Like all real-time strategy (RTS) games, Steel Division Normandy ’44 requires a combination of dexterity and tactics. Its system provides a healthy dollop of history along with the need for fast thinking. The fact is that play is aimed toward multi-play as witnessed by the continuing release of new maps. Fortunately for aging lone wolves, the game also has a solitaire component in the form of DIY skirmishes and historical campaigns. The skirmishes are as easy or difficult as players make them but the campaigns are the deep end of the pool. Is the initially frustrating play worth the trouble?
Carry On and Carry Over
The game has three campaigns: the initial American D-Day thrust, the German response to the Americans and one of the British attempts to take Caen. Each of these has four linked scenarios where losses and gains are carried over from completing the last victorious scenario. Hence, simply winning is not enough; one must win well to have a chance of completing all four scenarios. Fair enough even if it means playing scenarios several times to get the right amount of resources to carry on.
Each campaign starts with a newsreel introduction followed by a “big picture” map of the situation. The actual battle map then appears with a narrative of objectives. After that, things happen that the tutorials and sparse documentation don’t mention. Players are ordered to compose their battlegroups only to find a full battlegroup already extant. Empty slots can’t be filled it would seem. At first, players will assume the pre-made group is locked in and should be enough to win. Only after having their heads handed to them by the AI does frustration become the mother of invention. Right-clicking a unit already slotted moves it back into the available unit list, freeing up activation points and slots. Only then can players build their own group.
The next surprise and decision point comes in the deployment phase. In the first campaign, the American player starts with two separate deployment areas and many troops out side of his own group. These new troops are other paratroopers and soldiers coming up from Utah Beach. Can the player control all troops or only his own? Should he divide his men to support the others? The answer to the first question is he can control the paratroops in blue but not the green men from the sea. All well and good but, because the game doesn’t have a “pause” function allowing orders to be given in a thoughtful manner, valuable time has been wasted finding these tidbits out (N.B. Virtual Magnifying Glass stops action as well as making the tiny font readable,) The American primary objective is to take and secure a crossroads village. The task isn’t too difficult despite the nagging narrator. However, following the great Band of Brothers series, German batteries shelling the beach are spotted and proclaimed secondary objectives. Some of the player’s forces motor on down to take the batteries out. Wait a minute! Paratroops jumped with trucks and jeeps? No and faux pas like this take away from the game’s accuracy. Along with the continual addition of objectives, unexplained elements brought up by the narrator do a number on players’ nerves.
Who’s in Charge Here?
The first German campaign scenario is even more confusing at first. The deployment area is on the lower left of the map with the initial objective being to block British troops from reinforcing the British paras holding Pegasus Bridge on the far bottom right. Also, the garrison at Ouistreham at the extreme upper right should be relieved so they can be used in subsequent scenarios. Moving a reinforced Panzer Grenadier battalion to a town overlooking the road to the bridge should stop the Tummies and be a springboard to Ouistreham. Deploying north, the battlegroup gets into the town only to be blocked and confused by a stream of orange units. Who are these guys, where are they going and can players control them? They’re the 21st Panzer heading toward the Brits and, no, players can’t control them. In fact, the 21st doesn’t do much at first and the player must figure out how to support them.
The British campaign is the beginning of Operation Epsom, one of several attempts to take Caen. Charged with taking a village en route to Hill 112, the British face well dug-in elite troops including the 12th SS (Hitlerjugend) Panzer division, fanatical teenagers. For once, the player has a wealth of heavy troops in the 31st Tank Brigade from the start. Although the heavies are not controllable, they draw the enemies’ fire. Batteries of 25-lbers are available from the start and should be used lavishly as should the self-propelled howitzers provided.. The Germans are determined and savage the 31st so players should come to their aid to conserve them for upcoming missions. British infantry platoon leaders should be deployed with all troops as they are the only units with close-in anti-tank weapons. The terrain is perfect for defense so a hard slog ensues.
Solo play for RTS games poses a conundrum for developers. Engines built for fast continuous play do not lend themselves to the methodical thought preferred by gamers playing alone. Some engines allow orders to be given while paused; Steel Division Normandy ’44 doesn’t. Instead, the scenarios provide rapid fire new objectives in a game with a strict time limit. Therefore, players must play scenarios repeatedly to find the right combination of forces and tactics. Replay value is fine as long as repeated defeat doesn’t trip a frustration level. This game’s penchant for throwing surprises at solo players guarantees replay and replay and replay. Although the historical situation is fairly well portrayed, some important elements are missing. The Allies should always have some off-board artillery and air support available. The Germans should be allowed some mines and other obstacles. This game’s campaigns are challenging and have the right feel but demand a great deal of doggedness to complete. Players who prefer to play solitaire should be prepared for getting to be very familiar with each scenario.