Once in a while, I get obsessed with a strategy game. I played Total War: Attila for hundreds of hours in 2015. And this summer, I’ve been devoting my free hours and vacation time to playing Steel Division 2, a World War II real-time strategy game from Eugen Systems in France.
While I’ve been playing a lot of triple-A titles lately (finally finished Marvel’s Spider-Man just before this), I decided to focus for the sake of fun on this niche game within the niche of World War II strategy games.
It dwells on a bit of war history I didn’t know much about, Operation Bagration. It was the Soviet Union’s huge summer offensive in Belarus to take back big chunks of Eastern Europe from the Nazis, as the Allied invasion of Normandy was gathering steam in 1944. It was a massive set of tank, infantry, and air battles that left the German Wehrmacht in full retreat on the Eastern Front.
Within the real-time strategy genre, I had to choose between this game and the three-year-old Hearts of Iron IV, which looked great in multiplayer battles on Twitch, and Total War: Three Kingdoms. My colleague Rowan Kaiser reviewed Three Kingdoms.
I almost didn’t play because of the high learning curve. I knew that Steel Division 2 would consume a lot of hours that I didn’t have. All three titles were equally intimidating, and Steel Division 2 didn’t have much of a manual. I eventually gathered enough info from Let’s Play videos on YouTube and the Eugen Systems’ own tutorial videos to learn how to play Steel Division 2, so it emerged as the winner.
I played it on the Origin PC Evo 16-S gaming laptop. This Windows machine came with a 16.1-inch 144 Hz display, an Intel Core i7 9750H 6-Core 2.66GHz (4.50GHz TurboBoost) processor, and an Nvidia GeForce RTX 2080 8GB GDDR6 Max-Q. I played it for many hours on that machine, and it only crashed twice when played on the highest settings. We’ll hear more about that system in another story.
Steam tells me I’ve played the game for 82 hours. I think it’s less than that, due to idle time. But that tells you how busy I’ve been indulging in the game, which came out on June 20. And I’ve barely scratched the surface on this deep real-time strategy game. I’ve only dipped into the Skirmish mode’s single-player maps, historical games, and single-player Army General modes. That leaves me with a rich list of things to do like multiplayer, co-op, deck building, and single-player tactical campaign battles in the Army General campaigns to play.
So far, it’s been time well spent. And it took me back to my roots as a military gamer.
Single-player skirmish mode
The Skirmish mode is where you can play a single battle on one of 25 unique maps. I chose to start at the top of the map list, with a map dubbed Autobahn zur Hölle.
Even this map shows the enormous amount of detail that Eugen Systems captured for its military simulation. The game has more than 600 historically accurate units, 18 divisions, and an astounding level of detail in its graphics. You can focus in on an individual scene, such as above, or zoom out to get a birds’ eye view of an entire battle with thousands of soldiers.
You can zoom in on a single anti-tank gun battery, with the shell casings falling out of the gun as it fires, or you can zoom out to see small icons representing the units as they move around the map. Each of the maps was painstakingly researched using real-life military maps and aerial photography set across the breadth of the Eastern Front. This zooming in and out — made possible with the IrisZoom game engine — takes a lot of computing power, but it happens seamlessly.
It makes you feel like you are there, 75 years ago, sitting in a command vehicle and looking through binoculars at the conflagration unfolding in front of you.
In the Skirmish battles, you can set the level of smarts of the AI and how much reinforcements they receive, as well as how much you will receive. This is the trickiest thing to grasp, as your job as general is to constantly feed troops into the fray. If you forget to do this, the enemy may get a jump on you as you fight and refight for the same ground.
At the start of a Skirmish battle, you set up your forces on one side of the battlefield, near a line of your own side’s troops that are controlled by AI. You fight alongside them. The enemy does the same, and as the game launches, you move in real-time toward the center, grabbing objectives.
Each battle happens as the seconds tick away and players move simultaneously. That puts you under a lot of pressure to make decisions quickly while tracking an enormous number of variables.
One of the best tools is the line-of-sight viewer, which you can use by press the “c” key. At any spot on the battlefield, you can see what your soldiers would see if you place them in that spot. That enables you to place machine gun nests or anti-tank guns in the best spots for wide fields of fire.
The enemy AI proved to be very smart. If I placed an anti-tank gun on the edge of a cliff overlooking a wide part of the battlefield, the AI would spot it and use its long-range tank guns or artillery to quickly take it out. It also sent German dive bombers, accompanied by loud alarm sounds meant to send me into a state of panic. To win the game, you have to start winning over enemy flags on certain parts of the map. As you do so, the enemy’s reinforcements are diminished.
One of the cool visual effects is that the front line is delineated across the map, and it moves back and force as the Soviets or the Germans gain ground. The game has battle chatter and some dramatic music, but it felt more informational than artistic.
