Paradox Interactive is known for innovation, be it from its own games or those it publishes. And it’s found a new way to fight World War II, eschewing the grand strategy and general’s-eye view of warfare it’s known for in the Hearts of Iront series for a more intimate battle — the hedgerow skirmish.
Today, the Swedish company announced it would publish Steel Division: Normandy 44 from Eugen Systems, the French studio behind the Wargame series and R.U.S.E. This upcoming PC game focuses on real-time tactical combat between units at the division level, something you don’t see from many strategy games these days. It’ll have single-player and online modes, and the maps and units are as historically accurate as possible — down to the hedges, copied from aerial footage taken during recon of Normandy in World War II.
“We’ve been doing real-time strategy for the last 17 years. We’ve done the Wargame series in the last five years. It’s sold a bit more than two million copies. This is a hardcore game. We’ve also done R.U.S.E., in 2010, which was a more accessible game. Recently we did Act of Aggression. Right now we’re working on Steel Division: Normandy ’44. What we’ve created with Wargame is—we’ve crafted a unique experience, where you have tactical and military warfare realism, high realism in terms of expectations for the player, a great amount of freedom to build up your army, the excitement of realtime combat,” said Alexis Le Dressay, the creative director of Eugen Systems, in an interview Monday at the Game Developers Conference. His studio has been working on wargames since its founding in 2000.
“What we’re doing with Steel Division is using the World War II setting and a great amount of history to build up a new experience. We have, I would say, a personal point of view on this conflict, especially Normandy. That’s what we want to show you, on a skirmish map.”
Steel Division runs on Eugen’s in-house game engine, Iriszoom. It has single-player skirmish modes and a campaign, and it offers up to 10-vs.-10 multiplayer. It has more than 400 units from the U.S., English, Polish, French, and German armies (and others, too). You control small squads of infantry, Jeeps and tanks (both light scouts and heavy tank-killers), distinct cannons, call in air strikes, and even summon the big naval guns from vessels off the beach.
One of Eugen’s innovations here is how combat takes place in three phases — A, B, and C. You spend activation points to acquire units. Say you pick a recon patrols with a jeep and a .30 caliber machine gun with an A on it. This means you can place it on the first phase. Those with a B come in the second phase, showing that they are slower and take more time to arrive. So the genius here also gives value to weaker units like scout tanks — these wouldn’t last long if they rolled out with heavier armor, so those come in the B and C phases, while the scouts come in the A portion of battle.
“Why would you use a super light tank in a game that has Tiger tanks? They were used in a war, but in a game, why would you use it?” Le Dressay said. “This is our answer, because it’s the only tank you have in phase A.”
Once your forces tangle with the enemy, you can watch the front move as your forces take control of new turf or fall back when a heavy tank rumbles into your territory. Units also react to conditions with a stress mechanic — the higher this meter goes, the more likely they are to miss their targets, fall back, or even rout.
“The tank will retreat, while infantry in that case will get pinned down,” Le Dressay said. “They can’t move, unless you order them to withdraw. If they get too close to the enemy in that state, they’ll surrender.”
Which means you can win an engagement without having to wipe out the enemy — and in many wargames, you end up destroying your foe too often to achieve your objectives. You don’t have to kill everybody.
“It’s about conquest, taking control of the map. You don’t technically have to kill everyone, although obviously it will happen,” Le Dressay said. “It’s about taking control of the map and forcing the enemy back. Once they can’t deploy more units, what are they going to do?”
The personal viewpoint comes from a few aspects. The easy part comes from control: You’re guiding small groups of soldiers and sometimes putting them right behind trees and even hedgerows. But Eugen says that he and his coworkers at Eugen had other reasons for making this game.
“I wanted to do Normandy because I know the place. In fact, what I wanted to create was something where you’re in the map, and you have the most authentic map, where it’s exactly what it is in reality,” he said. “Sometimes, when I play a game, it doesn’t look [right]—what I can provide is that I know Normandy, and so I know this is how it is. We had photographic reference. Players that like World War II and like Normandy, they have the assurance that this is very accurate. I wanted to provide this for the first time.
“When you try to create a franchise, you have to raise expectations. The first game you do is maybe the most difficult one, because you have to project yourself. ‘This is how the game is going to work.’ In the beginning you have more intuition than concrete know-how. That’s why I chose Normandy. It’s also interesting because you have a lot of very interesting, very famous divisions there – U.S., English, Polish, French.”
It’s also personal because he had relatives in World War II, such as an uncle fighting in an armored unit in North Africa and a member of the French resistance in Normandy. “I don’t know how much he helped the invasion,” he said.