When I first heard about Men of War: Condemned Heroes, I was very interested in its concept. Playing a tactical WWII strategy game from the perspective of a Soviet penal battalion seemed like a really neat idea. Unfortunately that excitement lasted all of 30 minutes before the brutal difficulty, idiotic AI, and inconsistent gameplay mechanics destroyed any sense of enjoyment I was having. Combine these problems with an awful presentation, complete lack of story, and a non-existent multiplayer element and there is really no reason to play MoW.
Men of War is an extremely tactical strategy game that strives for realism in its depiction of the brutal fighting of the Eastern Front. You take control of your men, usually not more than sixteen guys plus some vehicles and equipment, and attempt to lead them to victory against overwhelming odds. You can give orders to individual soldiers or group them into squads to speed up the process. The game also has a direct control mode that allows you to play as an individual soldier, vehicle, or artillery piece.
You can toggle this mode during battle and use it to fine tune the actions of a key unit. Unfortunately it does not control well at all. The moving and aiming can be very awkward as it is all done from the standard camera and it is very rarely an effective option for controlling infantry. Vehicles handle much better as you do not need to be quite as precise, but it is still a far cry from fun. To make matters worse the hit detection is inconsistent making aiming tank cannons and artillery more of a chore than it should be. This means that some explosions that seem like they should be blocked instantly kill enemies and others that seem like they are right on target barely faze them. The issue is especially bad in trenches where explosions on the parapet can kill but ones five feet down the trench cannot. Even if you do not use direct control and opt to let the AI do its thing, you will still be frustrated. Sometimes units with clear lines of fire will not shoot at enemies or even acknowledge their presence, which leads to some very goofy starring contests. Strangely the game will not tell you if a target is out of range, unless you are in direct control mode, which forces you to keep toggling until your unit can shoot.
The game is brutally difficult. That in itself wouldn’t destroy MoW, as games like Dark Souls are soul crushing but still excellently made. However, MoW not only lacks the gameplay of those other games, but also their precision and creativeness in mission design. Instead it opts to simply throw tanks, machine guns, mortars, artillery, armored cars, and hordes of infantry in your path until all your men are dead. Again, that would be fine except that don't seem to be any tactics that are effective at attacking or repelling the overwhelming force of the German assaults. As a result of this extreme difficulty and lack of strategy you are forced to take a single man and try and exploit the enemy AI into letting you get close enough to throw a grenade or steal a vehicle. It’s not clever or fun, just numbing as you try over and over to find the weak spot in their defenses. Missions are further hampered by poor scripting that sometimes fails to advance friendly forces, makes allied tanks get stuck on geometry, and in at least one case failed to trigger an end to the mission. Any of these bugs could prove ruinous to your experience and might force you to replay a four hour mission.
After smashing my head against the brick wall that was “normal” mode for eight hours I still couldn’t beat the second mission, and I was forced to bump it down to “easy”. “Easy” slightly buffs the skills of your soldiers and removes some of the enemies special equipment like mortars and tanks. That being said the game is still difficult, which forces you to take missions slowly. Each takes about 2 hours on “easy” as you inch your men closer and closer only to have them massacred, forcing you to load back into a previous save. To make matters worse this tedious gameplay is emphasized by repetitive mission objectives. The game seems to always task you with taking the same line of trenches or liberating the same village. I suppose these were the locations where the majority of battles in WWII were fought, but it doesn’t make for very interesting or varied gameplay. I played the game for twelve hours, completed the first of four campaigns, did some quick research online, and played part of one of six bonus missions and the first mission in the second campaign. It did not seem as though any major changes in game design or mission objectives would be implemented. After all that I could no longer deal with the monotony of the experience or the crazy difficulty and decided to call it quits.
The multiplayer component could have possibly made the game more tolerable, and a co-op mode could have alleviated some of the stress and difficulty of the singleplayer. Unfortunately co-op, a feature in previous Men of War games, has been taken out and as far as I can tell there is no one playing the regular game online. I have heard there is a mod to put co-op into the game, but you will still need to know someone else who owns the game as you can’t rely on the online community.
Maybe Men of War could redeem itself with a solid presentation to match its interesting premise. Unfortunately the game's presentation is lacking. The worst parts are the character and vehicle models which are flat and lack any real detail. The scenery is also disappointing. The grass is barely 3D and the shadows cast by the trees are incredibly pixelated The characters are constantly clipping through their own weapons and cover which makes the game look pretty silly when you zoom in close. There is really no art to speak of as the game depicts the same old German and Russian uniforms and equipment we have come to expect in a WWII game. This is too bad as the penal battalion setting could have made for some neat looking characters. Menus are similarly bland and old fashioned and do absolutely nothing to help the experience. The musical score is deserving of special scorn as there seem to be only two tracks of in game music, one for night missions and one for day missions. The music repeats on a short loop and quickly becomes tiresome.
There really is very little fun to be had in Men of War. The missions are just too long, boring, and frustrating to be fun. You can get some satisfaction out of placing a perfect shot that destroys a tank or finally overcoming a mission you’ve been trying to beat for hours, but these moments are few and far between and do little to alleviate the stress of just playing the game. The most enjoyment I had was actually not from playing the game, but from reading the background information that the game has on Soviet penal battalions, which is admittedly a fascinating subject. It is really unfortunate that the game designers could not capitalize on one of the few aspects of WWII that has not been overrepresented in video games.
It’s possible there might be someone who enjoys playing Men of War, but the vast majority of players will not. There is just really nothing good about it on any level. The gameplay is bad, the graphics are ugly, and all other features are non-existent or minimal. If you seek a challenging game in a WWII setting try Company of Heroes, Brothers in Arms, or any of the other MoW games. Better still try Dark Souls. This game is worth neither your money nor your time.