In our beloved gaming community, World War II games always seem to spark strong feelings. Some players simply can’t get enough “dubya-dubya-two” but others are burned out from year after year of games focused on the iconic war. Hearts of Iron 4 and other WWII strategy series are somewhat niche and haven’t exactly been over-produced, so perhaps readers haven’t all experienced WWII gaming fatigue. I assure you, however: it is real. After all, we’ve seen no less than 50, yes fifty WWII first person shooters over the years. The Medal of Honor series spawned over a dozen titles alone, and one could even argue that WWII game fatigue is part of what spawned the change in the infamous Call of Duty series from a WWII to modern warfare theme.
On the real-time strategy front, gamers enjoyed the Close Combat series developed by Atomic Games, starting in 1996 and spawning over a dozen titles and remakes over a 20 year timespan. There is even a modern sequel in development as I write. In 2006, Relic released Company of Heroes, which gave birth to its own fanbase and a 2013 sequel. With all this history (pun intended) any gamer would be forgiven if they rolled their eyes and said, “Oh jeez, not another WWII game!” So it goes for many of us in the gaming world.
But just when you thought you’d never be interested in another WWII game, out pops a new title by an experienced developer and publisher. At first you can’t help but roll your eyes, but then you give in to your urge to relive those iconic battles one more time.
It is within this context that we discuss Steel Division: Normandy ‘44, a WWII tactical real-time strategy game developed by Eugen Systems and published by Paradox Interactive. Whether you consider yourself a 4X-focused gamer who branches out into the odd RTS or a RTS gamer who dabbles in 4X, the combination of Eugen and Paradox is bound to raise any strategy fan’s eyebrows. Paradox is, of course, known for their historical grand strategy titles and Eugen is known for their Wargame series which focuses on combined arms tactics and alternate history in the modern era. In some ways, it might seem like an odd marriage since grand strategy and tactical battles are very different, but it’s one that plays to both companies’ strengths: historical detail and strategy.
If you’re one of the many Wargame series fans you’ve almost certainly followed development and you’ve likely formed your opinion about Steel Division: Normandy ‘44, or SD:N44 for short. Wargame series veterans have strong (and valid) views about the title, and much of what is available to read and watch comes from these players. For any newcomers to Eugen’s style of play, I suggest you take a look at SD:N44 without all the veteran player baggage – you might just find you’ve been missing out on some wonderful gaming.
I think a brief synopsis is useful here. Like many similar games, play occurs as a series of missions in a grander, single-player strategic campaign, as multiplayer matches, or as AI skirmishes. In all cases, and unlike a typical base-building style RTS, players assemble a battlegroup from a roster of units ahead of time that will then be available during the match. Once a match begins, players use a pool of requisition points to purchase units from the division they designed before the match. Requisition points are generated over the course of a match based on which division the player controls. Each unit is placed by the player where it is needed and then auto-deployed from the edge of the map along pre-defined roads or air corridors where it makes its way to the chosen location. Got it? Good.
When it comes to that roster of available units, SD:N44 benefits from meticulous attention to detail at the historical level. While I’m sure some history buffs will nitpick details here and there, anyone familiar with WWII combat will find all of their favorite vehicles and equipment modeled with love. Fans of Paradox titles love to poke fun at the company when they make what sometimes seems like lazy mistakes or omissions, but overall they tend to show history the care and accuracy it deserves, and the Eugen/Paradox team has done so here.
SD:N44 features over 400 historically accurate units for your combined arms gaming pleasure. These include mechanized infantry, aircraft, anti-air platforms, artillery (on and off-map), mortars, tanks, and a satisfying pile of light vehicles and towed guns. If it was used in Normandy in any significant quantity, it’s probably represented in SD:N44, and if a German PaK 38 destroyed it with ease in Normandy, it gets destroyed with ease in-game as well.
If 400 units sounds like an intimidating number, you’re not wrong. Matching historical production variants, a tank in SD:N44 may share a chassis with another tank and look almost the same but have a vastly different battlefield performance due to having a different gun or added armor. The game features familiar controls to facilitate accessibility for beginners, but this historically accurate unit variation can be overwhelming for new players. Aside from the normal gaming skills any RTS player needs (multitasking, timing, resource usage, quick reflexes, etc.), SD:N44 players will also need to know the strengths and weaknesses of a vast number of units, often right down to the armor penetration values and weapon ranges. While these types of details can be extremely important in any game, the sheer variety in Eugen’s Wargame-style games gives them a steep initial metagame learning curve in addition to the detailed map-level learning that one needs to understand.
Luckily for us, experienced game designers assist players with such things, and the developers at Eugen already solved the “overwhelming variety problem” in their previous Wargame titles. Eugen has incorporated their hallmark “battlegroup” system into SD:N44, which divides the units into manageable chunks. The battlegroup system divides the aforementioned 400 units into 18 different battlegroups, nine for the Allies and nine for the Axis. There’s no “Protoss” or “Zerg” here, and you’re never simply choosing one side or the other. Instead, before starting a scenario or multiplayer match, players design a battlegroup based on a true-to-life historical combat division. Whether players are playing single player or multiplayer, no two players need choose the same battlegroup even if they are on the same side in a multiplayer battle.
