One of the hardest tasks about being a reviewer is keeping in mind that dissatisfaction does not always mean a poor product. In this case my disinterest comes from an overall inability to play a title well. First and foremost, Strategy and Tactics: USSR vs. USA is hard. In a way this is thematically appropriate; the duel between two military superpowers would not be a cakewalk for anyone. While the previous title addressed the historical reality that was World War II, this title asks the sort of “what-if” questions that have fueled the careers of alternate history writers. Rather than a cease-fire after the defeat of the Axis forces, the game has two scenarios in which the United States and the Soviet Republic turn on one another. They’re based off the same general premise but each one is different.
The gameplay is the same as the original title itself; this is more of an expansion, though it is worth noting that it can be purchased and played independently. Each mission has an introductory cutscene, structured as the dialogue between various commanders of whichever faction you’re involved with. Unfortunately these can be quite tedious to sit through; amateurish writing foils the attempt to lend a sense of atmosphere to the proceedings. Some of that may be put down to second language issues as Herocraft Ltd is a Russian game developer, but it wasn’t a problem of communication of intent or meaning, just a complete lack of style and impact. Equally frustrating is the fact that occasionally clues as how best to proceed are embedded in the dialogue. What perplexes me about the cutscene setup is that while there’s no sound associated with them, there’s no option to read them at your own pace. Aurally the game brings little to the table. The background music is passable, but given the slow methodical approach necessary to avoid crushing defeat, you’ll soon tire of it. The sound effects are similarly adequate but unremarkable.
It’s considered standard practice to complete a game before reviewing it. Unfortunately I’m not sure I have the patience and strategic mindset to see this game through to the end. While I genuinely enjoyed the experience and savored every minor tactical victory, the difficult level is ratcheted extremely high. Even the early missions present a significant challenge. You begin with a set number of troops which is often a fraction of your opponent’s resources. Reinforcements are occasionally sent to you automatically and can also be purchased with resources you accumulate every turn based on the number of areas you hold, but as with everything else in the game, careful thought is required. I particularly enjoyed the fact that you can send paratroopers into enemy-held territories, but it was rarely as effective as I hoped.
There was only one situation where I was frustrated by poor design choices. On several missions you find yourself working with allies from other nations, but despite your common goal and enemy, it’s impossible to coordinate with your ally in any way. I understand not being able to directly control your allied troops, but in a real battle there would be some exchange of strategy and planning. You also cannot move troops into a territory your ally has conquered. On several tries at the same mission my “ally” prevented my victory by having surrounded the last enemy unit without actually having sufficient strength to wipe them out. I watched in impotent frustration with my amassed tanks sitting idly by as a handful of soldiers held out until the end of my final turn.
I want to reiterate once again that the game is fun, but it’s only going to hold lasting appeal to a very niche market. I enjoy strategy games, but most of my experience is in less realistic arenas. It’s humbling to admit, but without healing spells and the ability to bombard my enemy with fireballs, I find myself a bit overwhelmed. Carefully managing my troops and ensuring that I don’t fling the same division into battle too many times in a row isn’t exactly my cup of tea. However if you’re a military strategist or one of the possibly masochistic crowd that truly enjoys being taxed to the limits of your ability, give this game a try. After you complete the two main campaigns you can challenge a friend to multiplayer either online or by passing a device back and forth or set up a solo skirmish against the computer. If you’re easily frustrated, save your energy and possibly your device from the brutal punishment of this strategy game; on several occasions I had to restrain myself from flinging it across the room. There’s a lot of fun to be had in this game for someone with the right combination of tastes; if you think the only thing keeping you from world domination is living in a time when imperialism is sharply discouraged, then this is the title for you.
Between minimalist design and punishing difficulty, it couldn’t not be.