Steel Division: Normandy 44 is a challenging but fun World War 2 RTS. With hundreds of units and over a dozen maps, there is a lot of war gaming here to keep any fan of the genre occupied. Be warned, however, that if you’re coming from RTS games like Starcraft or Gray Goo there is a lot of adjustment that needs to be done.
Developed by: Eugen Systems
Published by: Paradox Interactive
Release date: May 23rd, 2017
Platforms: PC (Reviewed on PC)
Price at time of review: $39.99 USD
Steel Division: Normandy 44 Features
- Command Over 400 Historically Accurate Units: Fight for control in intense multiplayer battles with up to 10-vs-10 players going head-to-head.
- Real-world Tactics: Battles rage over three distinct phases, where different units unlock over time, mimicking the movements of real-world armies and adding variety to the ever-changing theatre of war.
- Real-world Setting: Using the latest version of Eugen’s IRISZOOM engine, players can smoothly zoom from a tactical aerial view all the way down to a single unit.
- Outplan, Outsmart, Outgun: From battlegroup customization to troop positioning and maneuvering, winning battles requires cunning and strategy, not just raw firepower.
Story and Setting
The setting of this game is World War 2, specifically during the invasion of Normandy time period. Now this presents an interesting little point of divergence of opinion. In broad strokes, there are two camps when it comes to historical war games – those who are deeply concerned with historical accuracy, and those that just want a good game. While not wholly mutually exclusive, games that follow historical accuracy commonly need to sacrifice something to achieve this. Steel Division heavily sacrifices approachability to achieve its accuracy in my opinion. Not that this is a bad thing in my opinion, it just means you have some adjustments to do to your play style.
The bigger issue is, is it worth it? I’m…a little on the fence on that issue. Yes, this game is very accurate. The two Allied operations are actual operations, with the Axis operation being a very reasonable ‘what if’ scenario. However, this means you have zero emotional investment in anything. Units don’t carry over between operations, and even within operations this is limited. Basically, this game is all setting and no story. Now I found the gameplay engaging and challenging so the lack of story isn’t a critical issue, but having something there to help encourage me to clear missions would have been nice.
Speaking of gameplay, what does this game offer? Well buckle your seat belt, this is going to get intense. Well, as intense as a general review can get. There are a lot of systems here, so I’ll only be able to skim over them. To begin with, this game requires a rather severe shift in thinking if you’re coming from a unit building RTS like Starcraft. There is no economy to be had here, no base building, no unit upgrades, nothing like that. As far as units are concerned, there are three core systems in play: Battlegroups, Requisition Points, and Phases.
Battlegroups are formed before the fight starts. For the campaigns the division is chosen for you, whereas for skirmish and multiplayer battlegroups you can select from 10 divisions, 5 each for Axis and Allies. After selecting your division, you move to unit selection. Each battlegroup is composed of 36 units that you can spread out over 8 categories. While there is a lot of flexibility within the army building system, there are limits. For example, each category has a fixed number of slots for units. This means you can’t do a tank-only army, which would be a bad idea anyways. So while you aren’t forced to bring something out of every category, you are strongly encouraged to do so.
The next system that comes into play is initial deployment and the Requisition Points (RP). The amount of initial RP is going to vary depending on the game settings, but the standard tends to be 200. For every minute that passes, you get extra RP. Exactly how many depends on the division you are playing. This makes choosing your battlegroup very important. Each team is given a staging area where you can deploy your initial units. When first deployed, infantry units are in transports which can move very quickly over roads. Of course the jeeps move with the speed of a wounded turtle off-roads, so you have to be very careful with your orders. Steel Division has the genre standard of using the Shift key to issue multiple orders, so you can setup a pretty complex set of starting orders during this phase. Once you’ve placed all your desired starter units, you can click Launch Battle to kick things off!
Now, you might be thinking to your self “Self, let’s forgot about all these puny infantry units and launch with the strongest tank we got!” Sadly, that is not an option and brings us to the final part of the unit deployment mechanics, the phases. There are three phases called A,B, and C. I know, I’ll give you a moment to recover from the staggering innovation in naming there. Each phase lasts ten minutes, so the first ten minutes is A, then the next ten are B, and finally for the rest of the game you have C. Every unit is assigned a phase, and you can only requisition units from the current phase or lower. So for the setup phase, you’re limited to Phase A units which excludes all of the really nasty tanks and artillery.
