This new real-time strategy game from Con Artist teaches us some valuable lessons about the evolution of 20th-century combat. In the years between World War I and II, we abandoned trench lines for the makeshift cover of hedges and tombstones, and every battlefield became exactly three times as wide. If Hitler had thought to keep a machine gun squad entrenched on his center row, while sending Storm Troopers along the top and bottom, we might all be speaking German today.
That's the hook in Warfare 1944, a sequel to a game that was already one of the most engrossing casual strategy games on the web. Your soldiers still start at one end of the screen and advance horizontally to the other, but this time there are three planes of battle, opening up the possibility of flanking maneuvers or even bypassing some defenses completely.
The game can be played with only the mouse. Choose a squad type from the menu at lower right, then click on the row where you want to deploy them. The soldiers will charge into battle from off-screen, automatically attacking opposing units in their own row or in adjacent ones. While they are in the field, you can give them specific orders by clicking on them and then selecting an icon from the bottom menu, or with the [number] hotkeys on your keyboard. Win battles either by advancing all the way across the map, or by destroying the enemy's morale.
This is a cover-based game. Your units will automatically hold their positions at defensive lines scattered about the map until you tell them to move. Leap-frogging from one entrenchment to the next gives the gameplay its shape, since a soldier in the open is much, much more vulnerable to the whims of every passing bullet. Keep in mind that a single instance of cover can only support one squad, and the next one will just leap right over and get itself killed if you bunch them up.
The campaign mode tells a miniature story of the Normandy Invasion as the Allies push from the coast through Northern France. You can select either the easier U.S. campaign or the more defense-oriented German one, both of which take you through 8 missions concentrating on different units and terrain.
Based on your performance in each mission, you will accumulate experience that can be spent on training and equipment. There are plenty of options for both passive and active upgrades, which lets you adjust the game to your own micromanagement comfort level. Abilities like air strikes and grenades require giving a unit specific orders, while the permanent upgrades like additional firepower will allow you to focus on sending reinforcements, rather than babysitting the units on the field.
When you're done with both campaigns, you can still set up individual skirmishes to your taste. Choose your flavor of battlefield, difficulty, and even specific unit types. There is no multiplayer, but frankly this game is crying out for it. The single-player experience is terrific but short, and I want to test my skills against a human general.
Analysis: The flexible upgrade options give Warfare 1944 good replay value. I found it reasonable at first to just pile up my soldiers with guns and courage and send them off freely into battle, but the lure of smoke bombs and air strikes kept me re-campaigning in order to try out all the toys. The highest layer of upgrades are all powerful and fun, and it's convenient to be able to take two different skill paths to reach your favorites.
That's where Warfare 1944 is exceptional: in its subtlety. There are so many workable strategies, so much potential power in each specific unit, so many parries to each thrust, that you can fight through the game by reflex and instinct. That enemy tank is always a game-changer, but you've got bazookas, grenades, mortars, and artillery, even if you can't muster a quick tank of your own.
This is probably Con Artist's prettiest game so far, taking you through highly-detailed graveyards, fields, and townscapes. No need of dramatic anthems here; the cries of warriors and the stutter of machine guns are your theme music. The realism has a down-side — at a glance, the tiny soldiers sometimes blend squintingly into the background, and one looks a lot like another, whether they're carrying rifles or bazookas. And oh, what I would give for a mini-map! It's so easy to forget you have a spare assault squad crouched behind a row of sandbags, when you have to scroll the screen all the way across the battlefield to find them.
Con Artist's hyper-awareness of balance restrictions is probably overkill for a simple strategy game with a small variety of units. Considering the time lag between reinforcements, the experience point cost for new abilities, the resource cost for units, and the strict upper limit on the resource pool itself, it can feel like Warfare 1944 would rather not be played at all. Gameplay is sometimes less about effective strategy, and more about exploiting all the interlocking systems to get a large group of soldiers attacking in parallel. Preferably with a friendly tank in tow.
When you can't quite co-ordinate that unstoppable Blitzkrieg, though, when you're hanging onto each hedge row and stone wall by the grit on your fingernails, when the difference between victory and death-by-Panzer is a single bazooka shell... well, this game will grip you by the guts and squeeze as hard as anything else on the internet.
It's mightily easy to care about these straightforward walking soldiers. They fall prone under fire, they take solemn aim, they dolphin tragically through the air when a mortar strikes. When they're off-screen, I expect they smoke heavy cigars and crack jokes about brothels. Your mind's mission may be to win the war, but your heart's mission is to protect your men. That's quite an accomplishment for a little Flash game.
Thanks for sending this one in, Twilitlord and KingHomer!