It's surprising that developers are still finding ways to screw up World War II real-time strategy games. Games like the fantastic Company of Heroes should be the rule by this point, not the exception, seeing as developers have stacks of games to pick apart to see what works and what doesn't. Unfortunately, as Faces of War proves, this isn't the case. Many RTS versions of the noble crusade remain packed with flaws, including dull, derivative missions and control problems, and this game is no exception. Even though developer Best Way has already produced the well-regarded Soldiers: Heroes of WWII, here the company has made a primer on how not to make a WWII RTS. Faces of War hits all of the potholes that have wrecked similar games in the recent past, and it's driven into a few new ones.
By now, you probably know the drill when it comes to World War II-themed strategy games. The solo part of the game features the usual three campaigns (there is no skirmish option), so once more you get to tear up Europe with the Germans, Allies, and Soviets. There are no surprises here, although the developer has thrown something of a curveball by picking up the war after the midway point of 1944. You come on board for the final stages of the conflict, so, for a change, there isn't a focus on the standard WWII-game headline battles like D-Day (which is represented in a bonus mission outside of the formal Allied campaign) and Stalingrad (which isn't featured here at all). Chances are that you've liberated Omaha Beach and blasted that infamous Russian city to rubble a few dozen times in other games already, though, so the (partial) absence of these engagements is refreshing.
That's about all that is refreshing about Faces of War, though. Everything else has been scooped out of the big bag of WWII RTS game clichés with both hands. Gameplay is something of a cross between Commandos and a typical larger-scale WWII RTS. You take charge of a small squad of troops and don't have to deal with resource management or even minor management tasks such as ordering up reinforcements, but you do have to deal with large numbers of enemies. Overall, the designers have sort of hit the sweet spot between solving level puzzles and blowing the hell out of everything that moves.
Still, missions all deal with tired, bog-standard objectives like blowing up radio stations, rescuing generals, detonating bridges, and stealing secret plans. There are lots of vehicles, gun emplacements, and tanks to hop into, plus loads of buildings to enter and use to set up shooting positions, but the end goals are still very, very familiar. You can choose to play assignments by either tactics or arcade rules, but both feel like a Sgt. Rock comic brought to life, with your squad going up against insane odds and stacking bodies like cordwood. Best Way seems to have compensated for the lack of unique settings by swamping every level with foes. Combat is fast and busy in such a never-let-up style that the incessant action soon begins to wear on you.
Levels have also been overdeveloped to the point where you have no real freedom. They aren't as rigid or as puzzle-heavy as those you would find in one of the Commandos games, although there is typically just one way to complete objectives and usually just a single way to get there. You need to do everything in perfect order to activate a trigger spawning backups (like a column of tank reinforcements) or setting up the condition needed to take out the battalion of enemies that attack you at the end of each mission. A lot of levels feature extremely dissatisfying endgames that you don't control, where the cavalry shows up out of the blue like a deus ex machina, for example, or you suddenly win the day just because you managed to stay alive against withering enemy fire for a long-enough period of time. Often, these victory conditions aren't spelled out, so you're left mindlessly killing enemies in the hope that the level will eventually end.
Also, if you don't follow the moves "suggested" in midmission officer voiceovers to the letter, you have no hope of winning battles. You don't even have a choice when it comes to taking on secondary objectives, as you always have to complete them ASAP or get shredded by hidden mortars, blown away by a King Tiger tank, or overwhelmed by enemies who often pour out of buildings like clowns out of a funny car. This is one extremely linear game in which everything feels scripted.
