Getting into a World War II real-time strategy game is a challenge these days. So many have shown up on our doorstep the past couple of years that newcomers can only get the Nazi-weary public's attention by doing one thing wildly differently or everything incredibly well. You can put Rush for Berlin in the latter category. While this by-the-books effort from Codename: Panzers developer Stormregion is a rehash of WWII RTS conventions, the entire game is so well designed that you don't much care that you've seen it all before. If you can stand to liberate Stalingrad in a computer game one more time, you should sign up for a tour of duty here.
Just don't expect anything new. All of the standard WWII RTS conventions are respected so much here that you won't need to even glance at the manual to get the lay of the land. Four separate campaigns that begin with the final push into Germany let you wage war as the Western Allies (which only seems to comprise the US and UK--sorry, Canada), Russians, Germans, and French. A total of 25 solo missions (figure on 25 to 30 hours of play) take you through well-worn WWII hotspots such as Bastogne, Stalingrad, and bombed-out downtown Berlin.
Game structure in Rush for Berlin follows the usual recipe, too. Units include golden oldies such as GIs, mortar teams, medics, Sherman tanks, Panzer tanks, recon vehicles, supply trucks, and so on. As with most other WWII RTS games, Rush for Berlin's focus is firmly on tactics. There is no base building or resource collection, although you are often required to capture enemy factories or headquarters to use for such things as tank and troop production, as well as resupply.
Stormregion does do a pretty admirable job of livening up these familiar surroundings. Missions take place on huge maps that are packed with detail. The 3D engine does a fantastic job of rendering all sorts of little touches that add atmosphere to every setting, and almost every building, tree, and bunker can be blown up, knocked down, or rolled over with an armor column. At times, though, too much detail is crammed onto the screen. Muddy trenches, blocks of ravaged apartments, and weather effects such as heavy snowflakes always look great, but they can cause serious slowdown when accompanied by a lot of moving units. Larger-scale battles, particularly in the Western campaign, really get bogged down at times. Thankfully, outstanding sound effects during these massive battles make up for the occasional visual issues. Every shot, explosion, and round fired by a Panzer booms out of the speakers so forcefully that it feels like you're playing a Medal of Honor-style WWII shooter, not an RTS.
Scenario design is geared to put you into the boots of the soldiers on the ground. Objectives move freely between big military goals such as conquering Nazi headquarter buildings and blowing up German 88s to squad-level maneuvers such as chasing down and killing a tank commander hopping from one Panzer to another, stopping German engineers from wrecking Russian foundries, and even using a control panel to solve a puzzle presented by moving walkways. You won't mistake this game for something like Commandos or Silent Storm, but the inclusion of these hands-on sequences does give Rush for Berlin a more varied personality than the usual cataclysmic, big-picture RTS.
Also, there are a lot of glimpses of real history to give the game historical heft. The Bastogne mission, for example, takes place in the middle of a blinding snowstorm, which conveys how alone the real American troops must have felt on that New Year's Eve in 1944. The Russian seizure of the Brandenburg Gate is set in the cratered landscape of Berlin, emphasizing the utter ruin that Hitler's war brought upon Germany. Even the German campaign, which moves the game into an alternate history where Hitler died in the Stauffenberg bomb plot of 1944 and his successors fought to achieve a more noble peace (with high-tech weapons such as the Me-262 jet fighter, no less), rings true because it is a credible look at what might have been.
Officer hero units also add historical flavor. While they unfortunately aren't given individual names, they do have specialties that adeptly evoke some of their national character. The Russians, for instance, feature a political officer with the special ability to dole out double rations of vodka to fire up troops for limited periods of time and attack troops with explosive-placing dogs, while the Allies boast the likes of an SAS officer who can call in paratroopers.
Artificial intelligence is generally up to the challenge of bringing WWII battlefields to life. Troops in Rush for Berlin are quite smart in certain situations when it comes to attacking and defending, so you don't have to do any micromanagement. Infantry troops, for instance, know enough to automatically approach enemy tanks and then wipe them out with magnetic mines. Fully computer-controlled allies aren't as bright, however, a fact that gets somewhat aggravating when playing missions where you have to support them. One Allied mission that centered on repairing computer-controlled tanks was particularly frustrating, because these tanks frequently refused to attack the enemy in a sensible and prompt fashion. Pathfinding is another problem, especially when dealing with armor and mobile guns on maps with a lot of city streets. These units will frequently get jumbled up, bump into one another, and end up taking the long way to destinations.
Enemy forces are more astute than your buddies, too. This provides a fair bit of challenge in most missions (meaning that you need to make frequent use of the save anywhere feature), as the enemy seems to always focus fire on your most vulnerable or most useful units. Still, there are times when the computer's ability to readily target and take out your finest troops seems like a cheat. One moment you're marching along nicely with a sizable army, the next you're reaching for the reload button because unseen snipers in the trees have just taken out your invaluable medics with a couple of shots or curiously perfectly placed guns in a bombed-out courtyard have turned your tanks into scrap metal. Levels feel like deathtrap puzzles a bit too often.
Multiplayer introduces two new modes of play to the usual deathmatch and domination games. RUSH (Relentlessly Utilized Score Hunt) and RISK (Race-Intensive Strategic Kombat) aren't quite as memorable as games as they are for their names, though. The former is sort of neat in that players are given between one and three random tasks to accomplish, although they involve nothing but old-school victory conditions such as destroying all enemy units on the map, defeating an enemy team, or collecting supplies. But the latter is pretty much the same style of game as that in the solo campaigns, albeit with two or more players rushing to seize the same objectives. At any rate, multiplayer is a bit moot at present. Few people are playing online, at least with the full retail version of the game. Only demo matches seem to be up and running on a regular basis, but they aren't compatible with the out-of-the-box game.
Basically, Rush for Berlin is a very good representation of the WWII RTS formula by pros who really know their way around the Battle of the Bulge. If any game is capable of convincing genre veterans of shivering their way through the Battle of the Bulge one more time, it's this one.