World War 1 might have been the "war to end all wars" but the second World War is certainly the "war that has never ended," having been fought in any number of games (and movies, and books, and television programs). With its naturally balanced array of infantry, armor, and support units, the European conflict has been adjudicated once again in the generally successful real-time strategy game, Sudden Strike 4. The colorless adjectives come not from the mechanical faults of the game, but the distinct feeling that we've seen this just a few many times before.
While many RTS games focus on gathering resources, assembling overwhelming forces and building massive bases, Sudden Strike 4's missions throw a relatively small number of units and later, reinforcements, into some of WW2's most infamous skirmishes, under the command of superstar American, English, German, and Russian generals, each with the ability to strengthen a specific type of unit and usefulness in combat. In other words, the game has persistent hero units, each with their own skill trees. Although a bit on the short side with only 7-reasonably lengthy missions for the Allied, German and Russian campaigns, Sudden Strike 4 offers a great deal of replay value, with each mission allowing multiple strategic approaches though in honesty there is usually an optimal and most expedient path.
One of Sudden Strike 4's bullet points is that it was released on PS4 as well as PC and while I played the game on PC, I used a gamepad to mimic the experience of my console brethren. There are few successful console RTS games but thanks to its slower pace and modestly scaled encounters, I had no trouble controlling the game. The smart use of radial menus and button mapping made the novelty of gamepad control a non-issue. In other words, it worked just fine.
While successful players will approach each mission with some careful planning and patience, and while there are of course a lot of choices involved in picking the right commander, upgrading equipment and making wise use of manpower, firepower, terrain and structures, essentially Sudden Strike 4 is a pretty simple, no-frills RTS. Each mission has a set of objectives, some obstacles along the way, a few surprises and in the end the player is given a rating and the chance to forge ahead or try again.
Sudden Strike 4 looks and sounds very good, with lots of little details in the painterly landscapes and and a wealth of effective weapon sounds and animations. In fact, units -- even the tanks and supply vehicles, not to mention various flavors of infantry -- have a fair bit of hard-to-define heroic character despite their size and obvious familiarity in the genre and setting. The lighting, weather and time-of-day effects not only bring to each environment a real presence but impact the course of battle. What's less successful is the sometimes annoying commander voice acting and overall lack of passion or inventiveness in the story.
Really, that is Sudden Strike 4's biggest flaw: it has simply been done too many times before, and the game seems content to be a comfortable -- in both a good and not-so-great way -- and immediately recognizable experience. Easy for me to say. I'm not sure how to make the storming of Normandy or the frigid Russian winters surprising again, especially in an RTS where the human drama takes a back seat to pushing around little units to solve tactical puzzles. For console gamers less affected by ennui, Sudden Strike 4 is approachable and not terribly obtuse and provides something that PC players have come to take for granted: a great looking, fun-to-play, well-made strategy game about one of history's most turbulent and strategically interesting periods.