Previous Wargame series titles have been popular all over Europe partly because the battlegroup system allows gamers to play as say, a Polish or French unit, rather than the usual generic US/NATO vs. Russia/China style “sides.” So, if you’re someone who’s usually annoyed that Canada’s contribution to the Normandy invasion is almost always left out of the story, SD:N44’s got you covered.
Battlegroups are highly customizable. Each has different units available, all represented with a card that shows cost, veterancy, and how many will be available for purchase during the battle. For infantry units, the card shows what type of vehicle the troops ride in. Also important is in which phase of combat the unit will become available. Unlike the Wargame series, combat in SD:N44 is split into three phases, which helps facilitate balance. The three phases are Combat Recon (A), Skirmish (B), and Battle (C). After an initial deployment phase, players launch the battle and proceed to Phase A.
Unless restricted in single player scenarios, battles last 40 minutes. Phase A and B each last 10 minutes, and C lasts until victory conditions are met. Each division has its own flavor based on unit availability, which tends to drive whether you choose to play offensively or defensively. Overall, the phase system gives the game a rewarding sense of momentum while allowing for deeper strategy due to income differences and unit availability.
The other stark difference from Wargame titles is the “front line.” In what seems pulled straight out of Paradox’s HoI4, SD:N44 features a dynamic front line that changes with unit movement and destruction. In multiplayer, teams gain a ticking score when they control more than half the map, and this increases with increasing map control. Previous Eugen titles focused on capturable zones which left players feeling like they had to keep a unit or two in the back line to gain points and prevent enemies from dropping troops in the rear. In this game, troops behind the front lines will not gain points for the player. This serves to focus combat on the front, which gives players a real feeling of reward when they break through a stalemate and start racking up the points. Reversal of fortune is also possible. Players can overextend their forces too close to enemy reinforcement points and make themselves vulnerable to counterattack.
Eugen has developed a hierarchical system of restrictions which serves to manage the extreme variety in potential units and simultaneously force interesting metagame choices. This hierarchy starts with history. If a weapon wasn’t available to a division in real life, they haven’t shoehorned it in for balance. When building a division, players are further restricted to a specific number of unit cards, and each battlegroup has further restrictions based on its designation. For example, an armored division might have eight slots for tank cards and only three for aircraft. By comparison, an airborne division might have eight slots for aircraft but only four tank slots. If this is starting to sound confusing, it makes a lot more sense in game – but let me break it down.
If you look at the “Konigstiger” screenshot below and the first screenshot of the article (anti-air halftrack) you will see little tiles of available units. These can be dragged into slots at the top of the screen and are then considered “activated”. Players can only activate a certain number of units at a time, noted in the top right corner of the battlegroup screen. Only “activated” units are actually available during a mission, skirmish, or match. Players must choose from the units available to their chosen division and actively manage their options in order to have the optimal force for the situation. Once in game, players have to spend points efficiently and further choose which units to deploy depending on the map and the tactical situation.
R&R – Reconnaissance & Randomness
Now to the combat. Anyone can google up a Let’s Play, so I won’t describe the combat in detail. Instead I’ll dive into what I think drives the excitement in this title and focus on what might not be obvious in a LP video. For me, all good games are designed around creating tension for the player, and much of the tension in SD:N44’s combat comes from the same types of tension that exist in real-life warfare. There are two main types of tension in this title: reconnaissance and randomness.
Reconnaissance. The fog of war is present and very real in this title. Recon units are identified by a pair of binoculars both on the unit card and on the unit nameplate in game. Recon units are a key part of any army, and the Wargame series has always had an extremely varied approach to scouting. Scouting can be done in force with normal units, but it is best accomplished with recon units because each has a certain “optics” rating and is able to spot units in cover and at greater distances depending on that rating. Recon units can be troops, vehicles, or aircraft and each has advantages and disadvantages.
Putting it simply, failing to recon will often get your units killed. Good recon is the only way to plan out how to support vulnerable units. Without recon your tanks won’t find infantry and will be vulnerable to ambush. Without tank, machine gun, and mortar/artillery support your infantry will be pinned down and die crossing from cover to cover. SD:N44 truly supports real-world combined-arms tactics. Depending on the map, pushing your main body of infantry and tanks too far without supporting units will get you flanked, ambushed, or simply chewed up by enemy support units. It’s a bit like Jenga. You pull out the right block at the right time and the whole thing collapses and you’re breaking through to the rear. You will lose units in this process, and recon is the best way to make sure those men and machines are spent as efficiently as possible.
Randomness. Yes, randomness… Every number crunching 4X gamer’s nightmare. In many RTS titles, each unit does a certain amount of damage and units have a certain amount of hitpoints. Sometimes this is modified by armor types or other mechanics, but many gamers are used to “Unit A” consistently needing three shots to kill “Unit B”. This is not the case in SD:N44. Randomness rears its ugly head in this game most prominently when dealing with guns, bombs, and artillery. Tanks, for example, may or may not penetrate armor when they land a shot. Penetration almost always results in a kill or some disabling effect like engine damage, track damage, crew being stunned, etc. Rounds which do not penetrate armor still affect the morale of the vehicle crew and can result in the vehicle’s crew deciding to fall back regardless of player commands.
