing ground for the many lessons of the (still) short single player Campaign. I can only hope that since the title is literally divided in two, more Steel Division iterations shall be developed over the years. Focusing in a skilled manner on a single historical event from WW2 or beyond, is far better than it may seem if it’s historical accuracy you’re after. Video games deserve it and so do the players. Good luck in Steel Division: Normandy 44! You’ll need it.
All the screenshots you see above, have been taken by me in-game through the Steam Overlay.