War has always been full of plenty of stories of heroism and daring - and Sudden Strike is no different. A highly regarded PC WW2 strategy series that began its life in 2001, Sudden Strike was a game that eschewed resource management and base building in favour of true strategy. With only a limited number of units under your command, and precious few reinforcements, it was how you used your troops, rather than how many you had that determined whether you won or lost.
And while there may be a different developer at the helm, we're pleased to say that Sudden Strike 4 follows a very similar formula. With 21 huge single player missions to take on, divided into three campaigns, you get to take on some of the most famous battles in the war from the perspective of the Germans, the USSR, and a combined British/American allied forces campaign. Almost unique amongst strategy games (especially on consoles, where they're a rare enough beast as it is), the concept of Sudden Strike is fairly simple. No matter the units you have, and no matter how outnumbered you find yourself, there's almost always a way for you to outsmart the enemy and gain the upper hand in Sudden Strike - as we quickly found out for ourselves.
One of the early missions in the allied campaign sees you trying to retake a French city, which has found itself overrun with Nazi armour. Having completely botched up the entire mission so far, we'd ended up accidentally leading dozens of our troops into ambush after ambush, while the vast majority of our armoured units had been knocked out thanks to some pesky artillery fire. In fact, when we finally reached the city - a city packed so tightly with Nazis, it was closer to bursting than Hermann Goering's belt buckle - we had just five units left: one artillery unit (an M7 Priest if that means anything to you), two soldiers, a repair wagon, and a supply wagon. As at least two of those can't actually fire, it's probably fair to say we were at least a little bit outgunned. While we were sitting just outside the town, pondering our options, the game decided to send in the cavalry by way of two Sherman Firefly tanks, which was at least a nice thought. Only problem was, it sent them right into the middle of the heavily fortified town, where they were promptly torn to shreds by several anti tank guns, a few artillery units, and the newly arrived Tiger I. "Oh dear", we thought, "we've got this far only to fall at the final hurdle". But that's the magic of Sudden Strike. Where there's a will, there's a way.
Luckily for us, the artillery unit we had left was immensely powerful - and tracked, so it could get around quickly. One shot from that thing can easily take out a few soldiers - and, if you're lucky enough to get a direct hit, you can do a fair amount of damage to a tank, too. So rather than doing in France as the French do and waving the white flag, we decided to push on - as best we could. With at least two anti-aircraft guns defending the city, we couldn't well call in a reconnaissance plane to light the area up, either - so we had to rely on our troops.
Sudden Strike 4 relies heavily on a "fog of war" system, meaning that anything your units can't directly see is greyed out and/or hidden away. As such, you'll never really have a clue where the enemy units are hiding - until you get too close. When you're down to your last soldier, you can't really afford to make too many mistakes - but luckily, there's a few things you can do. Using a handy tactics menu on the d-pad, you can set your soldiers to crawl (making them harder for the enemy to spot), and set them to only return fire, rather than firing at any targets they see - perfect when staying hidden is important. Secondly, while your artillery will automatically fire at anything it sees as a target, you can also set it to simply pelt areas you think enemies may be hiding with shells - something which is an incredibly important tactic when you've only got a handful of troops left, and can't afford to make any mistakes.
And this is a large part of what makes Sudden Strike so good. Despite having lost almost our entire army, a bit of cunning, some blind fire, plus some handy spotting from our brave last soldier meant we managed to wipe out the entire German army in the area. After spotting the anti-aircraft guns and shelling them into oblivion, we called in a ground attack aircraft to light up some more targets, and clear the way that little bit more, before sending our soldier to cover in a building, letting us view a much wider area, whilst also sheltering him from enemy fire. A few more shells later, and it was mission complete.
As you may be able to tell, then, Sudden Strike has a really different feel to other strategy games. As you start (and finish) with only a limited amount of units - and you never know when you might get any reinforcements - you'll need to manage your units efficiently, and protect the ones that are most valuable. Anything that can attack from a distance, whether a howitzer, a soldier equipped with a mortar launcher, or an artillery tank is always invaluable, and you'll want to protect them with your life. So too are medics, who can revive mortally wounded soldiers if you can get them there in time, and repair/resupply vehicles.
If we didn't have both our supply and repair vehicles left in the example above, a single shot could have knocked our artillery out, and we'd be done for. And as each vehicle (and soldier) has only a limited amount of ammo (and fuel) to play with, once we'd expended our shells, if we didn't have the resupply vehicle, we'd have to carry on on foot. And we can all guess how well that would have gone.
Another really unique idea is that of scavenging. While heavy fire from tanks and artillery may completely knock gun emplacements and enemy armour out, infantry (and particularly snipers) can pick off the soldiers without damaging the equipment. As such, almost anything you find in game can be commandeered, and used for your benefit, from enemy tanks and field guns, to civilian cars you find lying around the place. With enemies sometimes surrendering, or abandoning tanks that have taken a critical hit, it's a fantastic feeling to be able to add to your army by simply repairing the damage you'd done, sticking a few troops inside, and trundling off, turning their weapons against them.
And along with providing plenty of chances to test your strategy and planning, the missions here are absolutely huge too. While saying "21 missions" is pretty meaningless on its own, it's a lot more impressive when you know the vast majority of these stages will take you over an hour to finish - especially if things don't go all that well mid mission, and you're left trying to take on the entire Third Reich with one man and his pistol. Luckily for us, you can save at any point when things are going well, meaning you shouldn't ever really have to replay the whole mission.
