Access Granted: Call to Arms21 Oct 2015 0
Old Blood and Guts himself spoke of good plans violently executed now, rather than perfected ones later. Men of War, THE World War II real-time tactical man-mincing simulator series from Digitalmindsoft and Best Way, remains the truest digital embodiment of that particular aphorism. The long-running series climaxed with the Assault Squad games in a blaze of wonderful--if fiddly--real-time tactical fun that focused on the relationship between cover, environment destructibility and making do with what is on the field. An Eastern Bloc mix of Commandos-cum-Company of Heroes. If you've not played them, gather a gaggle of like-minded cronies and see what the fuss is all about.
But after seven different iterations over a decade, the Men of War series has just about done all it can. The WWII theaters are too familiar, the gameplay mechanics are just this side of stale. New offering Call to Arms still shoulders a good portion of its predecessor's UI elements and combat nuances, but its decision to move the show into contemporary conflict feels sharp and fast in a number of ways Men of War doesn't.
Skirmish and multiplayer game modes revolve primarily around the tried-and-true securing and holding map positions, preferring not to reinvent the wheel in its iteration of small-scale team-on-team combat. There are a few wrinkles like the randomisation of certain map points, but for the most part, it's business as usual. Command points accrue over time and are spent to bring in reinforcements and higher-tier troops like special forces, support detachments like LMG squads and vehicles. I'll touch on the campaign in the moment, but the draw to Call to Arms is certainly the modes where all available matériel is on the table, or within minutes of being brought onto the field.
The Men of War games were always meat-grinders; physics-reliant sandboxes of destruction, particularly of softer targets. Missions were messy, outdoing even Relic's Company of Heroes for carnage measured in burning tonnage and war graves. Men of War's engagement range was often incredibly distant or scarifying in its intimacy. Tanks and AT guns sheered through opponents at distances beyond the convenient capacity of the zoom and view angles, with street-fighting squads at their most menacing in each other's faces.
Call to Arms is a little different. Perhaps a product of a staggered unit unlock and roll-out during its tenure in Early Access, the high focus on infantry and lighter armoured vehicles places emphasis on mobility over the heavier, hard-hitting World War II hardware. Infantry combat in the modern era is understandably far more precise and arguably more deadly, and it doesn't mess around here. Encounters are fierce and brief, rarely becoming long-winded exchanges. It's a small but crucial paradigm shift for the series. Moreover, where the double-click dash in Men of War offered a weird nigh-invulnerability when shunting the troops around, Call to Arms punishes any sort of unfocused gallop in repositioning a squad. Caught in the open at speed and post-humous farm ownership balloons like nobody's business.
Instead, a measured single click to reposition has the troops move in a relative approximation of smart squad movement. Members will fire on targets as their squadmates move to cover, then enjoy similar suppressive cover in response. It channels the best parts of Pandemic's Full Spectrum Warrior, making multiple squad movements through complex urban environments a rich, tactical experience. This kind of movement was hinted at in some of Men of War's more built-up operations, but the smaller scale in Call to Arms makes it feel tense and the troops far less disposable. Unit autonomy feels a lot more developed in Call to Arms than previous efforts, repositioning the concepts of micro-management away from pedantic clickery to broader stroke strategy. There are still those surgical options to trigger in the pooled squad inventory -- grenades, trauma kits, squad-specific items -- in addition to the particulars of stance and fire commands, but these dog-faces will do their best to operate under the most basic of commands.
My enthusiasm is not completely boundless. I'm not wholly sold on the unveiled portion of the single player campaign, currently deployed for Deluxe Edition owners. The series prior has never sported compelling single player campaigns, and the Assault Squad duo dropped the pretense in favour of simply throwing bots across multiplayer maps. So far, each mission is designed as a good showcase of mechanics, and works as a rough-and-ready tutorial, but I've yet to see a satisfying tactical experience beyond an push into a village to hunt BMPs in retaliatory action to a base defense slog. The stunning pyrotechnics and fastidious adherence to physics and local area damage can't stave off average mission design. Drudgery is no stranger to RTS campaign design, but the woes are especially underlined when basic skirmish can provide far greater excitement in moment-to-moment gameplay than when developers wrest away reins to throttle the flow. Call to Arms, like Men of War before it, is a game at its best in the moment, so I hope the final campaign does justice to the game's strongest suit.
Call to Arms is, despite my misgivings on the single player campaign, cooking off very nicely. It runs well, looks good and has enjoyed relatively constant developer attention. The UI is still very much Men of War, and some quaint and curious sound bytes linger in the current build -- yes, fire is still in the reach zone -- but with extremely entertaining combat mechanics and stability, it's hard not to push the eager and intrigued into the position of ownership.
Call to Arms is available on Steam Early Access.