In general this system works very well and sets up a very specific flow to the battle. You start off with scouting and choosing key positions to try and take and reinforce. You might have a few minor fire fights, but this isn’t the phase for all out combat. Then when Phase B hits, you get access to stronger units and begin to try and push the front line. Finally all units are unlocked and it’s a fierce battle with lots of wonderful explosions. And tanks. Can’t forget the tanks.
Well that was a whole lotta words on units, but how does the actual moment-to-moment gameplay work? Phew, where to begin…I suppose we’ll start with the two most critical aspects of combat, range and line of sight (LOS). Being a realistic (as possible) game, knowing the range of the various weapons is quite important. Staying just outside the range of a machine gun is rather critical to avoid getting pinned down. The other thing to consider is LOS. Tall trees, buildings, heavy shrubs, all of these things can block a unit’s ability to see, and if the unit can’t see it can’t shoot. The only exception to this are units with indirect fire, usually artillery. They can be ordered to fire on a position they have no LOS on, though it’s better if you have scout positioned so your not firing blind.
Combat is largely handled in traditional RTS style. If a unit sees a hostile unit, it will open fire unless you gave the right type of move order to prevent that. As a side note, infantry cannot move and shoot in this game. They have to be stationary, so you really need to pay attention to move orders. Giving the wrong one can get your soldiers cut down fast. As units come under fire, they start getting stressed. Once the stress bar has filled up completely, they are pinned down. Pinned down units no longer fire, don’t respond to orders, but take a lot less damage. The only order you can give is ‘Fall Back’ which causes the unit to flee away from the battle for a time. The other interesting part on this is surrendering. If a pinned down unit is behind enemy lines and there’s an enemy unit nearby, they will automatically surrender, regardless of how many soldiers are left. This allows you, if you’re clever, to remove practically undamaged units from the map and doing so is rewarding.
The final piece in this rather large puzzle is supply. Your units do not have infinite ammo. Now they have enough so that they can engage for a reasonable amount of time, but at some point the magazines will run dry. Thus, it is important to have a few supply trucks running around. Supply trucks will automatically resupply units that within their range of influence, which is quite reasonable in size. You have to make sure you protect them though, as supply units, unlike others, will instantly surrender if they encounter enemy units and there’s no friendly units nearby. This adds another great area of strategy to the game that is satisfying.
Now if it feels like I’ve spent a rather largish portion of this review talking about mechanics, it’s because it’s necessary. This is a very complex game, and believe it or not I’m glossing over several systems. You need to be aware of just what you’re getting yourself into with this game. With that said, there are just a few more bits and bobs to deal with in terms of mechanics and game modes.
The campaign mode is like a giant puzzle. These feature very specific scenarios that will be setup exactly the same way every time, and will roughly progress the same way every time. I have found them to be very well done, and I imagine history buffs will enjoy them even more since they follow actual war operations for the Allies. The Axis is a bit of a ‘what if’ scenario, but still fully within the realm of plausibility and quite necessary. The Germans didn’t win any major battles after D-Day. The only thing that I wish they had included was a difficulty slider for the campaigns. I’m having a devil of a time with the medium campaign, I don’t even want to imagine what the the Very Hard campaign is like.
In terms of other game modes you have several options. In multiplayer you can play custom games that can have a wide range of rules variations, or you can play ranked games. Be warned, the ladder games have some very skilled people in them so I’d recommend being able to beat the AI on hard before venturing in. My personal favorite way to play is starting up solo Skirmish games. You have lots of options (though sadly none for removing phases) that allows for quite a bit of variance in games. It also allows me to not feel dumb by setting the AI down to very easy. Did I mention this was a freaking hard game? It is.
Audio & Visual
This is a very good looking game. You can seamlessly change from a map-like battlefield view to viewing a single unit. While I wouldn’t call any one asset in this game extremely detailed, everything is detailed enough that it looks good at the high zoom. I also found it interesting that you have the option to turn on NATO symbols for units instead of more standard game icons. Note I said interesting, not useful. Hardcore war buffs will no doubt appreciate the option far more than I did. The smoke, tracers, explosions, all of it is good. It truly looks like a battlefield. When the game first starts it will run through an autoselect test, trying different settings and effects to determine what your system can handle. It was rather fun to watch, actually.
As far as audio its just there. I actually turned off their music and put on a Sabaton album. It’s not that the music or sfx is bad or anything, it’s just not anything really special. The gunfire and explosion sounds feel a bit dulled as well. There’s been more than one occassion that I’ve forgotten to put on my headset and not realized anything was missing until 20 minutes in. This is one of those games where if for some reason you have to play it in complete silence, you won’t be missing much.