Men of War: Condemned Heroes is an amazing concept hamstrung by poor AI and an oppressive level of difficulty.
I am a fan of the Men of War series- I especially loved Assault Squad. While I appreciated what 1C attempted with Vietnam, I was glad to see the setting return to WWII for Condemned Heroes. I was also intrigued by the story of the Soviet penal battalions. Organized by Stalin in 1942 via Stavka Order No. 227, the shtrafbats were comprised of men considered “cowards” for having retreated during battle (or for even haven been CAPTURED, as that proved they hadn’t fought to the death), and were no longer considered trustworthy. The men of the shtrafbats were “given a chance to redeem their crimes, or incompetence, in blood by serving as the lowest enlisted rank in a battalion that was assigned the most dangerous tasks.” You can only imagine my disappointment when I started playing and found the extreme difficulty level (I found this game harder than MOW: Vietnam), and poor squad AI keeping me from enjoying what otherwise would be a fine addition to the MOW legacy.
Before I discuss my issues with the title, I want to fist commend 1C for bringing the story of the penal battalions to light. Their exploits have not been well documented, and it was about time that these men receive the recognition they deserve. As always, 1C shows its commitment to research and accuracy. Weapons, locations, and units are precisely depicted. 1C tracked down members of these battalions in order to ensure everything presented in-game is firmly grounded in reality. MOW:CH is clearly lovingly made, and it DOES show in the presentation. Graphics are clean and serviceable (even if the MOW engine is beginning to show its age), and the interface works as it has in previous versions of the series. I’m still a big fan of allowing players to control individual units down to the level of “cooking” grenades or taking that perfect sniper shot. Sound is still a mixed bag. While music and sound effects are still solid (weapons and explosions sound powerful), the voice acting is stiff and wooden, seemingly trying to be over dramatic rather than trying for a more nuanced approach.
Where MOW:CH starts to fall apart is in the execution of orders. Troops do not follow orders intelligently (or even accurately). I’ve sent troops to take cover who stop midway looking for more instructions. By the time I’ve noticed they’re not where they’re supposed to be, they’ve usually been wiped out by enemy forces. The AI also does not make use of cover in a useful way- I sent troops to hide behind a rock outcropping in order to have them pepper a foxhole with grenades. When they reach the rock they’re supposed to be hiding behind, I still need to ORDER them to go prone (or go to a knee) or they’ll keep their heads in perfect sniping position. Once I figured that out, getting them to throw grenades (even directly controlling a solider) was an exercise in frustration- I had to get my troop to stand, prime, and throw the grenade, thus opening him to a blistering hail of fire which killed him instantly. I would have expected a better cover/attack system, especially considering how fiendishly difficult this game is, even on the easiest setting.
The difficulty itself wouldn’t be as big an issue if the controls were more responsive, or more intuitive. Just getting my soldier to disengage from a machine gun turret he was using led to several minutes of fighting with the controls. It really pulled me out of the moment, making things more irritating than fun.
Sadly, I think 1C has reached the end of what it can do with the current Men of War engine. While it tells an incredible story, it does so in such a frustrating way that I have to wonder if 1C themselves should consider falling back and regrouping, unlike the “condemned heroes” they spotlight. I can’t really find enough here to recommend until the game’s price point is drastically reduced. It’s truly a shame, as I wanted to love this title as much as I did the others in the series.