Windows - 2000
Description of Sudden Strike
If you mention the words "WWII" and "RTS" in the same sentence, little springs to mind with the exception of Close Combat. And even then, that's a game which puts its emphasis squarely on small-scale tactical action. It's thus quite surprising that while Westwood has just released its eleventh Dune 2 RTS derivative, no-one's managed as yet to produce a decent WWII RTS. So it's good to see that CDV's new WWII RTS Sudden Strike, while remaining a tactical game bereft of typical RTS base-building and harvesting, manages to at last meet the bill. Sudden Strike is not a realistic wargame (for that, turn to Close Combat 5 or Combat Mission) but it is a very well-presented, enjoyable game that has a lot going for it.
Three campaigns are featured, one each for the Allied, German and Russian forces spanning 12 missions. With an additional 14 stand-alone scenarios Sudden Strike rounds out at a healthy 50 missions. However, longevity is not all it may be as while you can go online for Internet opponents once you've completed the campaigns, there's no mission editor or battle builder included. The customisable "skirmish" creator in Close Combat was a feature I made heavy use of, and its exclusion here may deter gamers looking for long-term value. However, each campaign will likely take a good few evenings each, so there's plenty of play in the game as is.
There are a number of features that set Sudden Strike apart from Close Combat in the real-time stakes. Most notably is the fact that Sudden Strike does not make any significant attempt to be a realistic game. All units are restricted to a maximum view range of a few map inches, which might correspond to 100 yards or so of real terrain. As a result, you won't have battles where Tigers hold off swarms of Shermans at long range. This design decision makes the game play like a typical RTS rather than a classic wargame. But that's not to say that realistic tactics don't pay off. Scouting ahead with jeeps, motorcyles or infantry is very important, and while tanks can be damaged by grenades they're pretty much invulnerable to infantry fire. More importantly, while the view range is limited, terrain obstacles affect line of sight in a reasonably realistic way, so you can hide in woods, and you can also gain a significant advantage by defending from high ground.
The scale of the action is much greater than Close Combat. Instead of a handful of units on each side, you'll frequently see a couple of hundred men on each side at any one time, and post-battle debriefings can show as high as 500 or more casualties. Many battles, particularly in the Russian campaign, feature large unit counts, but some still focus on smaller scale encounters with specific tactical objectives. You might, for example, have to clear a minefield, steal a supply truck, go repair a bridge or capture a village on the far side of the river, then hold it for a set period of time before reinforcements arrive. Mission variety is very good, in no small part due to the variety in units and tasks they can perform. While some of the missions feel somewhat scripted, Sudden Strike allows you to save your game at any point, so you don't have to replay a whole mission just because a vital unit trod on a mine moments from making its objective. You also feel like there are usually many ways to win a scenario, rather than just one solution to the "puzzle".
Units in the game include anti-tank guns, howitzers, transport trucks, supply trucks, infantry (eight types, including bazooka and sniper units), mortars, heavy machine guns, jeeps, tanks, mobile missile launchers, aircraft, anti-aircraft guns and tank destroyers. There are also officers who can impart combat and other bonuses on your men. Each type of unit is represented by historical examples, so you will see units such as Tiger tanks, Matildas, and KV-1's. Each has a "hit point" count, an experience level and a stock of primary and secondary ammunition. A Tiger isn't as tough as you might want or expect; one can be taken out by repeated attacks with light AT guns, as each hit knocks the hit points down a little, rather than there being a straight kill or no effect from a shot. While rifle fire doesn't harm heavy tanks, mortars and grenades both do, so it's quite possible to take out a number of tanks with mortars hidden in woods, for example.
One of the game's strengths is the diverse range of actions that can be performed. Trucks are not only a means to transport infantry quickly around the battlefield. They can also be used to limber up and tow artillery. Supply trucks can provide extra ammo to any unit, can repair tanks and can also build pontoon bridges across water. Ambulances are able to heal wounded infantry. Most usefully, the repair and healing tasks are performed automatically by trucks or ambulances near those in need of them. Infantry are able to lay or clear mines, and can crew any machine gun, mortar or artillery piece, friend or foe, that's left unmanned. They can also capture trucks and enter buildings, watchtowers and pillboxes.