Without delving into the numbers, the idea is that every weapon has a certain armor penetration value (it might be zero), and each side of every vehicle has a certain armor value. If a weapon’s armor penetration value is lower than the armor value of a target, the target will not be penetrated. Unlike the beloved Civilization series, an outdated small caliber weapon isn’t going to kill an enemy heavy tank no matter how many hits you score. There is an exception to this rule because AP rounds increase in potency at shorter ranges, but even when your gun is powerful enough or close enough, not all rounds will do damage.
What all these mechanics mean in practice is that sometimes you’ll get lucky and destroy a tank in one hit and sometimes you’ll have to resort to focusing fire to drive a tank away temporarily, knowing you will not get a kill. The key takeaway is that randomness plays a role, but you can minimize it with thoughtful play.
Just as traditional RTS health bars and hit points are missing from vehicles, so too are they missing from infantry combat. Infantry units are represented by a collection of individual troops, and units only “take damage” in the form of dead men. Not present in Eugen’s previous titles is a morale system for infantry. Troops under heavy fire have what looks like a red health bar that fills up. Once the bar becomes full, the unit gains a “pinned down” status. Pinned troops cannot move or fire, but also take less damage in cover. These troops can either be relieved by eliminating the enemy fire with other units or by issuing a “fall back” command, which causes them to rout away from the enemy, taking increased damage if exposed.
Adding to the tactical challenge is the fact that many of the game’s most powerful weapons platforms have significant disadvantages. Some can be slow to deploy or relocate during battle. Some are very expensive and/or severely limited in number, and some aren’t available until late in a match or scenario. This means that there’s tension in every choice because every unit is vulnerable to some amount of random chance and there might not be time to fix mistakes and come back from the loss of certain units before the game ends. Many gamers cringe when they know a mechanic is random. Some cry out that random chance means there’s no skill involved. These are valid concerns, but in this case it’s a calculated design choice. Most of each battle is made up of choices which try to tip the odds in your favor rather than choices that guarantee a specific outcome. This really gives players a feeling of trying to outmaneuver or outfox your opponent rather than destroy every last one of their units.
Analyzing the terrain and how your units can be best deployed takes a lot of experience to master. Some gamers won’t like this learning curve and randomness, but it’s a deliberate design choice intended to deliver a certain feel of realism. Not every round does damage in real life and as the saying goes – no survives contact with the enemy. All of these details are well portrayed in SD:N44. Win or lose, when I play a campaign scenario, skirmish, or multiplayer match, I’m always left feeling like I could’ve played better. I suppose once in awhile you get really unlucky in a match and lose multiple key vehicles to stray hits and you can blame it on the die rolls, but on balance the game always feels like it comes down to skill and battlegroup matchups. I enjoy realism more than predictability, but this could be a sticking point for some players.
All in all, I think strategy fans have a winner here. Eugen has always felt like a bit of a niche developer up until this point, at least for US gamers. Perhaps teaming up with Paradox can deliver a little boost? Despite WWII gaming fatigue, it remains a popular enough setting among gamers that may very well give this title legs especially if Paradox gifts Eugen with their long-term support and FreeLC + DLC combination approach. I can definitely say that SD:N44 is a very enjoyable experience out of the box. If you’ve been on the fence you can always try to snag previous Wargame titles on sale, or it might be time to get off that fence altogether.
TL;DR: Steel Division: Normandy ‘44 is a worthy addition to Eugen’s lineup. The battlegroup system continues to make for an interesting metagame outside the actual gameplay, especially if you’re into watching competitive matches on YouTube. Hardcore gamers have a lot of min/maxing potential to toy with, and balance patches always force multiplayer gamers to reconsider their battlegroup setups. The solo campaigns are extremely challenging. Even the “easy” campaign requires a shift in RTS thinking and playstyle for any non-Wargame-veteran.
You might like this game if:
- You are into variety or would like the ability to play as “novel” WWII factions (Go Canada!)
- You care about historical accuracy and realism in games
- You like games that are easy to play, but have lots of depth to master
- You’d like a single player campaign where you won’t beat every mission the first try
- You want a change from Blizzard-style RTS games
You might NOT like this game if:
- You suffer from WWII gaming fatigue
- You’re looking for something fabulously new from the Wargame series.
- You like to “turtle” in RTS games
- You’d rather not climb a steep learning curve
- You don’t already know (or aren’t willing to learn) WWII units by name/sight
Disclosure: Matt has played 30+ hours of SD:N44, and has about 60 hours in the previous Wargame series title “Red Dragon”. He purchased his own copy of the game before volunteering to write a review. Matt plays on a custom-built PC which has an Intel i7-6700K, 16GB DDR3 RAM, and an MSI GeForce GTX 1060 6GB.