As the Soviet player, I managed to lose tons of battles on the first map. I eventually had to tweak my reinforcement rate to the highest level and my starting resources to the highest level. Only then was I able to finally beat the German AI set on medium resources and reinforcements.
Losing so many times was a very humbling experience, and I finally jumped for joy when I won my first battle around the five-hour mark. Slowly, I got the hang of the tactics. I made a lot of use of combined arms.
That’s where I began to marvel at the attention to detail. I could use commander squads to give troops higher morale in a key area. I had to send scouts or recon planes out to see where the German forces were gathering, but I had to pull them back when they were ambushed. I could send my recon tanks out, but they had no chance against the German Panzer and Tiger tanks. The German air forces and anti-aircraft also chewed through my fighters and bombers.
For every offensive unit, you have a defensive one. It was like rock-paper-scissors. I found that the best tactic was to send overwhelming force into a concentrated part of the map and to lob artillery at the German formations when they tried to counter my forces. If I tried to defend every one of my own objectives, I lost.
Once I eked out a victory on Autobahn zur Hölle, I moved on to Beshankovichy, which had a river winding through the middle of it. That proved equally tough, and I only moved on once I mastered that battle over a number of hours.
I also played all six of the crafted historical scenarios, which pitted the Soviet and German armies together in intense battles for control of key points.
The video embedded in this post shows the gameplay of Last Hope, when the German army turned around at Lake Naratch in Belarus and struck back at the overextended Soviet forces.
In this battle, the Soviets had to defend a series of hills. But the forces were stretched thin and the Germans had a number of different channels to send their forces. Fortunately, I was able to place a number of trenches, machine gun pits, anti-tank guns, and anti-tank bunkers. Those defensive structures slowed the enemy down and gave me time to send reinforcements to the appropriate hills. I also had a lot of artillery come in as reinforcements, and they forced the German tanks back. It wasn’t as hard to win this battle as I thought, but it was fun.
Army General mode
The thing that kept me hooked on Steel Division 2 was its depth. This game has obsessions with obsessions. Or just many ways to keep me playing.
One of the best features of Steel Division 2 is the Army General, the single-player turn-based Dynamic Strategic Campaign mode, which recreates some of the most important battles of Operation Bagration.
In this mode, you can play the whole game on a turn-based strategic level, with a single unit on the larger map representing the hundreds or thousands of soldiers. You can fight on the strategic level and automatically resolve battles, or you can zoom in to control the tactical fight.
Four different campaigns show various stages of the German retreat and the Soviet attempt to catch the Germans in pincer maneuvers.
While I spent many hours in the tactical battles, I spent the remaining part of my time playing on the strategic level in Army General.
From this bird’s eye view, I could finally appreciate just how outnumbered the German forces were as the Soviets launched wave after wave of attacks. And if I inspected the German units, I could see that they were at half-strength or less, facing off against fresh, full-strength Russians.
In a campaign such as Baranovichi, you play the Red Army on July 3, 1944. The Wehrmacht makes its stand and starts pushing back. You have to hold the town of Stowbtsy and capture Baranovichi while the Germans try to reopen the road to Minsk.
It’s like a chess game, where you try to use your tanks, artillery, infantry, and air units in the right concentrations to push back the enemy and encircle them, leaving them without supplies. You can dig in to resist attacks or retreat and then counterattack. It’s like the tactical game, but on a larger scale. And then you can choose to fight encounters as battles on a tactical map.
I didn’t think I would enjoy this mode as much as I did, but it was fun, like the old Panzer General games I used to play a long time ago. The task is to hold the line, make smart attacks, and feed the reinforcements into the right positions.
It takes a lot to pull me into a game for a long time, but I realize that’s the way a lot of non-journalist gamers play. They get obsessed with a single game and play it for a long time. I have thoroughly enjoyed putting a lot of time into this title, and I barely feel competent at it.
Steel Division 2 has some small flaws. It crashes now and then. Some of the map buildings are used repeatedly, making the towns seem like cookie-cutter designs. I think it would be great if more of the sounds were tailored to what was actually happening on the map. But these are minor gripes.
This makes me want to play Eugen Systems’ other games. They also made R.U.S.E. (2010), the Wargame series (2012), and 2017’s Steel Division: Normandy 44. The indie game studio was founded in Paris in 2000 by Alexis and Cédric Le Dressay. My hat’s off to them for an excellent war game.
The game has a standard version for $40 on Steam, and a Commander Deluxe version for $60, General Deluxe for $70, and Total Conflict version for $80. Pick it up, even if you’re not exactly a fan of Eastern Front games. You won’t be disappointed. If I were reviewing this game, I would give it a 90 out of 100.
Disclosure: The publisher sent me a copy for this story.