Dusty Downloads: Men of War

Men of War, from Ukrainian developers Best Way, was released in 2009. When I first heard about it on Facepunch Forums it was described as ‘Company of Heroes meets Bad Company’, and the comparison was apt. This was not a game about legions of troops and neatly ranked soldiers, but a game about tactics. It was not a game about moving around a static and lifeless map, but about going into, through and sometimes over buildings, reshaping the environment with the delicate precision that only an HE shell could provide. Men of War was a thrilling change of pace. While there have been several sequels offering small improvements over the years, the original holds a special place in my heart. And for the most part it still holds up, eight years later.

The majority of RTS games are won and lost in management, with a core focus on harvesting resources (ore, tiberium, rice, cash-dollars), building resource storage facilities and unit factories, and establishing resource- and time-efficient build orders. Combat comes second, and actual battlefield strategy and tactics take a back seat. In Men of War it’s the opposite. There are no resources as we tend to think of them. In the singleplayer campaigns you’re given reinforcements at specified intervals. Otherwise you work with what you’ve got. In multiplayer games, there’s a single resource, MP or ‘manpower’, that is awarded over time to be spent on new units. Purchased units appear at the player’s starting position - there are no barracks or tank factories.

Ultimately, this lack of resource management and base building allows players to keep their minds on the battlefield itself, dealing with the movements and actions of their units. And there’s an awful lot to deal with there. While Men of War can be played like a typical RTS, with players selecting some men and telling them ‘shoot at that group of men’, the real excitement comes when we dig into the intricacies of engine.

For starters, every soldier has an inventory, Diablo-style. They’ve got their weapon, ammo, grenades, medkits, even equipment for building sandbags. And here’s the cool bit: they can pick stuff up. Get one of your men to search a busted APC and find an MG42? Take it. Equip it. Shoot it. Out of shells for your Sherman tank? Just take some from a nearby Churchill. Find a half-broken, abandoned enemy tank? Steal its repair kit and have your men fix it up for your own use.

The game doesn’t force you to use squads like the majority of other small-scale RTS games do. You can group units into squads manually if you want (accessible using the 0-9 number keys), but by default you click a man and the game selects just that man. You can click and drag to select a group, but if you want to quickly move a specific group of men who are physically mixed with another squad, it’s tricky. It would be great if there was a way to toggle between a mouse click selecting one man vs the entire squad, but this isn’t the case.

What this does allow for, however, is far more fine-tuning over where each of your soldiers is positioned. You can select one and put him in cover, have him hide behind a wall or peer around a corner. You can even control whether he’s standing, crouched or prone. This works for groups too.

The way the game deals with soldier awareness, line-of-sight and bullet penetration means that one soldier can make the difference between holding or losing an objective, even against superior odds. A soldier hidden in cover and looking over a thoroughfare can do a huge amount of damage to a group of enemy soldiers running past before they or the enemy player is aware of the hidden danger. In moments like these I’m reminded of Jagged Alliance, sans the turn-based systems.

And this looser, inventory-driven structure forces players to think differently. Whereas in Company of Heroes it may be clear exactly what type of enemy unit you’re facing, Men of War allows us to swap weapons around or even mix-and-match unit types within a squad. We can give a Commando a flamethrower, outfit a sapper team with machine guns, or create an elite team of officers dedicated to providing accurate mortar fire. And it’s often not until the shells start falling or the flames engulf your expensive tank that you realize you’ve been out-dressed.

A favorite tactic in our multiplayer games was to raid dynamite from a broken-down tank or supply truck and give it to one of our soldiers. We’d then send this man on a journey into enemy territory, having him crawl along ditches and through bushes until we found a heavy tank on sentry duty or a building full of enemy soldiers. We’d have him plant the explosive then crawl back the way he came. The kill-feed in the corner of the screen, another unusual yet satisfying decision from Best Way, would run red with the blood of our enemies. I mean that literally - enemy unit deaths are written in a red font. It’s just good design.

The thing that truly makes Men of War special, however, is the fact that you can control units manually. I don’t mean by clicking and letting the AI choose a route from point A to point B, but by holding CTRL (or toggling with END) you can use the arrow keys and the mouse to move your soldier (or tank) around and aim for them. Like a real freakin’ video game.

And this is exciting because we finally have the power to overrule the often frustrating AI that all RTS games rely on to interpret our commands. We’ve all been in a position where we can see the enemy soldiers behind the bush, but our tank chooses not to shoot at them because…? Or when the smart thing to do is sneak up, toss a grenade over a low wall then sneak away, but our soldiers interpret our command as ‘run to the enemy guy, drop the grenade at his feet and take a bullet to the mouth.’ Men of War lets you control an individual as though you’re playing a third-person shooter, and it’s incredibly satisfying to have that level of control available when you need it.

As you might expect, this does get quite micromanagey at times. There’s a certain layer of added stress when the enemy is bearing down and you’re busy dragging items from one interface box to another. This fiddliness could use some polish - and it did get some in the later releases in the series.

But there are some solid and fascinating systems at work here, made more valuable and exciting by the fact that they combine with one another flawlessly, enabling incredible levels of complexity and depth of play. If you’re looking for a challenge and an opportunity to flex those small-scale tactical muscles, look no further. Eight years on and this game still creates just as many unique and interesting battlefield moments as it used to. And it runs a whole lot smoother, too.

Oh, and before you play, go through the files, find the voice tracks and delete them. Trust me.