Of all the horrors perpetrated by the higher echelons of Communist Russia to defeat the Nazis on the Eastern front, the Soviet penal battalions is pretty near the top. Imagine, if you will, the Dirty Dozen. Now imagine several hundred of them, most of them disgraced officers, armed with at most fake weaponry (and normally nothing), wearing extra-noticeable clothing, assaulting German positions head-on. Any who turned back were summarily shot by the SMERSH – not the, but a division of the KGB whose only job was to shoot retreaters. If they lived too long, through too many hopeless assaults, there was no hope of a medal or a reprieve; their final task, if they proved themselves survivors, was as 'Tramplers' – unarmed soldiers ramped up on vodka and sent into minefields ahead of the regular troops. That is what 1C have chosen to portray in their latest iteration of the Men of War series.
Why? Firstly, because they don't want anyone to forget what happened; the existence of the penal battalions has only been recently confirmed officially. To this end, they've had advisors from both the few survivors of the battalions and from the FSB (otherwise known as the Cheka, OGPU and most famously KGB) who 'managed' them, and put a full history of the Shtrafbat battalions in an in-game encyclopaedia.
Secondly, because it gives them an excuse to make their game even harder.
We played a single mission from the game and, boy, was it tough. It was a daytime assault across a river into a heavily fortified hillside position; armoured cars, trenches, bunkers, mortars, artillery pieces, MG42s and an awful lot of infantry, with filled troop transports waiting in the wings.
We had, by contrast, had ten men, two with light machine guns, the rest with an array of bolt-action rifles and sub-machine guns and a grenade each. Our support was a single sniper, who didn't seem interested in actually firing.
Getting across the river was easy enough, but once across our men died in a huge variety of ways; after five restarts, we finally got into a situation where we weren't machine-gunned immediately and could creep forward into some rushes in the lee of a hill, luring the armoured cars out one by one with diversions on the more open right flank (facing the artillery) before showering them with anti-tank grenades, then running away before the enemy troops got their retaliation in and the mortars started falling.
After an hour of incremental advance, we'd disabled all the armoured vehicles, emptied one trench of its troops, and knocked our the mortars at the cost of two men. Creeping round the side, we flanked another trench, taking out all its men with the last of our grenades; in classic Men of War fashion, our troops then regrouped and restocked, stealing equipment from the fallen enemy. Sadly, the troops in the armoured transports spotted us, alerting a nearby artillery piece; our troops ran towards it frantically, clutching their grenades, weaving... but were gunned down.
This game is hard.
Men of War hasn't noticeably changed, graphically, since Soldiers: Heroes of World War II. There are some minor improvements on the character models, but it's hard to notice when they spend most of their time lying down in trenches...
Whatever else this game is, it's a reminder of the horrors of war. There are 15 missions in the final game, split into four campaigns (they may sound short, but they're hard – and the Shtrafbat didn't live long), ranging from the Ukraine in 1942 fighting their way through Warsaw and finally assaulting Altdam and Stettin by 1945. It should be released at the beginning of 2012.