There are some things you really, emphatically, absolutely should never, ever do in this semi-sequel: tank rush without infantry support, stop pushing for longer than a minute, and swoop the camera over whatever’s left of the map that needs conquering. After what feels like (and commonly is) hours of furious back-and-forth battles over incremental checkpoints, glancing at that few hundred yards of enemy-infested soil can feel like you’re running on a mined treadmill.
Make no mistake, Assault Squad is relentless both in the volume of opposing forces it throws at you and the constant need to micromanage of dozens of individual units. There’ll be more on that in due course, but let’s start with the basics: as one of five World War II factions (the US, the British, the Russians, the German and the Japanese), you and a tiny team of infantry are plonked at the south end of a lengthy, somewhat rectangular battlefield, with the final capture point off to the north. Available friendly forces expand in size and capabilities as more checkpoints/command posts/roadblocks/circles of sandbags with a stick in the middle are captured, until that group of eight men become forty, flanked by armoured cars and backed up by supply trucks, snipers and the occasional airstrike. To the game’s credit, these unit types compliment each other wonderfully – charging an MG post with terrified conscripts will fail unless a tank blows it to pieces first, but that’ll end up charred in a ditch without rolling in a mortar launcher to clear unfailingly accurate anti-armour placements.
Still, whereas bringing in reinforcements requires careful spending of resources, sharp timing and decent situational awareness, the AI seems to spit out grunts, tanks and turrets at terrifying speeds. The entirety of each mission is spent dislodging these guys from heavily entrenched positions, but they’re so quickly replaced that maintaining a functional force that can both attack and defend requires superhuman clicking reflexes. Ultimately, flags that took eons to capture can be completely overrun in minutes, usually because the huge maps require giving attention to several fronts at once. The complete shelving of resource production mechanics streamlines the process slightly – instead of building factories, soldiers can simply pinch supplies from defeated troops (everyone has their own inventory for weapons, bandages, helmets and so on) or clear out the crew of vehicles to commandeer them. It’s a good system, but even stopping to resupply ammo-starved units with the the pockets of dead Nazis will cost precious time that could make the difference between a successful defence and a messy whitewash. Few other games are this unforgiving at wiping out achievements, and I’m not entirely convinced that’s a good thing.
Games should challenge us – I think we all want that. But Assault Squad is, all too often, prohibitively demanding, and some of its better choices are almost lost in a never-ending tide of raging Panzers. Hitting E, for instance, will allow direct control of the selected unit. The distinct talents of each unit shine no brighter than when you’re pulling the trigger yourself, and scoring a victory thanks to precise intervention rather than traditional bunch-of-men-go-here clicking is considerably more rewarding. The detail is also mightily impressive; vehicles can break in a variety of ways depending on where they were hit and what hit them (a shell to the tracks will blow them clean off, hindering movement, while even a humble bullet to the fuel line will immolate it completely), sections of buildings fall away when driving through them, and the kinetic punch of projectiles can vary wildly. It’s an incredibly deep, complicated game, yet one that even after hours of play is reluctant to give many chances to savour such intricacies. Which is a damn shame, because the only other real criticism that can be levelled at Assault Squad is that every mission follows the same template – big, long battlefield, move up it please. Even then, the array of worldwide war fronts – from snowy fields to dusty African villages, via the sweaty jungles of the Pacific – gives every campaign its own geographical flavour, even when the underlying game mode is identical throughout.
Multiplayer offers a bit more variety. With over thirty maps and four game modes (that’s three more than in solo play, obvious fact fans) it has clearly been given plenty of love, and there’s certainly no shortage of bustling servers. Perhaps expectedly, many opponents will be absolutely nails, but most warzones support co-op so calling for backup rarely presents a problem. But one-on-one still appeals, especially in Assault Zones – a kind of King of the Hill with multiple hills. Holding off a map-wide enemy attack where defeat boils down to skill, rather than the seemingly arbitrary AI hordes, can be electrically tense. It’s still in desparate need of a proper tutorial system, mind. Right now, the only way to learn is to get repeatedly smoked – hopefully we’ll see something in a future update.
Assault Squad feels like a fantastic game waiting for someone to unburden it from its own Herculean toughness. The focus on non-stop action instead of resource management and almost third-person-shooter-like direct control system could have made this a great stepping stone for new players into the RTS genre. Instead, only the hardest of the core are likely to see everything it has to offer. If you think can can handle it, it’s well worth the money – but everyone else will be met with a learning curve shaped like a brick wall covered in barbed wire, with only a vague hope of genuinely good times on the other side.