I'm just trying to pivot the camera around when I accidentally hit E. Suddenly, I'm looking over the shoulder of a squad leader with the US Marine Corps. His rifle is following my cursor and WASD moves him around. Men of War: Assault Squad 2 is an RTS—so what the hell is going on?
No matter: I spend the next gleeful minute headshotting advancing Japanese soldiers in this surprise third-person shooter mini-game. Later, I learn that this mode is called "Direct Control," and I can trigger it with any unit at any time. "Accidentally discovering something awesome" will soon become a four-word summary of my time with Assault Squad 2. It's a deep, complex real-time strategy game set in various theaters of World War 2, with five distinct armies with their own multistage campaigns, hundreds of unique vehicles, dozens of personal weapons, melee combat, seasonal camouflage, fully destructible environments, and realistically modeled armor penetration.
Put together, these elements paint a tactical picture more chaotic and deeply realized than Company of Heroes 2 or Close Combat. On the downside, Assault Squad 2 isn't interested in teaching you much of anything, so your curriculum for self-education is vast.
Self-education takes time, so at this early stage I'm incompetent. My Marines are having a hell of a time taking this unnamed island back from the Japanese—even with my assistance in the form of a dead-shot sniper squad leader in Direct Control mode. They've held off a counterattack, and I see one soldier has a red ammo clip over his head. At that moment, I learn that soldiers can run out of ammo and that every soldier in the game has his own inventory system full of grenades, bandages, and entrenching equipment. Moments later another assault wave begins, all of my men run out of ammo, and everyone dies.
Hours of experimentation later, I decide to make the jump to multiplayer. There are five multiplayer modes, but, true to form, the differences between their rulesets are never fully explained. The most interesting is Assault Zones Extreme, a jumbo-sized eight-on-eight version of the standard resource-capture game mode. In resource-capture modes, cash for troops accrues gradually, and each soldier type has a cooldown timer after recruitment. The shortest games are the one-on-one fights, which typically last only a few minutes and end with a decisive winner.
The town in my first match, a French village with a robust shipping and industrial neighborhood, seems completely empty. In a horror game, an empty rural village would be cliche, but in online RTS play, it's unbearably tense. My opponent is hiding. To say I'm wound a bit tight would be an understatement.
Minutes pass. My men have captured all three control points in the center of the small, one-versus-one map. Sweat beads on my forehead. I have every squad hunkered down behind cover, their guns trained on the foggy fields and dirt roads that the enemy should be marching down. My victory points climb to 50 percent, then to 70 percent. As I round 80 percent, my fear gives way to confusion. I pry my hand off the mouse to type into the global chat: “Hello?”
After a moment, a response comes through: “sorry I was afk lol.” Tanks and mortars and armored cars and machine guns and sniper teams light up my minimap, and my men start to die. The game is over. My Johnny-come-lately opponent has won, 100 points to 85. In retrospect, his late entry let him save up his resource points and devote them to powerful armor units. After I lost those control centers, I was in such a scramble to get them back that I tried to overwhelm my enemy with cheap infantry: a dumb mistake that cost me everything. His tardiness played so well, I can't help but wonder if he was really “afk lol,” or if it was a hideous trap.
Even after three hours of learning how to play, even with an 80-point handicap, I plummeted straight off the side of Assault Squad 2's pitiless learning curve. I should have been so mad at the game, but I wasn't. I wanted more. I wanted to learn the tricks and strategies that my opponent already knew: the secrets that would unlock the game.
Much later, I'm back in singleplayer. I've sent Japanese shock troops across most of an island against those corn-eating, American dogs. I've learned a lot over the last few days. I've learned how to resupply squads with a single click, how to rearrange and organize shattered units after an attack, and how to gain ground without exposing troops to enemy armor. I take one squad of eight men and highlight half of them, creating a second squad on the fly and sending them around to flank. Meanwhile, I send my heavy tank and armored car up a western road in a column, providing a massive base of fire while my infantry closes in.
An American Marine manages to lob an anti-tank grenade before I kill him, and the blast tears off one of my tank treads and cooks the engine. My crew bails out, one of them screaming and on fire. The other two are alive, but armed with only pistols. I send them over to two fallen Marines, take their weapons and ammo, and absorb the surviving tankers into my infantry squad as a pair of new SMG-toting assault soldiers.
My keystrokes are faster now, and I'm more confident. I never send troops forward without an established base of fire, and I've learned how to stop my entire army from belly-crawling slowly across open terrain. My arrogance grows as I easily capture the last American base on the map. A supply crate drops in and I send two squads at it, filling their arms with mines and ammo. I order two other squads to begin digging trenches and filling sandbags, while still another takes a repair kit and uses it to get the disabled tank moving again. Within minutes, we're a bristling hive of angry metal, ready to defend against the American counterattack. I smugly glow with pride at the efficient way I refitted my men to change from assault to defense.
The counterattack comes, and it comes hard. Even with time slowed down, I can't keep up with the pace as Americans rush in by the dozen. I've placed my mines in the wrong corridors, and without their explosive power, I don't have the bullets I need. One, then two, then nine of my men run low on ammo as the bodies pile up. After all of my begging, all of my work, Assault Squad 2 isn't ready to give in to me yet. As I fumble with keyboard shortcuts that I learned from forum posts, the game with hidden depths beats me over the head again with my ignorance.
Assault Squad 2 is like being handed a puzzle with no picture, then learning after several hours that it is actually a three-dimensional puzzle—and actually it's a model airplane. Learning and mastering its depths was rewarding to me, but I imagine it would be frustrating to players new to RTSes. For all its excellent graphics and features you can't find anywhere else in the RTS genre, there's no reason for the game to be so openly hostile to new players, and I fear that the multiplayer community will fail to flourish as a result.
I love Assault Squad 2, but it was not an easy romance. Its brutal difficulty spikes and hands-off approach to training should serve as a warning to all but the most grizzled of armchair generals: this game is war, and war is hell.