Think of a World War II real-time strategy title and Relic's Company of Heroes immediately springs to mind. It was like Dawn of War's serious older brother. Or better still, Band of Brothers: The Game, with production values to match.
2009's Men of War feels like the only major development in the genre since. While it lacked a little of CoH's Hollywood sheen, it more than made up for that with detail, historical focus and sheer, mud-chucking brutality.
Assault Squad is the second expansion in the series, excluding a standalone (a third one – Vietnam – is also in the works). It continues Men Of War's unique tradition of memorable, hand-carved missions, each of which is a tight bundle of tactical puzzles in its own right. There are 15 new missions in total, designed for single or co-op play, set across German and American campaigns.
The early missions we've played so far are chewy and delicious. If ever a game denied the tank-rush philosophy it's Men Of War, and the required leapfrogging of combined arms across the map simulates the tooth-and-nail consolidation of territory with authenticity.
Each mission starts you off with a handful of infantry and a small pool of production points. Enemy-held territorial capture-points are your step-by-step goals; they provide a boost to your production-point income and unlock new purchase options.
In addition, missions present you with a set of conditions which must be met before key units become available. The American assault on Caen, for example, requires you to capture the town before armoured units can be fielded. Own the roads and the Shermans can roll in.
What really characterises the experience is the slow sense of progression in each mission and the requirement for thoughtful application of resources. Run a bunch of infantry at a defended position and they'll get ventilated by machine-gun fire. Roll a column of tanks up a road – even high-end models such as the Tiger – and they'll get picked off in pretty short order by AT-guns.
Any unit which advances unsupported is a wasted asset, because the enemy rarely fields a rock without a sheet of paper and a pair of scissors to hand.
Moreover, consolidating your battle-lines is crucial. If you stall after capturing two out of three command-points in an area, the AI will reinforce the remaining point and start poking back. If your enemy builds up enough forces in the area, he'll send flanking forces trotting down the map to threaten your new recruits as you order them in. As we've discussed, lone forces never survive very long.
To make matters more strikingly brutal, vision-ranges are considerably longer – realistically so – than in most other RTS games. Roads are particularly nasty as they offer no cover, and a concealed unit can play absolute havoc with lone advancing troops and vehicles.
Much of which will be familiar to players of Men Of War. As will the immense detail in every map, many of which are colossal.
Treelines, sandbags and other cover are crucial to the survivability of your units as they reduce the fire-effectiveness of enemy forces. Every captured command-point is worth snooping around in case there's a crate with some interesting goodies inside, waiting for your terrain-investing infantry.
What really sets the Assault Squad apart is the level of difficulty. 'Easy' is no longer a life-threatening source of palpitations. Diligence is required at the lowest settings, for sure – advance unguarded and you can expect to be knocked back, but set up your forces sensibly before an advance and you're pretty much guaranteed solid progress.
Plant mortars way back in your safe-zone to soften up enemy positions, place a couple of AT-guns in cover with clean arcs of fire ahead, set up a couple of HMG squads to pick off any chancing infantry and you're ready to advance with the grunts, and repel any counter-attacks.
The US and German forces on offer in Assault Squad's single-player mode are, as the title suggests, quite infantry-focused. Certain units are a joy to use when you figure out their best application.
The US Rangers, for example, rock up in their own truck, complete with a mounted HMG. This makes them an instant assault force in their own right; hop them out and they can exploit cover and advance, under the auspices of heavy anti-infantry fire.
What's more they're immensely mobile, and capable of executing lightning raids on sparsely-defended positions. Drop a few hardy Paratroopers into the mix and you have a sudden, and quite handy, assault force.
The biggest innovation up Assault Squad's sleeves is its new Skirmish mode, which allows four-player competitive or co-op play. There's a choice of German, American, Russian, Commonwealth and the newly anointed Japanese army options. In addition, many of the existing forces from Men Of War and the first expansion, Red Tide, have undergone rebalancing to even things up.
In a move which is seemingly at odds with the gritty realism of the game, DigitalMindsoft is also integrating 'hero' units into the skirmish armies. However, these are largely unavailable until later in the missions, when you've captured a set number of control-points, and your income is fairly hefty.
On the German side Veteran Tigers become available; 88mm cannon-sporting monsters which can dominate extended tank confrontations. And there's the cheeky Goliath – essentially a buggy-sized mine on tracks. It can deal a devastating high-explosive blow to emplacements and vehicles if deployed successfully.
Whether these additions will unbalance the multiplayer experience is unclear but in recent interviews, DigitalMindsoft have gone on record to stress they won't, citing a reworked system that introduces a key special-unit resource which is hard to come by in quantity. And if the hosting player doesn't wish anybody to field such uber-units, they can be removed from the game at the lobby stage.
In short, there's plenty to enjoy here. Even if multiplayer isn't your bag, the promise of more missions for the most compelling wartime RTS since Company Of Heroes is an enormously tasty prospect.