And it's this mixture of a limited amount of units, with limited ammo, and the ability to scavenge almost anything you find on the battlefield (much like in real life) that makes the varied missions here so good. One minute you'll start with an armoured Panzer brigade trying to break through into Russia using their Blitzkrieg tactics; the next you'll be in charge of half a dozen paratroopers who've dropped in behind enemy lines on a mission of sabotage, who'll need to figure out how to hold the line until reinforcements arrive. Rather than simply building up overwhelming numbers of troops, each level here instead plays out a bit more like a puzzle - you've got to figure out how to make use of the limited resources you've got in order to complete each level. You might have to sabotage some anti-air defences before calling in a bombing raid; station some troops in a village to pick off the enemies in the street below; or simply hook the field guns and artillery you find lying around up to your transport wagons, and take them with you. There's loads of possibilities, and plenty of room to be clever.
But despite getting so much right, Sudden Strike 4 does have a few big issues that make the game that much harder to get to grips with. The first is that it has a pretty rubbish tutorial, and one that doesn't really cover a lot of the most important aspects of the game. Selecting units is also far harder than it really should be. While we're glad it doesn't cop out and force you to only select "squads" of units (which in turn would stop you being able to send a lone soldier out to scout things - we're looking at you, Halo Wars 2), it's way too hard to divide your units into reasonable groups.
By selecting a group of units, and then clicking the right stick, you can set them to one of ten quick access squad slots, letting you cycle through batches of units with relative ease in the heat of a battle. The only issue is, it's actually really tricky to choose the units that make up these squads in the first place. Our preferred way of doing war is to group our units together by type - so squad 1 will be our tanks, squad 2 may be artillery, squad 3 will be machine gunners/riflemen, squad 4 anti-tank soldiers, etc, etc, letting you send the people with the right equipment to do the right job when the proverbial hits the fan. The problem is, actually getting these units into the groups is harder than it should be.
The default way of selecting units is to hold X, and then use the analogue stick to increase the size of a circle, until you've highlighted all the units you want. That's fine if you want a ragtag band - or just want to get some badly placed units out of trouble - but it doesn't work for creating the organised fighting force you'll need. Double clicking a unit will automatically select all units of the same type - which is great - but it'll also only select units who are on screen at the time (something that isn't much use when you can't really zoom out all that far), and it's also very specific, only choosing units that are exactly the same, rather than, you know, all medium tanks. The best way we've found of doing it is to pause the game with the touch pad, and then select the units individually as best you can - holding L1 to add units to your selection. As touched on before though, the game really glosses over how to do this, and it's not as smooth as it really needs to be.
Pathfinding is also an issue. There's nothing like finding yourself under attack by a soviet rocket artillery (which can butcher your troops in a number of seconds - make sure you keep an ear out for its telltale shrieking), only to tell your tanks to come and help you out, then finding five minutes later that they've got themselves stuck on a rock - or worse, they've been firing at the enemy from behind a slope, or in a dip, without realising they're completely wasting their ammo. More frustrating is how the game takes into account the different armour thicknesses of a tank (you'll want to attack from the rear, where the armour's thinnest, if you want to do damage), yet also makes your tanks turn around if you order them to retreat, rather than simply reversing, keeping their thickest armour facing the enemy. Needless to say, a little hand holding is required - but with the ability to issue orders while the game's paused, it's not too bad.
Perhaps most significant of all though, Sudden Strike desperately needs an audible, unignorable warning when your troops come under attack. With reinforcements sometimes arriving quite regularly, it can be hard to keep a close eye on all the troops you have to manage - and if a group you're not keeping an eye on finds themselves in a spot of bother, you'll want to know, and fast. Unfortunately, the only hint the game gives you that your units are facing their very own apocalypse is a brief, tiny flash of red on the mini-map - something that doesn't really go far enough. And while it may only be a little complaint, it seems crazy that the game's actually packed full of historical footage of WW2 - yet it doesn't use any of it in the mission briefings, or the historical info about each level. Instead, you have to go into a separate option on the main menu, and choose to watch the "historical footages (sic)" separately. If you're going to go through all the effort of putting it together, why not make the most of it?
Still, despite a few teething issues, there's so much to like about Sudden Strike 4, it'd be impossible not to recommend it. While it may sound like the sort of game that only the hardest of hardcore strategy fans would like, it's actually a lot more accessible, and a lot more fun than you may think. While some missions may take several attempts to complete, taxing your brain to think of new, smarter ways to approach the enemy, and better ways of making use of the equipment you have is really rewarding. Regularly giving you memorable moments - like the tale of one man and his mobile artillery we recited earlier, or the time we stole three French cars and took on a platoon of Matilda tanks - Sudden Strike 4 is a game you'll keep coming back to - especially as the levels themselves are so huge! The D-Day mission particularly is a lot of fun - starting out with just a few paratroopers, we were tasked with blowing up some bridges to slow the enemy troops down. Only problem is, we blew them up while we were on the wrong side of the river - and the Wehrmacht weren't best pleased, as they made clear with the two tanks that appeared and started taking potshots at our troops. Luckily, one brave soldier, and one closely placed pack of dynamite later, we'd made short work of the tanks - and all it took was finding a shallow place to cross to get us back in the game.
While it may not be perfect, Sudden Strike 4 is a fantastic rebirth, and one that deserves a place in the collection of anyone with an interest in WW2, strategy games, or both. Far and away the best strategy game on consoles, Sudden Strike 4 captures the essence of the original classics for a whole new generation.
Format Reviewed: Playstation 4