The interface makes such actions easy to do, with each menu button option also having a hotkey assigned to it. Particularly useful is the ability to queue orders by using the SHIFT key. The game encourages you to capture and use AT guns and mortars with your infantry; one example of the use of queued commands is when you have a group of infantry selected and you SHIFT-right click on a number of such guns. The infantry will move as a group, manning each gun in turn. It's also useful that you can pause to issue orders at any time. The only notable deficiency in the interface is that you can't drag-select units over a wide area because the screen won't scroll while the mouse is dragging a selection window.
The game certainly looks good, running at resolutions from 640x480 to 1024x768. The terrain includes the trees, buildings, roads, paths, fields and ridges that you'd expect, and is presented very clearly in an overhead 2D isometric view. While there is no provision to zoom or rotate the map, it's easy to navigate, helped by the ability to save up to eight viewing points. You can only see what your men can see; the rest of the map is visible but units and weaponry are hidden. Infantry look quite small on the map, and it can be hard to discern plain grunts from other specialist infantry at times, particularly in wooded terrain. Hot keys to select all bazooka troops or officers (for example) would have been handy. That said, the infantry are to scale with the tanks and other vehicles, which look great. The isometric view looks much nicer than the overhead view used in Close Combat ; vehicles passing behind buildings can be seen thanks to the building then being drawn transparently.
Much of the terrain can be destroyed; it's quite typical for any village subjected to a firefight to end up as nothing more than smoking rubble. Sudden Strike includes air power, and further destruction can be rained down from above by summoning your bomber support, if available in a mission. There are also spotting aircraft and paratroop support than can be called upon, but with AA units in the game you have to use these carefully.
While stressing that the game isn't realistic, it is nonetheless a lot of fun to play. Battles can be very ferocious affairs, with all manner of weaponry blazing away in rabid exchanges. The explosion effects are very good and enhance the general feeling of chaos and carnage that pervades the gameplay. Unit AI is good in that troops will act autonomously and do sensible things; the exception comes in the pathfinding AI which, sadly, is below par. Troops ordered to move a long distance or through a narrow obstacle will invariably get lost or stuck; this is a more significant problem given the scale of the battles. Like the limited visibility range, the poor pathfinding is probably in part due to the large unit count. The designers have also presumably chosen to "decay" vehicle wrecks to help that pathfinding AI avoid getting blocked. Poor pathfinding is the only serious flaw in the game; others, such as troops occasionally speaking in the wrong language (e.g. the German supply truck acknowledges orders in English), are minor by comparison. Another amusing one is the spelling of the Stuart tank: in this game, it's a Stewart. But bear in mind Sudden Strike is a German game translated to English; in general, that's done so without fault, the manual being very easy to read.
Perhaps the only other criticism is the lack of any difficulty setting; you have to pick up the game as you go along, adjusting to the difficulty as you progress through the campaigns. It seems pitched just about right to me, but tastes will vary. I should also point out that I had problems with the game's copy protection system; there is now a patch out to address this (released on 9th November) but I had to resort to using a crack I downloaded off the Internet. That, of course, shows the futility of the copy protection system as it took me about five minutes to find and install the crack.
Your liking for Sudden Strike will vary with your gaming tastes. If you hanker after realism and gritty detail, stick with Close Combat or my favourite WWII game Combat Mission. If, however, you want a WWII game that plays tactically more like Total Annihilation than a faithful wargame then chances are you'll have a lot of fun with Sudden Strike. It looks good and the action varies in pace from missions that require stealth to those that are huge, all-out brutal exchanges that leave the battlefield littered with bodies and rubble. Unlike many of the recent 3D strategy games, you can pause to give orders and save at any point, both features that should be mandatory in any RTS. In the final reckoning, Sudden Strike should offer a lot of enjoyment to the more casual gamer, the only notable strikes against it being the poor unit pathfinding and the lack of a longevity-boosting battle builder or skirmish mode.
Review By GamesDomain
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