Eugen Systems first tried its hand at World War 2 with the rather flavourless RUSE, a game that was less about the units on your virtual sand table (RUSE was kind of meta like that), than the tricks you could pull to convince the enemy you were flanking from one direction, when in fact you were attacked from another position entirely.
Steel Division: Normandy ’44 eschews those tricks in favour of a more traditional strategy game, albeit while still staying true to the God-like sense of scale of the games – you can zoom out to review an entire theatre, and then zoom in to make sure that one Sherman tank is positioned just so to cover a gap in a hedgerow.
Steel Division is basically the Wargame series redone for the Normandy invasion of June 1944. It’s packed with unit detail, down to individual weapon loadouts on the members of a single squad, and detailed modelling of a range of vehicles, from tanks to aircraft and transports.
For each mission you assemble a deck of cards, matching infantry, armour, air-support, artillery, and so on, each to be introduced into a given battle over three phases – so you’ll want to start out scouting, then bring in heavier elements and infantry, and then maybe mobile units to exploit any breakthroughs.
Or to plug any gaps in your line if things are going bad.
As much as micro-managing units is possible, it’s not totally necessary. Units will generally look after themselves, though you may need to intervene to pull out units that are in danger of becoming suppressed. This mechanic allows units that have been forced to bunker down under fire to be liable to capture, but it’s not a quick process – you can track a progress bar pretty easily to see which units need to be moved back, and a simple Fallback order will see them scurrying out of the line of fire. The trick then is to make the most of your units, maximise your firepower against the weakest points of the enemy line, and take ground by maneuver rather than outright assault and attrition.
It makes for a slower, more deliberate pace, and when you get all your units working together (scouts spotting for artillery, infantry moving up under covering fire, tanks moving ahead in bounds) it feels remarkably smooth and true to the tactics of the period.
And thanks to some very detailed models, and maps taken from aerial photos from the period, it looks great too.
The game is let down by a very linear campaign, but a robust multiplayer makes up for it, especially in the epic ten-versus-ten co-op battles, where unit cooperation and integration really come into play, and Eugen’s included an exhaustive list of units and nationalities that fought in the campaign, so you can constantly explore new builds.
There’s a lot of game in this game.