The Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June of 1941 was swift and brutal. Within a matter of weeks, the fascist war machine conquered much of its Bolshevik rival’s western territory. Their iron fist, crafted from evil, even banged on the doors of Moscow by late September. The Soviet Red Army had been caught off-guard – despite many warning signs – and quickly found itself in full retreat. However, some soldiers that found themselves stranded or had escaped from Nazi incarceration chose to stay behind enemy lines and keep the fight going. Scattered groups of these strong-willed soldiers (and some civilian volunteers), known as ‘partisans’, fought a courageous guerrilla campaign against the invaders until they were eventually driven away years later. Their fight, and those of every other defender, is tantamount to folklore in Russia and other former Soviet nations.
Alter Games’ Partisans 1941 has you commanding such a group of brave souls in the early days of the Nazi invasion. Red Army commander Alexey Zorin – presumed survivor of the purges occurring within the Red Army before (and during) the Nazi invasion – escapes from a prison camp and, upon finding two of his comrades, decides to remain behind enemy lines. What follows is a long and hard campaign against fascists and their local collaborators, amongst the calm before the storm that would engulf Leningrad.
The game takes heavy inspiration from Pyro Studios’ classic Commandos series’ take on stealth-action and strategy, and anybody who’s played those titles will know exactly what to expect – isometric real-time tactics are the order of the day, with all the stoic patriotism of a 1960s war film. As a Russian developer, Alter Games have bought a Russian perspective not unlike the (many) Russian films about the ‘Great Patriotic War.’ There’s plenty of fist-shaking at an enemy that’s pretty easy to hate, even if you’re not Russian, which always feels great. A key twist is the addition of base maintenance and squad recruitment mechanics not unlike those in the X-COM series. Luckily Partisans 1941 is every bit the spiritual successor that it wants to be, but with a few hiccups.
Gameplay itself is about as basic as a stealth real-time tactics game can be. Just like in Commandos, you’ll find yourself woefully outnumbered in almost every scenario. If you find yourself in a gunfight, you’ll come out of it battered and bruised…if you even come out at all. Thus, being sneaky is the smart play. The author has to be honest, the stealth in Partisans 1941 was as gripping as their first rodeo with Commandos 2 had been. How so? Enemies are well-spaced and their movements timed with the precision of a watchmaker, maps encourage exploration and reward taking risks (environmental kills never get old), and you get to hear “Death to fascists!” a lot (which also never gets old). No scenario in the game ever feels hopeless; every pathway and strategy decision can come up trumps if the cards are played right. When a plan comes together, it feels incredible.
Call it Ambush City Limits
As your team raises its body count, more will join the fray in pre-determined story events. Each partisan in the game has its own skill tree and unique abilities, which is dynamite for variety. That said, some options are more handy than others in a stealth-action game. An ability to attract enemies into nearby bushes for extermination, for example, made its user far more ‘selectable’. Another grants you a guaranteed kill from afar, and its user is a cute nurse! I couldn’t not pick her every mission! Perhaps thankfully for my video game romantic life, you will never have to part with a precious partisan through the dastardly dinner with death. If all of your fighters become incapacitated (others can revive them), your mission is over and you must load a save. If any of them die by taking any more damage while incapacitated, same deal. Preservation of characters is essential in a game like Partisans 1941 with pre-written cutscenes, but half the fun of X-COM was the drama of loss. It’s understandable that the game’s writers weren’t up for penning umpteen different dialogue routes, but there’s something special that’s lost. Still, the partisans you have will get the job done. But if you want to pull off those clutch plays, Partisans 1941 will make you work for it.
That compelling feeling of trying new ideas when the old don’t work and nailing some sick stealth in the process is what Partisans 1941 truly excels at…
Pulling off these plays, though, isn’t helped by the game’s UI and at times unresponsive controls. I often found the game seemingly making decisions for me, from taking the wrong bit of cover to having my precious 14-year-old lil’ guerrilla fighter walk right out of their hiding place into a sniper’s line of sight. The cursor being off-centred was easily adjusted to – the game helpfully highlights what you’re hovering over – but selecting your partisans can prove cumbersome when the game decides that you’d like to move the one you’ve selected instead. Hotkeys, thankfully, are rebindable but more responsive mouse controls would have gone a long way.
The UI, while functional, could have absolutely used more polish. The base-building screen suffers the most, its icons being tiny and unclear as to their selection boxes. An ability to customise it or change its scaling would have solved many issues. No-brainer UI shortcuts like dragging a unit directly do a task in the base menu and not having to open the task, select the unit, and then confirming the selection are woefully missing. Customisation in general is a mixed bag in Partisans 1942. Gameplay customisation options and key bindings are as expected, but graphical options are underwhelming. These aren’t game-breakers, as I have a pretty okay rig, but others won’t be as lucky. The control issues aren’t altogether detrimental to the experience overall either, as the core gameplay more than aids forgiveness. Even in failure, mistakes felt like they were always mine, and never the game’s…more or less.
The dog is DLC, but is unfortunately not pettable
That compelling feeling of trying new ideas when the old don’t work and nailing some sick stealth in the process is what Partisans 1941 truly excels at, but it doesn’t feel like an altogether new experience. Alter Games have a good understanding of what makes a good tactics game and have applied all the right bits to make a good one, but there isn’t much that separates Partisans 1941 from its inspirations. The setting in a part of the Second World War that doesn’t get much love certainly makes for great atmosphere – “Death to fascists!” – but there’s nothing new being brought to the table. There’s nothing wrong with making a great game in a genre you adore, and Partisans 1941 is a fantastic one, but don’t go into it expecting it to blow you away – or last longer than maybe three dozen hours. Rather, embrace its passion for its roots and go along for the ride. And hey, it’s basically a new Commandos game!
Partisans 1941 is a game that knows where it came from and sets out to make its inspirations proud. It may not be particularly innovative, but it more than makes up for it with firm-but-fair and well-refined gameplay with a diverse range of options. Problems with the UI and unpolished controls are fixable in the future, but for now they drag the experience down. It helps, though, that the experience itself is well worth putting up with them. If you’ve been hankering for more Commandos since the series had its last hurrah in 2006, you’re in for a treat.
Reviewed on Windows // Review code supplied by publisher