It's finally over.
When I was a teenager, I lived in a run down apartment with just my mom. My room was half filled with boxes, remnants of the move from our nice middle class house, with an old PC in the corner. For hours I’d spend my time playing the handful of games that computer could still run. Among those games was a historical real-time strategy game called Sudden Strike. I could spend hours distracting myself from the drab surroundings by micro-managing my troops across the battlefield. Surprisingly, the series has managed to survive since the time of my ancient computer, and just released its fourth installment.
Sudden Strike 4 is set in the European theater of World War 2. You take control of each major power in their own sets of campaign missions that emphasize some of the major battles of the war. For instance, as Germany, you’ll stomp your way across Poland and Russia before their major loss at the Battle of the Bulge. As the Allies you’ll start small by parachuting in behind the D-day landings that lead up to the race to Berlin. Each mission provides historical context before and after the fight that reminded me of the old Medal of Honor games, and gives a grander sense to even smaller battles. The campaign nicely balances large battles with smaller encounters, often adding hidden objectives that simulate sudden changes in the tides of war.
Most of what Sudden Strike has to offer won’t be new to anyone involved with the RTS genre. You control a relatively small group of units, complete objectives, respond to sudden changes in the battle, and simply try to survive. Some missions will start you with a few troops, and you’ll build up to a massive force, while others give you a handful of tanks and tasks you with barreling through as safely for yourself, and deadly for the enemy, as possible. Each unit will also require some maintenance and support, including fuel, ammunition, repairs, medicine, and artillery. You’ll need to pay close attention to what your units need, or where they’re going in every situation since things can end up becoming a bit of a guessing game when units stray off the beaten path or, in my case, drastically ahead of the main force. This becomes a bit of a guessing game when units take alternative paths or, as in my case, suddenly drive ahead of the main force. There’s nothing like watching a defenseless support vehicle drive into enemy tanks all alone or a nearly ammo-less assault truck rush across enemy lines.
What’s specifically new to 4 is the ability to choose a commander to go into battle with. Each commander has their own perk tree that’ll grant a subset of your units (infantry, armor, or support) new skills. Your infantry can equip a set of smoke grenades giving them mobile cover or your tanks can deploy sandbags for extra protection. While most of the perks aren’t life changing, the relief and advantages they bring can turn the tide of battle. In one of the German missions I was down to nothing but soldiers, running from fox hole to fox hole, lobbing grandes at the remaining Soviet tanks. Thankfully I eventually found a support truck, refueled one remaining artillery truck and blasted the remaining forces.
For me it comes down to those little moments. Blowing up the ice below German tanks in the frozen lands of Russia. Ordering an infantry unit to take cover in houses to set up an ambush. Blowing up a bridge and forcing an enemy counterattack through your main defensive line. Sudden Strike lets you feel like you’re making strategic decisions that have a real impact on the battle. It’s a shame then that I often feel less like a capable commander, and more like a bungling video game player. I’d often have to replay missions when a counterattack would easily flank my units or when my armor was overwhelmed during an attack. A lot of the fun in Sudden Strike comes with time.You have to learn what units work against each enemy type through trial and error, not tutorial. Knowing when your tanks will run out of fuel so you aren’t scattering immobile units across the front lines is something I absolutely had to learn. It’s frustrating to get most of the way through a mission only to have a surprise objective and counterattack wipe through your units because you didn’t think to bring enough ammo. For some, that level of care might be fun, but for me it usually just brought me down.
The original Sudden Strike holds a really special place in my heart. It helped me through a strange time in my life. However, this doesn’t feel like a strategy game you can just jump into like Starcraft or Company of Heroes. Sudden Strike harkens back to an ancient kind of strategy, but does it really well. This won’t be for everyone, as it sometimes gets frustrating, tedious and draining when things don’t go your way. It’s a maddening experience that rewards long term play, but it’ll only appeal to a certain crowd of players. I wish I could share the Sudden Strike experience with everyone, but for those dedicated enough to dive deep, it’ll be worth the effort.