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Review: Sudden Strike 4 (Steam)

Sudden Strike wasn’t among the first RTS games I ever played, yet I hold it dear for another reason. It was the first strategic title which taught me both to rely on tactics instead of spamming units from a base and the most important thing of it all, it paved the way for the history buff you’re reading right now. Sudden Strike 1 & 2 along with the Age of Empires and the Total War series, will forever be recognized by me, as the reason why history fascinated me from a young age. No book or boring teacher could have achieved what a couple of excellent RTS games managed in my case. So you’ll have to forgive me if I’m biased about Sudden Strike and its successors.

I shall still judge the game fairly and criticize its flaws, rest assured. Sudden Strike 4 is released 16 years after the title which spawned this excellent series. It may have shifted dev/publisher hands since then, yet the formula has been improved far more than hindered. For a Steam debut, Kite Games have proven themselves a capable team and Kalypso Media Digital deserves even more credit for reviving a franchise whose last attempt was in 2010 (and even then if was unworthy of the Sudden Strike name). So if you want to experience the origins of a game which relies on pure combat & tactics, you can find the Sudden Strike Trilogy on Steam.

I hope you don’t expect me to narrate or even go into detail about World War Two, since I can probably talk and write for hours on end, in regards to this topic. I definitely don’t wish to bore you. No, I won’t make comments about politics and propaganda either. Or “the good guys” and “the bad guys”. Remember: a soldier no matter on which side he serves, is still someone’s son, husband or friend. And a soldier’s death is as much of a tragedy as that of a civilian. Many of them were too young to be married or fathers themselves and they were drafted into various branches of the armed forces without being asked if they’re willing to die for something as abstract as “patriotism” or “the fight against evil”. Military leadership doesn’t care about cannon fodder after all. History is indeed written mostly by the victors, but facts that occurred 70 years ago can’t get as twisted by time and malevolence like let’s say, the Middle Ages.

Players shall get to experience Sudden Strike 4’s tactics from the perspective of the Allies (US+UK & USSR) but the Axis is sadly represented just by Germany. Sad to see Italy and Japan neglected, especially since the Rising Sun’s Imperial Army was portrayed in Sudden Strike 2. Alas, there are plenty of historical missions to choose from and learn a good deal of history in the process. Seven missions for each of the three campaigns. While they have different start dates (1939 for Germany, 1941 for USSR and 1944 for the US/UK troops), the campaigns all end in 1945. As expected, a historical approach with no deviation from the norm. The missions themselves upon completion, shall unlock clips with original footage from the war and texts which go further into detail about casualties and outcomes for each operation. Any fan of history shall appreciate these extras.

Sudden Strike 4 has been released two months after Blitzkrieg 3, its “arch-nemesis”. Ironically they both feature highly (and skillfully) modified Unity Engine assets. Powering two of the best pure tactical RTS’ in 2017, is no small feat. Unity seems to be almost everywhere on Steam. From the subpar dollar-bin “game” which could be developed by nearly everyone, to intricately detailed real time strategies such as Sudden Strike 4. Of exactly how much detail are we talking about here? Well the kind, which features tank battles over frozen lakes (unfortunate units can sink, once the ice breaks from the artillery fire), moving vehicle parts, such as antennas and suspensions, not just the wheels or tracks and last but no least, foliage moving in the wind. The perfect cover for an infantry ambush or simply a relaxing sight to behold.

I could almost not believe it that Sudden Strike 4 is a Unity project but for all its pretty effects, there are some obvious cracks into this digital reflection. The first games in the eponymous series, featured persistent wrecks and unit corpses. The fourth rendition has unfortunately opted for them to vanish within 30 seconds. You destroy an enemy tank or a unit of your own, meets an untimely end. In less than a minute they vanish from sight as if nothing happened over there or anywhere else on the mission map. And this is truly ridiculous since it’s 2017. Powerful CPUs, more RAM than you can use and equally capable GPUs, have made PC games further the rift between them and their console alternatives. I refuse to believe that the PC version of Sudden Strike 4 couldn’t handle persistent fallen units on the battlefield. I don’t care about the limitations of the PlayStation 4 version, Kite Games.

