I have never been a massive fan of the 4X (eXplore, eXpand, eXploit and eXterminate) genre. This has nothing to do with the quality of games of the genre that have been released over the years, it is rather to do with my sheer impatience and lack of, how can I put it? Tactfulness, I suppose (listeners of the GRS Podcast can affirm this). I have tried over the years to play the likes of Sid Meier’s Civilization, Europa Universalis, Master of Orion and other such titles. I start off with the best of intentions, but I always get frustrated early on and give up. That is why RTS games are right up my street. I enjoy the tactics side of warfare but not the tactfulness of diplomacy. I don’t want to be nice to a neighbour, I JUST WANT TO DESTROY THEM ON THE FIELD OF BATTLE AND CONQUER ALL! Sorry about that outburst, let us move swiftly on. The RTS genre has always had a bit of a tough time on consoles, and it is usually because a handheld controller cannot replicate the intricate control mechanic of a mouse. Some have been successful (I have always rated Command and Conquer console ports highly), but most are not. New developers Kite Games will be hoping Sudden Strike 4 is a rare console RTS success rather than just battlefield fodder. Unfortunately, for the most part, it is the latter.
Sudden Strike 4 keeps World War II as a setting like the previous instalments in the series. You will be able to take command of the German, Soviet and Allied forces across three campaigns. There isn’t much of a story in any of the campaigns, rather you will take part in pivotal conflicts during the war. You will be in command of such battles as Operation Overlord for the Allies, the Battle of Stalingrad for the Soviets and the Battle of Sedan for the Germans. There is a briefing about the battle at the start and a diary entry of a random soldier at the conclusion. Any players looking for a personal story of WWII will be out of luck here. One great feature in Sudden Strike 4 is that all three campaigns are unlocked from the start. You can just jump between the three at your own leisure rather than having to play through an entire campaign to unlock the next one. Before jumping into a battle, you will need to choose which out of three Commanders you want to lead the troops. Each Commander has different perks with each of the three concentrating on troop, armored vehicle and support perks, respectively. To be honest, I didn’t once find that you had to carefully think about which Commander to choose as the perks most of the time felt optional rather than essential. Out of the three campaigns, there is a basic skirmish mode where the only game objective is to capture enemy bases and a multiplayer mode with the same singular option.
The Controls. We all know console RTS games have a hard time compared to their PC counterparts. A handheld controller just cannot match up to a keyboard and mouse. The controls in Sudden Strike 4 are simple to use and somewhat effective while commanding a battle, but they are also unequivocally frustrating. Setting up squads is extremely easy. Simply hold X and move the right analogue stick to increase or decrease the selection circle and then press the right analogue stick. If you just want to separate your tanks from your troops, then this works perfectly. Sending your squads to battle is also just as easy, just highlight where you want them to go and hit O.
If you want to be a bit more tactical with your troops though, this is where the problems start. Let’s say, for example, you are at the edge of a town and your objective is to take the aforementioned town; however, you can’t simply just stroll up the main road as the opposing army has machine gun placements dead ahead. You do notice though that there is a small alleyway to the right where you could flank the machine gun placements. You obviously don’t want to send your entire infantry on this flanking mission, you only need a handful of brave men. You quickly discover in Sudden Strike 4 that when your troops are not doing anything, they all just clump together. The multi-select tool doesn’t work as it is not sensitive enough to only highlight the handful of troops you need. So, you painstakingly have to select a unit individually, send him away from the main squad and then create a smaller squad. It might not sound like the biggest hardship in the world, but Sudden Strike 4 is a game that encourages these tactics. There is generally at least one time in every battle where you will need to deploy these tactics, and selecting one soldier at a time gets boring quickly. The button commands will also change depending on your action. In some cases, X is select/cancel and O is execute, and then for no logical reason, they switch. I was stuck at a bridge that I needed to blow up for 10 minutes before I realised that the command prompt had done a 180.
The AI and Pathfinding are just a mess in this game. Honestly, it is laughable sometimes. While taking command of a battle in a nice, big open field, there generally is not much of an issue. However, in the Battle of Stalingrad, for example, the map is just a collection of narrow streets and the like. Your units will get stuck or attempt to go around the long way and end up getting lost and/or killed. If your tanks attempt to find their own way to the marker you set, be prepared to lose some as they crash into various obstacles throughout the map. One tank during the Battle of Stalingrad lost its tracks seven times as it tried to make its way to the objective. The AI is not much better. If you order troops to a certain area and during their journey they come across enemy troops, you would assume they would open fire, right? Well, you’d be wrong. Instead, they just carry on, ignore them and get shot at. Same with your armored division, they will just drive past enemy tanks without a care in the world. When one of your soldiers ultimately falls in battle and requires a medic, good luck trying to find one. Medics look exactly the same as normal soldiers, so when your men are dying on the battlefield, you’ll be selecting individual units to try and find someone to save them.
It isn’t all doom and gloom in Sudden Strike 4, however. Generally, the game is a lot of fun to play. When the controls allow it, battles are intense and sound fantastic. The main guns on the tanks fire with such ferocity that you truly feel like you could be watching one of these historic conflicts taking place right before you. The game does give you a good degree of freedom to play out battles how you like. Like previously covered, flanking is a great tactic, as are decoys and even the odd surprise attack. One surprise attack was my favourite moment in Sudden Strike 4. I had lured the Germans down a path with tall grass on either side. To them, all they saw were the handful of troops I used to lure them to that location. Once they arrived, I ordered my two squads to stand up and they opened fire. It played out exactly how I planned. It is such a shame the controls are as frustrating as they are and the AI is laughable at times, because when Sudden Strike 4 gets it right, you truly feel like a military commander.
Developer: Kite Games
Publisher: Kalypso Media
Platforms: PC, PS4
Release Date: 11th/15th August 2017