Troop movement feels limited as well. Your squad is never completely under your control, due to an artificial intelligence that constantly interrupts commands. Sometimes this is a good thing, as soldiers seem programmed to seek cover whenever possible and you can readily position troops behind cover thanks to ghost images that pop up when you position the movement cursor behind rubble, walls, burned-out vehicles, and the like. But most of the time this trait just gets in the way, as the AI will do things like force a soldier to drop to a crawl or stop and return enemy fire when you're trying to get him to sprint to safety. At other times, soldiers won't respond to movement commands. They also seem to always leave cover and stand up to shoot, even when it isn't necessary. Troops also have an odd tendency of running into each other, or into the rubble that clogs almost every level, and freezing in place until you click a new destination that lets them escape their traffic jam. Most missions take place at least partially in closed-in city or town streets, so these movement snafus can lead to a lot of frustration.
Faces of War does feature a more hands-on control mechanism called direct control (previously seen in Soldiers), where you can take charge of an individual soldier. It's too unwieldy to use, however, as you need to hold down the Ctrl key and use the arrow keys to move. You can switch it on and off with the End key, but this is arguably even more awkward as you can't move your squad properly with direct control on, and need to hit the button over and over again during the course of every mission. At any rate, using direct control effectively is pretty much impossible due to the zippy speed of most levels. So don't expect to get any use out of this option, except for those moments when you want to take a few potshots at a specific enemy sniper or a foe manning a gun emplacement.
Visuals and sound cause more confusion. Best Way's Ukrainian roots are apparent in the horrible English of the mission briefings, which are frequently so off-the-wall that you don't quite know what's going on until you actually start the action. At least lines like "We Stand One" and directives such as the one to "withdraw the secret stuffing" from a radar base provide comic relief. Maps are loaded with detail, which makes for some truly authentic-looking theaters of war (towns really look lived in, with telephone boxes on corners and amenities like parks and water fountains) and loads of destructible buildings that go boom in an impressively cinematic fashion--but they wreak havoc on camera angles. You have to constantly swivel the camera and zoom it in and out to dodge the buildings, trees, and debris that block your sight every time your squad turns a corner. As this is one fast-paced game, it often feels as though you're battling the camera as much as you're battling the Wehrmacht, GIs, and Reds. All this detail seems to cause a lot of slowdown, as well. On any visual setting, the game bogged down at least once per level, typically in the midst of the huge, smoky final battles.
Audio cues are another problem. While the game delivers solid explosions and machine-gun rat-a-tat-tats, it lacks good cues. So you're never told where enemies are located or are moving to, and you're given just a wimpy, hard-to-hear announcement heralding the arrival of a grenade at your feet. The latter can be a real pain, too, as grenades in the game are nearly impossible to see, being no more than a couple of pixels in size, and are smartly tossed by enemies into trenches and at manned gun emplacements.
Multiplayer is arguably the high point of the game. Co-op play for two to four players is supported for one-off missions, and there are eight traditional multiplayer modes of play including deathmatch and king of the hill, along with interesting variants like Chicken Hunt, where you compete to kill farmers and capture their finger-lickin' good livestock, and the Capture the Flag-like Battle Zones. Maps are on the small side and seem designed to spark conflict almost from the moment you spawn your units into existence. Getting into gunplay is also sped up as you have liberal access to vehicles and tanks in most modes of play, so you don't necessarily have to wait for your slower ground troops to make their way to the emerging front lines on foot. Lag is a bit of an issue at times, however, and matches are frequently interrupted as the server resyncs with the players. This can be pretty jarring, especially in the midst of a firefight, as units can suddenly appear or disappear. Still, there seem to be a fair number of people playing online, so it's pretty easy to hook up with a match.
For all this, Faces of War isn't terrible. Even with the been-there, done-that WWII setting and the other problems noted above, at times you can't help but enjoy the game despite itself because Best Way has thrown everything but the kitchen sink into missions. There is something undeniably cool about feeling like you're taking on the entire Wehrmacht, US Army, or Red Army with just a handful of troops. If not for the control and design problems, this intensity might have made for an enjoyable RTS. As it is, though, this is just one more forgettable WWII game to throw onto the pile.
Editor's note 09/26/06: When the review was originally posted, it implied that there was no way to toggle on the game's direct control feature without pressing and holding a key, which is incorrect. GameSpot regrets the error.