I don’t wish to write a full-fledged rant, but I understand at least partially why the game has received some of those negative reviews. For me, it’s not the price that was the issue. Instead I am bothered by how this game shoots itself in the foot. On one hand you have a lot of beautiful in-game effects and on the other, you can’t even hide the user interface or HUD entirely. You like epic screenshots and the various objective markers, mini map, group selector or information displays are standing between you and a perfect image of the battle? You’re out of luck, pal. At best you can hide the objectives tab. By contrast Blitzkrieg 3 lets me transform my Steam screenshots of that game, into wonderful 4K screenshots. Yeah, speaking of resolution, at least Sudden Strike 4 didn’t disappoint me with its frame rate and stability. Maxed out, 4K@60fps constantly. I won’t regard the PC version of Sudden Strike 4 as a console port, yet some corners have been obviously cut. You can’t even rebind the keys, by the way. I had to change my Steam Overlay screenshot button, since Insert is used to rotate the camera in-game. And that HUD is literally an eye sore which doesn’t scale so well with higher resolution settings. Most of these complaints could probably get fixed by an update or two. One can only hope.

The soundtrack is decent, if nothing special. The voice acting for the narrators and mission commanders is abysmal though. American English accents for the Red Army and Wehrmacht campaigns? For real? Not even some impecabble British accents to go with the villain cliché? It really breaks the immersion and I couldn’t ignore that. Thankfully, the units themselves, the regular rank and file speak in their native tongues. I couldn’t understand a single word of Russian and I still struggle with German, yet I respect and demand authenticity beyond anything else in my historical games.

You have to witness for yourself Sudden Strike 4’s beauty in the form of enemy shells bouncing off the frontal armor of the M26 Pershing, Kliment Voroshilov heavy tanks (KV-1) or Panzerkampfwagen VI Tiger Ausf. E units without taking a single hitpoint from them. Very tough “nuts to crack” and the armor has been historically distributed as far as I’ve noticed. You don’t want your tanks to be facing the enemy from the flanks or the back. Projectiles can hit the tracks or engine and thus a steel-clad killing machine is rendered as useful as a sitting duck, just waiting for a grenade (or two) from a brave soldier. Realism, baby. Too bad that incendiary bottles aren’t implemented as in Codename: Panzers (forcing the tank crew out of the vehicle without destroying it in the process).

Weather effects are fully simulated beyond just wind movement. Stationary vehicles gather snow on them while rain forms puddles. It may seem like “been there, seen that” for Company of Heroes 2, yet I solemnly judge Sudden Strike 4 from the perspective of its precursors. Speaking of CoH 1 and 2, they have some form of base management, don’t they? Well Sudden Strike and Blitzkrieg are all in favor of tactics and patience. With several exceptions (such as requested or scripted reinforcements), the units you start with, shall be the only ones until the end of the mission. Or not, if you wish to sacrifice some of them in the name of haste or the inevitability of war. Casualties are inevitable, right? During wartime, truth just happens to die first.

Not having to stress over building more turrets/power plants/barracks, means you can focus on properly deploying and micromanaging the units you’ve been tasked with. I absolutely adore the fact that you can issue orders to single soldiers instead of predetermined squads. Medics are useful in the field, if they reach critically wounded troops in time. Ammo & fuel consumption further encourages players to an new level of tactical approach since they can’t roam the entire map without having to resupply and refuel. These are gameplay mechanics that have been in place since the first Sudden Strike. Finding them even now with all the “streamlining” going on in newly released titles, still gives me hope that pure RTS is not going to die anytime soon.

There’s really no reason to avoid Sudden Strike 4 if you’re interested in a highly detailed and simply gorgeous RTS title focusing on WW2 operations. Just the SP component with its 21 missions, should offer you nearly as many hours of gameplay. Skirmishes against the Artificial Intelligence or MP matches are icing on the cake. Replay value, indeed.

All the screenshots you see above, have been taken by me in-game through the Steam Overlay.

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