Eugen Systems, the French developer known for R.U.S.E. and the Wargame series, has unveiled a new game called Steel Division: Normandy ’44. It’s the first entry in a franchise being developed in partnership with Paradox Interactive. Polygon got a sneak peek at the game behind closed doors at this year’s Game Developers Conference. Our demo included new details on the single-player campaign, and a preview of its ambitious multiplayer mode featuring massive 10-versus-10 battles.
Alexis Le Dressay, co-founder of Eugen and creative director on Steel Division, explained that this new title is neither a grand strategy game nor a small-unit tactics game. Instead, it falls somewhere in between.
Steel Division asks players to give individual units — infantry teams, single pieces of armor and individual aircraft — the most basic orders. There’s no babysitting required, as sub-commanders take control of those units and work to carry out the commander’s intent. In practice, it allows players to step into the boots of some of the most famous division commanders in WWII’s Normandy theater in fast, fluid, pausable real-time battles.
Steel Division will rely on the historical record. Each of its 18 divisions has been recreated from documentation of the actual units in the field at the time, including real German, U.S., Canadian, Polish and French divisions.
“A colonel belongs to a division,” Le Dressay explained, “and in divisions there are some very, very famous divisions where you have elite soldiers, super cool Pathfinders and other military units, but only in a certain quantity. And a division is really the key. But you never really get to pick up the division [in other war games].”
At the beginning of each battle, players will create battle groups by spending points to purchase units out of the total division pool. In single-player, that pool will be persistent from battle to battle. Engagements play out in three phases, which unlock more expensive units as they play out.
Battle groups will fight very differently depending on which division they’re from. In the demo Polygon was shown, the U.S. 101st Airborne Division was able to field tons of fast, cheap infantry units. Late in the battle, they were able to draw on a sizable reserve of close air support, but only a few pieces of light armor. Fighting against a German armored division, it forced the U.S. to move quickly in the early phases of the battle in order to dig in and set ambushes for the eventual German counterattack.
The secret to success, Le Dressay said, is knowing the strengths and weaknesses of each unit and playing to those advantages.
“If you play a German division,” Le Dressay said, “you will never be able to send a Tiger tank in at the very beginning of the game because it’s too demanding in terms of supply and logistics. So, we depict the logistic constraints of the war with these three phases. That means at the beginning you have to think about light elements. The units that you want to see will be light vehicles, and then phase B is getting more and bigger units; medium tanks, sometimes heavy tanks. Then phase C is the big battle.”
During an engagement, the game’s user interface is constantly displaying a dynamic front line. Players are scored on how much of the battlefield they control, and that front line provides a quick and easy abstraction of where players can press their advantage.
Especially in multiplayer battles, reading the shape of the front line and the terrain beneath it will be key. Up to 10 players on each side will fight right next to one another and have to coordinate to exploit breaks in the enemy line while preventing the enemy from doing the same.
“The question of the game,” Le Dressay said, “is how can you manage to fire at the enemy, panic them and pin them down? Because when they’re pinned down, they’re unable to fight anymore. If you want to win, it’s important to come with the maximum firepower at the right location. Then, soldiers will be too stressed, their fighting abilities will be totally down, and then you come with another unit to force them to surrender or kill them.”
Steel Division will feature more than 400 units, each with their own stats including unique defense and firepower ratings. Ammunition will be modeled on a per-shell basis, and individually modeled supply units will be required to keep units combat effective. That means by encircling enemy units, players will be able to cut them off and force them to surrender.
Eugen said its maps have been modeled from period Royal Air Force reconnaissance photography, as well as first-hand visits to historic battlefields made by the team.
“We chose Normandy first because we are French,” Le Dressay said. “It’s much easier to get access to these places. And also, when you start a franchise, the first thing you do will be the most difficult because you have to explore.
“One of the things that really helped us was to have the RAF photography. Because it’s one thing to see it first-hand, but we’re not making a shooter. The question is, ‘How is the entire map? How will I play with the bocage, and all the things that make this battlefield unique?’”
Steel Division: Normandy ’44 is due out on Windows PC later this year.