In the already crowded field of World War II real-time strategy games, new contenders have to provide something special to distinguish themselves. In order to achieve this, game developers must experiment and push beyond the ordinary, creating games that give us new reasons to revisit WWII again and again. Men of War succeeds at carving a niche within the genre by delivering an epic campaign full of historical detail, plus the ability to jump into your units with a third-person "direct control" mode. Furthermore, Men of War forgoes base building so that you can focus on tactics. These elements combine to produce an experience steeped in history and rich in detail that will reward anyone looking for a challenging new twist on the genre.
Men of War is a complex and difficult game, and as such it can be tough to get into. The first mission, which is the closest thing the game has to a tutorial, only teaches you a few basic commands. After that, you'll get some help from the interface, such as the ghostly outlines that show where your troops can take cover and the occasional tool tip that flashes by, but that's about it. This can be problematic when a mission asks you, for example, to booby-trap enemy vehicles or hide dead bodies but gives you no clue as how you do so. Unorthodox controls are common in Men of War, so even relatively simple actions like dividing your units into numbered control groups might prove elusive if you don't take the time to read the instruction manual. The default control scheme uses only the left mouse button for movement, unit selection, and attack and can be tough to learn. Thankfully, you can switch to the more traditional RTS mouse setup in the game options if you prefer.
The gameplay in Men of War is engaging and varied. The single-player game is a set of three campaigns. First is the lengthy Russian campaign, which follows two friends in the Red Army who participate in a wide variety of early war missions, such as evacuating Soviet factories and defending the city of Sevastopol. It's truly refreshing to play a WWII game that doesn't take you through the overused battlegrounds of Normandy and Stalingrad, preferring instead to deliver new challenges from the lesser-thumbed pages of history, and, perhaps because Men of War's developers are Ukrainian, they deliver a seemingly thorough and authentic depiction of the war from the Soviet perspective. It's no surprise, then, that the developers played favorites with the Soviet campaign and made the German and American campaigns, which focus on the fighting in North Africa, about half its length. However, the shorter campaigns are anything but short, clocking in at about eight hours apiece, which puts the full single-player experience at 30-plus hours.
Part of the explanation for the game's long play time is its grueling difficulty; the rest it owes to a diverse array of long, involved, and realistic missions. Overall mission objectives go well beyond your typical "annihilate the enemy" fare and range from buying time for workers evacuating factory equipment to helping a small team of partisans stir up trouble behind enemy lines. In addition, you'll find a wide variety of tasks to accomplish within each mission. For instance, in the Tobruk level, you must push enemies out of their forward defenses, double back to remove mines and tank traps, fight to get your artillery to the coast, blow up several transports and a dilapidated battleship, swing around to take out a fortress behind your lines, and then send five men through an underground tunnel to seize control of British fuel supplies. With so many objectives to tackle, you'll often spend 90 minutes or more on a single mission--hours if it's a particularly difficult one--and at the mission's conclusion, you'll be able to enjoy a well-earned sense of achievement.
Men of War's most distinctive feature is the ability to take direct control of one of your units. This lets you control the unit with your keyboard and mouse like in a third-person action game. Although you'll need to directly control an infantryman in certain circumstances (such as shooting out enemy spotlights on a stealth mission), tanks are by far the most fun. While driving a tank, you can alternate between machine gun and main gun firing modes at will, and given that all buildings are destructible, you can, for instance, flatten a house filled with enemy infantry and then cackle maniacally as you pepper the fleeing survivors with your machine gun. Of course, playing with tanks is fun no matter which mode you're in, especially if you love seeing numerous real-world models depicted with historical accuracy. For example, tank enthusiasts will be wowed by how many different models of the Soviet T-34 tank are represented.
As if directly controlling units, finding cover for your infantry, and working toward your objectives aren't enough, Men of War has an additional responsibility in store for you: Limited ammo. In the event that any of your guys run out of bullets, you'll need to search corpses and supply creates for more. Additionally, looting corpses will garner you all sorts of items to augment your troops' effectiveness. Although there is a certain engrossing realism to the fact that your soldiers can equip any dropped gun, helmet, or grenade that they find, micromanaging your squad's inventory, and looting and equipping items, can become overwhelming. Regardless, you will still experience a profound feeling of accomplishment whenever your motley crew of units scavenges enough enemy supplies to barely make it through a mission.
Multiplayer in Men of War supports up to 16 players in both LAN and online matches and there are seven different game types to choose from that consist of variations on four basic themes. Given that there are no enemy bases to destroy, multiplayer matches are decided by points. Depending on the game type, those points can be earned by controlling areas of the map; by towing a randomly placed cargo wagon to your base, or simply by killing as many enemies as possible. Furthermore, you can play through the campaigns cooperatively with a friend, which is definitely a welcome addition. Curiously absent is any kind of skirmish mode for playing against computer opponents, which is unfortunate given that versions of the game from different territories aren't always compatible with each other which can make opponents difficult to find.
Men of War's graphics and audio are nothing special, although the sound effects are good enough that you can distinguish noises as subtle as an enemy soldier crawling through the grass to throw an antitank grenade. The music is repetitive and becomes annoying due to the prolonged nature of the missions. Furthermore, the pathetic English-language voice acting, when combined with awkward character animations, makes for some unintentionally hilarious cutscenes that don't mesh with the game's otherwise gritty mood. One nice thing about the visuals is the inclusion of some greenery, in contrast to the traditional WWII palate of dirt brown and rubble gray. Overall, though, the graphics don't compare too favorably with recent RTS games.
From the direct-control feature to the lovingly replicated historical vehicles, Men of War is full of well-crafted details that should make it especially appealing to history buffs. The steep learning curve alone will be enough to keep some players from enjoying everything that Men of War has to offer, but the reward for perseverance is a WWII campaign experience like no other game on the market.
Editor's Note: The preceding review replaces the Men of War review that was originally posted on GameSpot, which was found to contain a number of factual inaccuracies. We regret the error.