“The potential of the average person is like a huge ocean unsailed, a new continent unexplored, a world of possibilities waiting to be released and channeled toward some great good.”1 While Brian Tracy’s words were meant to reflect people, they can be used to understand what Sudden Strike 4 is like. As real-time strategy games go, Sudden Strike is a series that has received a lot of praise over the years. With realistic scenarios that rely on effective use of reinforcements and unit management, the franchise has evolved with each installment. However, after a seven-year wait, Sudden Strike 4 (SS4) feels rife with untapped potential. While fun and challenging, certain immersion-breaking factors and some minor rough mechanics prevent this game from being spectacular. Nevertheless, fans of the franchise will undoubtedly enjoy the experience, and will likely choose to overlook the game’s relatively minute shortcomings.
Graphically, SS4 is neither substandard nor marvelous. Each scenario’s terrain reflects that of a battle-scarred dystopia, but maintains some semblance of beauty in the form of greenery. The ruined towns and outlying structures crumbling from explosions convincingly depict the scourge of World War II. Moreover, the various units, from Panzer tanks to uniformed infantry, are accurate representations of their real-life counterparts. Unfortunately, the level of detail put into these visuals is rather standard, meeting the bar as opposed to raising it. The game’s artistry is professional, but not exactly sharp: skilled, but not epitomic. Though, in today’s industry, creating a visually astounding game is one of the most difficult tasks given the exceedingly high standard and wealth of graphically-intense titles.
Corresponding with the average graphics is SS4’s audio. The battle sound effects are what one would expect of an RTS set in World War II. Tank cannons thump with each shot that results in an earth-rattling blast, which in turn causes debris to rain down on the field-of-play. Chunks of dirt, rocks, and other materials patter the area with each successive eruption. Satisfactory yet typical, the in-game sound effects do not propel the genre to the next level. Whether or not the game’s run-of-the-mill sound effects are a result of a new company handling SS4’s development is unclear. However, similar to most games’ visuals, implementing outstanding audio in an industry with high-caliber standards is an onerous task.
SS4’s soundtrack serves as the tone-setter for most of the game’s menu perusal. The orchestral music evokes thoughtful reminiscence of the sacrifices made by every faction involved in World War II (Allies, Soviet Union, and even German soldiers). The soundtrack appeals to the emotional side of gamers as they decide which option to select among the menus’ choices. When tethered to the description of each campaign mission, Sudden Strike 4’s symphony elicits empathy for those who lost someone in the largest conflict in human history.
Backing the battlefield sound effects and the thought-provoking musical ensemble is the voice acting. Soldiers on the battlefield will often acknowledge orders being given by the player, behind-the-scenes military officers will issue objectives to gamers, and various officials will read journals attained after each mission aloud. While the voice acting in each of the aforementioned cases is not abysmal, it does lack a certain quality. Put simply, the voice acting is rather bland, passionless to the point of leaving users shaking their head at the disturbance of their immersion. Despite the actual scripts being believable, the voices behind the words barely succeed in delivering an authentic military intonation.
With three different stories—one for each of the game’s three factions: Allies, Soviets, and Germans—SS4 puts players in charge of a finite number of units in some of World War II’s most pivotal battles. Some of those battles, ranging from Germany’s invasion of France and Russia to the Battle of the Bulge, offer challenging objectives that send waves of enemies crashing against the gamer’s forces or require users to defend a certain position. Throughout each story, players will unlock journals written by military commanders reflecting on each battle or the war as a whole. Such inclusions add a sense of depth and familiarity to each playthrough of the campaigns. As a mixture of historical representations and creativity, SS4’s stories provide entertaining tales that use major turning points in World War II as their stage, and fluctuating gameplay is the tool used to thread their yarn.
Gameplay mechanics are what truly make SS4 stand out. Two single-player game modes are available: Campaign and Skirmish. The campaigns, as mentioned above, take players through three stories from the perspective of the various factions. Skirmish mode, meanwhile, allows players to take control of any of the three factions, using one of three doctrines (specializations) at their disposal (Infantry, Armor, or Support). The objective of Skirmish battles is to control all of the field headquarters on any given map, the number of which varies from map to map. Capturing a field HQ seems a simple task, as players only need to move as little as a single soldier to control the territory. However, two problems present themselves in these situations: establishing a permanent presence around the HQ to maintain ownership, and fending off enemy forces.
