Sudden Strike 4 is a real-time strategy game set in World War II featuring three separate campaigns – one for the Allies, the Germans, and the Soviet Union – based on real battles. There’s over twenty missions in total, and these are presented to the player without any political pandering or moral high-grounds. World War II is one of the few wars in human history in which we're all pretty unanimous about who the baddies were, and a lot of games and other media tend to use that as license to portray the Germans as pantomime villains. It's refreshing to see the Germans in Sudden Strike 4 presented not as cartoonish stereotypes, but simply as soldiers fighting for their country. There's nothing sensationalist about it; it's an earnest attempt to recreate important battles in the real-time strategy format, without assigning blame or adhering to a good versus evil narrative.
After selecting a mission you're given a brief run-down about what led to the battle you're ready to participate in. It's nothing ground-breaking but we enjoyed getting some context for why we were fighting and what the stakes were. You can choose from three famous generals to play as, each coming with their own perks. The differences between the generals might appear slight, but the buffs they provide can prove decisive in battle. Oddly, it doesn't matter whether you're playing as the Allies, Soviets, or Germans as to what your advisers sound like – they're always American, and while we understand that the constraints of a tight budget perhaps didn't allow for unique voice actors for each campaign, it's still somewhat disconcerting to hear a rootin', tootin' cowboy address you as, "Herr kommandant!"
Each battle sees you given a set number of units of different types, which you then must use to complete a set goal. There's no base building or any other distractions. Occasionally throughout the mission you'll receive reinforcements to bolster your squad. These extra units can be a godsend when you're facing an unrelenting tide of enemies, but other than in these select instances your units are a finite resource, and so deciding which ones you can risk sending into a skirmish is the key to victory. Sometimes you'll be able to use ground troops to hide in a building to surprise attack an enemy anti-tank gun before sending your vehicles through, and other times hidden snipers will make crossing land on foot a suicidal endeavour. Selecting all of your troops and ordering them into battle together might get you through the first couple of missions, but in most situations it'll mean a swift end to your war effort.
While taking a cavalier approach to tactical warfare is almost always the first step on the road to ruin, it's not only Sudden Strike 4's unforgiving nature that will lead to game over screens. Sometimes, no matter how hard you think about strategy, the game throws a monkey in the wrench to ruin it for you regardless. Take what should be the simple act of moving units around the map, for example. You select a unit with the X button, then you move the cursor to where you want them to be, and then you press the circle button to command them to move there. In theory, it couldn't be easier. But in practice, half the time the units don't respond. That's not hyperbole. Literally half of the time it doesn't work. That's not so much of an issue if you're just instructing your units to fill up with petrol, but if you're in the middle of bloody warfare and suddenly your soldiers don't bother moving out of the way of incoming artillery fire it can be infuriating. Exacerbating the problem is the, shall we say, fluid control scheme, which for no fathomable reason occasionally swaps the confirm and cancel buttons around for a handful of commands, as if it's doing it specifically to annoy you.
When moving multiple units you're given the option to properly arrange your selected squad members. This is useful since it allows you to automatically put tanks ahead of artillery when travelling, for example, so the heavy duty units take the brunt of potential enemy attacks. Unfortunately, sometimes when you try to move the same units a second time, even selecting exactly the same formation, the various units might try to occupy different spaces in the configuration for no discernible reason. Imagine you've got five tanks travelling in single file, but the second time you instruct them where to go, the tank that's fourth in line suddenly decides it should be first. And the one that's first thinks it should be last. So you end up with all five tanks doing a merry dance while they're trying to reorganise, usually in the midst of whizzing bullets and fire from skies. This happens all the time, and the more units involved the sillier it gets. By the time you're moving dozens of units simultaneously it's practically a Chuckle Brothers sketch.
Imagine what would have happened during World War II if Winston Churchill had issued orders and his subordinates had just stood still – slack-jawed, disinterested, and non-compliant. Or perhaps what would have happened if Johannes Blaskowitz had directed a battalion of German panzers to move through a tight alley in Stalingrad, only for the first tank in line to inexplicably grind to a halt four metres into the alley, leaving the rest of the squad to be picked off by Soviet anti-tank soldiers. Consider how Stalin would have reacted had he found out that an entire squadron of his finest Russian soldiers were indiscriminately wiped out when his own tanks blew up the building they were holed up in aiming at enemies on the other side of the structure. Thanks to a control scheme that doesn't make sense and sometimes doesn't do what it's supposed to, and appalling AI for both allies and enemy units, Sudden Strike 4 is a game that answers all of these questions and a bunch more you were probably afraid to ask.