If you delve deep into the actual details of the Normandy landings, you’ll find that it was just as much dumb luck as careful planning & execution which allowed the allied forces to get beyond those beaches. The realities of war are confusing, horrible, and filled with death and wreckage… which, due to a carefully crafted segue, is much like my experience in Steel Division: Normandy ’44. The difference being that this is also one of the most engaging strategy experiences I’ve had in a long time
Steel Division is a tactical real-time strategy/wargame from Eugen systems, who you may know because of R.U.S.E., Act of Aggression or most likely, the Wargame franchise. By all accounts, this is a rare-beast of a game. Most RTS titles don’t carry the strategic depth or complexity found here, and most traditional wargames are slower, turn-based affairs that involve careful & considered action. Steel Division falls somewhere in-between – rush in and you will get everyone killed, but the game is also as brutal and uncompromising as war itself (which is also fought in ‘real-time, in case you’ve forgotten). If you take too much time you will get over-run.
We covered a lot of the basics during our write-up of the game’s multiplayer beta. Little has changed since then, other than Eugen slowly rolling out more divisions and maps for testing. This is not an experience to take lightly, but the more we play the more we can’t help but admire the majesty of its design. The tactical layout of each and every map is completely different, requiring you to bring different strategies to the table. Even simply being at a different spot on the same map can completely change how you need to approach a situation.
The general theme of every map revolves around the ‘hedge-row hell’ that the Normandy campaign was famous for, but even that is presented in very different ways. Cover is paramount, and a unit is either in partial or full cover. Line of sight is also important – hiding your infantry in dense forest is a great way of sneaking behind enemy lines. Go to the edge of that forest, and you’re still in cover but can also be seen and shot at. Stealth and ambush tactics are possible, although the ‘frontline’ visual dynamic makes this difficult as barring certain specific circumstances, your opponent will always have a general idea of where you are.
There are three tiers of play as we see it – the Solo Campaign, Skirmishes against the AI, and then online multiplayer. Steel Division is remarkable in that there’s something for everyone across each area, and you’d be hard pressed not to find something worth your time. The Solo campaign (and Boot Camp for total beginners), which is probably the best Eugen have created to date, is a great way to experience the nuances of play at a more casual pace. Skirmish matches against the AI is as close to the ‘core’ experience as you can get without going online. It’s a respectable facsimile, just give yourself decent AIs to fight against/with, and you’ll have plenty of fun.
Online multiplayer is the most divisive area – you will fight incredibly skilled players online and get decimated. You’ll have an incredibly capable team, still get decimated, and yet win the match anyway. It can be an off-putting experience, but Steel Division is a game that inspires mastery – you want to get better, you want to understand where you went wrong and why, and you want to learn how to win. The game isn’t that good at helping you there, either – so much can come down to the choices you make in the division designer, and while it is a visually engaging feature, there’s very little context available to the decisions you need to make.
Eugen have tried to make every Division feel different in terms of theme & play style. It’s easier on the Allied side, as there were multiple nations that sent armies into Normandy, where-as the Axis only have German divisions to play around with. Again, still plenty of tactical diversity, but it’s easier for them to get a bit samey in terms of unit choices. This is probably one area that could do with some additional work – other than simple things, it’s hard to really get a feel for what a Division’s strength is without looking it up elsewhere. Eugen did a great series of articles exploring some Beta divisions in-depth, explaining their history and what the various strengths are but not as much of this information is present in-game as we’d like.
We played quite a lot of multiplayer and skirmish during the beta, so it’s really only the campaign content that has yet to be properly evaluated. Execution of the single-player campaign has gone back to the simpler days of European Escalation, where instead of a campaign map (which I would have preferred, but there you go) you simply have 3 different campaigns comprising of four missions each. You can tackle the campaigns in any order you wish (although they have been assigned different difficulty ratings), but you have to complete the missions in sequential order. There are some persistent elements from mission to mission as well, in terms of the units available, but from what we’ve observed it’s a lot tamer than what they’ve tried before.
The main strength of the solo campaign comes from the variety in mission design. Granted, many are subtle variations of attack/defend or defend/attack scenarios, but your starting troops, location and even the maps themselves can offer very unique tactical challenges. There is a loose narrative in the sense that you’re following a particular part of the Normandy campaign in sequence, but there are no characters or actual ‘story’ that you have to worry about. Like a true paradox game, Steel Division allows you to create your own narrative as you play.
The main drawback here, apart from the atrocious voice-overs for the pre-briefing cut scenes, is the time-limit aspect. Granted, this is a needed tool so as to not teach players bad habits in terms of complacency, but there’s nothing quite as soul crushing as nearly completing a mission, only to fail via time-out just because you weren’t as quick as you needed to be. Considering this means starting from the beginning, you could be looking at re-playing nearly an hour’s worth of mission all over again.
It would be easy to say something pithy about Steel Division like “easy to learn, hard to master”, but that’s not strictly speaking true. There are easier games to get into, but the barrier for entry is still quite low all things considered. There is also plenty to learn and master in terms of intermediate or advance tactics (smoke screens FTW). Boot Camp and the Solo Campaigns are a great way of learning the ins and outs at a more leisured pace, but if you want to try and practice at the rigorous antics of online multiplayer than Skirmish matches against the AI are you best bet, especially 3 v 3 skirmishes with decent AI partners.
As a foundation for a new series of real-time wargames, Eugen couldn’t have gotten off to a stronger start. It’s a more streamlined game than the Wargame series, but there are plenty of hard-core tactical realities to keep everyone on their toes and they’ve even managed to give an over-done setting like Normandy a hearty breath of fresh air. Like D-Day itself, this has been a hart fought victory, now Eugen just need to press their advantage and make sure not to let up on the post-release content support.