Condemned Heroes pulls no punches and offers no surprises. This stand-alone expansion to the brutally challenging Men of War real-time strategy series offers more of the same as seen in the prior Vietnam and Assault Squad games. Difficulty has been scaled back a bit from that of last year’s incredibly tough release set in the jungles of Vietnam, but that has in turn been offset by dreary missions put together without a lot in the way of imagination. This one struggles to live up to the Men of War standard.
The setting of Condemned Heroes takes the series back to World War II after that brief Vietnamese holiday in 2011. This time, you’re doing the Russian thing, guiding squads of Soviet prisoners freed by Uncle Joe as part of the morale-raising “Not a step back” crusade that emptied gulags in a last-ditch attempt to keep Moscow schoolkids from singing “Deutschland Uber Alles” before class every morning. It’s an interesting premise that does a good job of explaining the suicidal nature of the mission objectives (for once).
Your guys are the cannon fodder who undertake fun jobs like clearing trenches and buildings for the regular troops following behind with tanks, mortars, and the like. The campaign consists of about 20 missions in total that take your Russian Dirty Dozen from the desperate moments in the homeland in early 1944 through Poland and into Germany in the waning days of the war in the spring of 1945. There isn’t much of a story here, though. Troops are readily replaceable, and there is no way to increase experience or level up. The atmosphere is also thin due to odd choices like the voiced mission directives being given without even the slightest pretense at a cheesy Russian accent.
Missions aren’t very inventive, and maps all look the same. There isn’t anything ugly, but there are a lot of browns, blacks, and whites, and much of the art seems to have been held over from previous Men of War releases. Even worse, your single-minded soldiering often involves the same repeated tasks. You’ll probably lose count of the number of German-held trenches you clear over the course of the campaign. While the monotony of the look and feel is broken up courtesy of some different tactical approaches along with the ability to scrounge weapons and ammo and even repair vehicles like tanks for impromptu armor assaults, you’re forever figuring out smart ways to attack dug-in Germans. This typically means finding good cover and then sending in some lucky bugger with a grenade to drive your enemies out of cover for a good hosing down with automatic weapon fire.
It’s all a bit tedious. Only the insanely brutal nature of these assaults livens things up. In true Men of War fashion, you are wildly outnumbered and outgunned. Constantly. Mission goals are always capped by accomplishing some spectacular feat or three, which then typically opens the way for larger squads and tanks to roll in and mop up the rest of the bad guys. At times, this can be used as a bit of a cheat. Sending a few of your troops in on suicide runs can trigger quick successes that cue waves of computer-controlled backups to charge into the fray. So sacrificing your men can be the best way to move forward. Stalin would have approved.
At the same time, a tremendous amount of trial and error is required. Suicide runs often turn into plain old suicide unless you have figured out the exact attack line that will get a care package of grenades delivered to their targets before withering enemy fire kills the runners. And even when you do have things sussed out, there are some odd pathfinding issues that see troops stand up at the wrong time, get bunched up and run out of cover to make room for buddies (how courteous!), ignore enemy troops just a few feet away, and so forth. Being able to take charge of individual troops through the game’s direct control feature helps, but the game is too quick for so much micromanagement. By the time you realize that you need to jump into a grunt’s army boots, chances are awfully good that he’ll be dead.
Multiplayer has been scaled back, so you can’t skip out on the campaigns to go up against other human players. The co-op mode from Vietnam has been dropped in favor of Capture the Flag and a minor variant called Victory Flag. Modders have already patched co-op back in, but it’s disappointing that the developers didn’t bother with what would have been a pretty satisfying way to handle the extreme difficulty of the missions. At any rate, there isn’t much of a crowd playing the game online right now, so the whole multiplayer question is kind of moot unless you have some buddies you can hook up with on the Net or who can come over for some LAN play.
Condemned Heroes isn’t a bad addition to the series, but it is limited and predictable, which might be a tough sell to those who have seen all of this before. Additionally, the intensely frustrating difficulty makes the game an even dicier proposition for casual gamers or series newbies looking to get into some WWII squad combat. So venture into this one only if you’re looking for a lot of repetitive reasons to pull out your hair.