In April of 2008, I went to Moscow to visit KRI, the games convention for the Commonwealth of Independent States (largely made up of those nations formerly attached to the Soviet Union). KRI attendees included a range of studios from across the region, from small student projects to the makers of large multi-format games that Russian mega-publisher 1C hoped would break into Western markets in 2009. The convention took place in the vast 1970s “Kosmos” hotel, which is a monument – among an entire district of space-monuments – to the attitude and architecture at the height of the Cold War.
The 21st-century Kosmos foyer is now a kitsch hybrid of Vegas neon (Yuri Gagarin bar!) and black marble, while the rooms and corridors are wood-paneled like the innards of an old yacht. It was in one of these rooms that I met a producer for Best Way, a Ukrainian real-time strategy game developer. Grey and furrowed, he wore the face of million cigarettes. He greeted me with the exhausted look and brief, hard handshake of a man who had seen too much in his time. When we sat down to talk about his game, however, he came alive.
The Russian games scene is now as diverse as any in the world, and I’d already seen a 4X game, a God of War clone, a turn-based RPG/strategy title, a post-apocalyptic racing game, a survival-horror FPS, a fighting game and a flight sim. By the time I came to my haggard companion’s presentation, I was no longer sure what to expect. But it was his game that would enthrall me above any of the others. It was Men of War, one of the numerous installments in the “of War” series produced by Ukrainian developer Best Way.
I had previously ignored Best Way’s games, assuming they were too fiddly and hardcore for me to bother with. Everything I had read about their output left me with that “OK if you can put in the effort” residue that steers me away from many obscure niches of gaming. But after sitting through the studio’s wizened spokesman’s meticulous, energetic presentation – translated and mediated by a Russian woman who clearly had no idea how anyone could get excited about this kind of obscurity – it would not be something I ever ignored again. When it arrived in the U.K. in early 2009, I lost an entire week to it. Suddenly, the games took on a new significance.
Before Men of War, I’d entirely given up on the World War II strategy genre; I even found Relic’s Company of Heroes series a little dry. How could this well-trodden subject matter and gameplay ever be interesting again? Best Way’s answer lay in their almost absurd ambition. Men Of War demonstrates a kind of game design philosophy we seldom see, one that says you should allow for as many possibilities in your game world as you can. Rather than begin with the basics and work up from there, Best Way seems to have started with a list of every scenario that can occur on a battlefield, then tried to make each item a distinct possibility. It’s simply jaw-dropping in Men of War when a tank falls through ice on a frozen river or when fire from an exploding vehicle propagates across a grassy plain, because you assume that the scenery is static. But in this game, almost nothing is.
The grizzled Best Way producer introduced me to this high-concept realism by explaining how two different types of shells worked when fired from a tank. First, he showed me how to use armor-piercing shells to shoot straight through a building and cripple vehicles on the other side. High-explosive shells, meanwhile, explode on impact, flattening the building and reducing the amount of cover available to nearby infantry. (It goes without saying that all the scenery in Men of War is fully destructible.) This demonstrated one of the most important features of Best Way’s games: direct, granular control over your army. At any point, you can take control of a single unit as if you’re playing a third-person action game. You may have dozens of troops on the field at any one time, but you can always seize responsibility for their individual actions, deciding where a single machine-gunner will crawl and fire, or driving a tank through the side of a particular building.
This kind of obsessive focus on the gameplay implications of technical detail seems nerdy in the extreme, but when I played the full game a few months later, the results took me by surprise. The first thing you notice is that every individual soldier on the battlefield has his own inventory. There may be hundreds of infantrymen, but each one has his own distinct weapons, ammo, grenade, medkit and helmet. It seems almost gratuitous in its detail, until you find yourself out of ammo and pushed into a corner – you can loot the bodies of your fallen comrades to stay in the fight.
Later, I hooted with incredulity after picking up an anti-tank rifle and using it to turn the tide of an entire battle – not because such a scenario was unlikely, but simply because here was a real-time strategy game where such things were actually possible. I found myself stealing motorbikes, patching up tanks for one last stand, laying mines I found in crates and using stolen sniper rifles to decimate entrenched enemies. It is as if there are too many variables for any two battles to unfold along the same lines, no matter how carefully you might attempt to recreate a particular scene or skirmish.
This deceptive complexity helped me understand Best Way’s seemingly bland choice of title. Men of War sounds like it popped straight out a generic name generator, but in fact it’s entirely appropriate. This is the rare RTS where the actions of individual men on the field truly matter, where the heroic deaths of these tiny heroes takes on a poignancy unheard of in any other strategy game, precisely because of what these little chaps are capable of. Left to their own devices, they will use cover, go prone and even attempt to lob anti-tank grenades at vehicles that get within range. But when you step into the shoes of an individual soldier, you gain both the ability to singlehandedly influence the tides of battle and an entirely new perspective on the action.
The second level of Men of War is more like a battlefield simulation than that of any classical RTS. Wave after wave of Germans attack a Russian compound in a battle you will eventually lose. You can’t do much to avoid your fate, and you’re left to watch your men bravely fight to death as you make little tweaks and adjustments here and there, occasionally taking control of a particular individual to perform vital tasks. The capacity of the game to throw radically different scenarios at the player is what makes it such fascinating terrain. Tiny skirmishes explode into full-scale battles in the duration of a single level. Villages are flattened in grueling, hour-long tank-engagements. Single men make the ultimate sacrifice to stave off defeat. It’s spectacular stuff.
That’s not to say it’s perfect – it’s not. It’s too hard, and the voice acting is terrible. The A.I. pathfinding occasionally freaks out, and not all the vehicles work as they should. But sometimes the character and ambition of a game is enough to smudge the flaws away. After all, what other RTS can be rightfully called “heart-breaking”?
Just before writing this, I played a level of the brand-new expansion, Red Tide. My attempt to free a village from Nazi-aligned troops came down to a single machine-gunner who was able to flank and gun down a group of enemy cannoneers. After killing perhaps a dozen enemy crewmen, he was spotted by an enemy vehicle. I tried to run for cover, but a single bullet clipped him, knocking him to the ground. Wounded, he crawled into a ditch, only to be found by enemy soldiers as he desperately tried to patch himself up. They gunned him down. I sat up out of my chair screaming: “He’s a tiny frickin’ hero!”
In its own small way, Men of War is a testament to unsung acts of heroism. The very idea of the unremembered soldier is, somehow, remembered here – in an obscure Russian videogame, of all things. I salute it.