Platform: PC (reviewed)
Developer: Eugen Systems
Publisher: Paradox Interactive
Release: 23th May 2017
As the creators of my favourite RTS R.U.S.E, especially according to the hours I wasted in it (please don´t ask), Eugen Systems was always a special developer for me. However, their following Wargame series failed at truly hooking me and Act of Aggression simply failed at what it tried, leaving me with the hope for R.U.S.E 2 till this date, even if Ubisoft holds the rights. Now, Eugen Systems brings us another whole new game, Steel Division Normandy 44, a Wargame mixed with various other RTS elements. Be assured, it´s fantastic.
First of all, let´s make something clear, Steel Division Normandy 44 isn´t a game for offline players. While we may be greeted with a campaign, as well as a pretty good AI for solo skirmishes, most of your time will have to be spend in the multiplayer, in order to enjoy it to its fullest. Especially because none of the provided singleplayer content is any good, with the campaign being not even a tutorial for the multiplayer but rather a bland attempt at creating a classic RTS one.
If you´re familiar with the Eugen Wargame formula, you´ll know how different it is to other representatives of this genre with its non-existent base building, units to deploy in form of cards etc. Now try to put this elements into a campaign full of missions like “hold this for 30min” or “guard this truck”. These systems simply don´t work nearly as good as in a Starcraft 2 for example, mixed with giant battlefields just created to spam them full of units, hoping to create somewhat of an epic WW2 battlefield. Frankly, the campaign of Steel Division Normandy 44 in particular is so bland, uninspiried and full of tasks working against their unique formula, that it doesn´t serve as a tutorial nor as a great experience in general, making it by far the weakest part.
Luckily, the graphics stayed typically Eugen, letting us seamlessly zoom in and out on the map, from the tiniest tree to the whole map. Overall, models seemed very detailed, compared to the actual size of them, enhanced by some sharp textures and ok looking houses, placed on a gorgeous terrain. Considering it´s relatively low hardware hunger, giant battlefields and mass of units, it´s quite impressing Steel Division Normandy 44 turned out to be such a neat looking game. The only thing I could criticise would be the interface, which may be clearly structured but fails at delivering a helpful visualization of every available cover spot, since not every little piece of forest often works as intended.
So, let´s focus on the multiplayer and the gameplay itself, which is heavily based on the Wargame series. One of its core mechanics is the “Battlegroup”-system, a slight alteration of Wargame´s cards. Letting you create your own set of units for each of the various factions through various cards, 400 in total. Since we can freely choose from a dozens of units per faction, each offering their own set income and focus, everything from a rush-based to late game focused playstyles can be executed without any boundaries. People who love to dive into the meta of these systems are greeted with an endless mass of possibilities … a wet dream. Nontheless Steel Division Normandy 44 still offers random premade Battlegroups as well, if you prefer a more straightforward approach.
However, don´t be fooled into thinking that Steel Division Normandy 44 may also play similar to Wargame or previous games. Instead of classic goals, like destroying the enemy or holding certain points, Eugen Systems decided to let their game revolve around map control. The team holding the bigger chunk of the map will get points, depending on the size of held territory, forcing every player to actively push, denying any possiblity of camping/turteling. It´s a great but also unique system, able to give Normandy 44 a whole new gameplay touch, without overcomplicating it.
At the start of each battle, we´re able to buy units we want to use, based on our Battlegroup and cost. Similar to Wargame, Steel Division Normandy 44 completly focuses on battles between the teams, rather than a classic base building approach, directly putting every player in action at minute 1. Another feature, heavily influencing the flow of battles, are the Battle Phases, Eugen´s approach to tech levels. During the beginning we´re only able to build units from Phase A, while B/C will unlock after a certain amount of time has passed. Combined with the Battlegroups, they allow some neat tactics but also some interesting battle developments. Often, I may have pushed the enemy behind their lines but got surprised by giant armies rolling over me, once we reached the next Battle Phase, due to the different focuses of the factions and decks.
Yet, maybe the best part about Steel Division Normandy 44 isn´t any of those, no matter how much depth they added, the battles themselves are most important. Unlike many other games Eugen Systems didn´t restrict the gameplay to big, epic battlefields nor small, tactical ones, they offer both. On one hand it offers giant battlefields, with up to 20 players at the same time, making it impossible to win alone and cooperation as well as using roads and cars to your advantage a necessity. Transforming these giant maps into enormous battlefields of unseen size in 10v10s is truly an epic experience, in which teammates help each other and everyone is somewhat at every front.
On the other hand, we´re given the tools and mechanics to control our units similar to every other RTS, through the cover/sneak and many other systems. Most of the fights won´t be determined by the amount or quality of your units but by their positioning, mostly unseen before. Often the fights will be taken into cities or forests, where your infantry will fight close range skrimishes in houses or between streets, desperately trying to secure some ground. These shifts between gameplay during each round are new, unique and just fun. Showing how much thought and ideas went into Steel Division Normandy 44.
Additionally, Eugen Systems implemented a moral system, since all these above named features weren´t enough apparently. All units, no matter if tank or infantry, now have a morale, influenced by hits taken or position in a fight. A tank which got hit at the side may decide to fall back, to ensure he lives on, without being influenced by the player, same with other units, for example. Not only does it force us to handle our troops with care, we´re also developing a feeling for every one of them, due to their often surprising actions, it lets them look like actual humans. At the start it looked like a random component, more annoying than cool, yet the more I played the more I understood how it lets me develop an unique understanding of each unit.
All in all, Steel Division Normandy 44 is truly a great RTS, that got the courage to implement many new and old systems into one game. From the Battlegroups to the giant multiplayer battles, ranging from close range skirmishes to huge map-wide conflicts and transportation lines. Enhanced by the neat morale system, amazing graphics, as well as a well structured interface and combined with the well-known and loved Eugen Systems formula.
Despite the lacking singleplayer content, bland campaign and little interface problems, all these systems combined achieved something Wargame couldn´t:
They made me love Steel Division Normandy 44.
[A Review Code was provided by Paradox Interactive]