Sudden Strike 4’s combat presents a unique challenge, as the realism evident during battle forces players to actually utilize strategy, such as flanking and focus fire, to defeat enemies. Tanks can withstand some punishment, but are by no means invincible. Infantry tends to get cut down rather quickly by the AI, unless entrenched or otherwise protected by the terrain (camouflaged in foliage, lying prone in the dirt, etcetera). Even properly defended by using cover, the AI still finds a way to annihilate foot soldiers. Luckily, Skirmish battles provide a way to gain extra units. Certain structures are positioned around each map. These structures are captured in similar fashion to field HQs, and provide players with the ability to call in reinforcements by spending command points. Command points are gathered by capturing field HQs. Naturally, the more powerful the unit, the more points required to purchase it, and the more field HQs the player possesses, the faster they rack up command points as they compete against a relentless AI.
The AI moves at a rapid pace, often making users hard-pressed to respond in a timely manner. With the brutal aggression of the AI, Skirmish battles are a frustrating yet gratifying experience. Achieving victory is an arduous, sometimes unlikely accomplishment, but means the player has a swift reaction time and finely-tuned strategic mind. Moreover, the inability to select a difficulty level outside of the campaign missions means users are thrust into the totality of the AI’s merciless assault. Mastery of SS4’s combat requires meticulous micromanagement of every unit on the battlefield, from using each unit’s abilities (lying prone for infantry, opening tank hatches to extend the tanks’ field-of-view, and more) to successfully outmaneuvering opponents.
Regrettably, one immersion-breaking factor that can cause irritation is the way tanks and other armored vehicles can simply push destroyed vehicles out of the way. While certain vehicles were able to perform such a task in reality, not all of them were suited for it. In SS4, for example, a tank can merely brush into a devastated opposing tank and nudge aside as if the destroyed vehicle were on ice and made of papier-mâché. This nonsensical oversight can leave both gamers and history buffs perplexed and annoyed, for such an odd flaw leaves Sudden Strike 4 wanting.
Finally, SS4’s most notable addition is the Commanders. As a primary feature of the game’s campaigns, Commanders represent major military officials who were key to each faction’s successes. Each campaign allows players to choose between three Commanders before every mission, for a total of nine. Universally, the three choices are the difference between Infantry, Armor, and Support doctrines. When reading the description before a mission, players can pick up hints as to which Commander would be best suited for the scenario. Moreover, Commanders will acquire points through successful missions, which can then be used to upgrade the officer’s skill tree, making their doctrine much more powerful. Upgrading skill trees is essential for both completionists and players who simply wish to add a greater challenge to their experience, as playing through the campaigns’ hard difficulty is a frightening affair. Peeling the onion, though, reveals the depth involved with the Commander system. As with most of life, the more experience someone has, the more skilled they become with a given talent. The Commander system works similarly, in that improving each Commander’s tree reflects the improvements real generals made to their strategies and firepower during the course of World War II. Indeed, selecting an inexperienced leader runs a higher risk of leading troops into disaster. With time and effort, a leader chips away at their shortcomings and improves upon them, just as SS4’s Commander system mirrors.
As the newest addition to a long-running franchise, Sudden Strike 4 is not a groundbreaking experience. Nevertheless, KITE Games adhered to the industry’s standard and crafted a quality product, despite a few drawbacks that can be forgiven. The game will not deter loyal fans of the franchise or RTS titles in general, but is unlikely to attract a wealth of new players. Hopefully, KITE Games will continue to enhance the skills of their development team while learning from some of SS4’s mistakes to avoid them in the future. With decent graphics; appropriate audio; intriguing historical tales and simulations; and equally entertaining, challenging, and frustrating gameplay, Sudden Strike 4 is neither phenomenal nor disappointing.
Reviewed on PC