Review: Classified: France ‘44 goes through the tactical motions

Classified: France ‘44 is the first project from new studio Absolutely Games. They chose a thoroughly sound premise – to replicate the familiar, successful model of turn-based tactics games in a World War II setting. Unfortunately, the bar for this genre is higher than ever, and this attempt mostly serves as a reminder of far superior games, from XCOM: Chimera Squad to Miasma Chronicles. With shaky fundamentals and without a unique spark of its own, Classified: France ‘44 ends up as a forgettable exercise in repetition.

Of course turn-based tactics games set during World War II are not unheard of – with 2003’s Silent Storm being one of the better-known examples. To its credit, Classified does have a unique take. It is inspired by the real-life Operation Jedburgh, in which Allied commandos were inserted into France to assist resistance groups behind enemy lines. In reality, Jedburgh troops were parachuted in after D-Day; in Classified, they were sent in beforehand. Indeed, the game’s campaign is built around the countdown to D-Day.

Typically, games in this genre are built on two interlinked layers – a tactical layer in which small-scale battles take place, and a strategic layer in which larger-scale decisions are made. It is arguably at the strategic layer where developers have the most scope to express themselves and carve out a unique identity for their game. Classified struggles in this respect because its strategic map of occupied France offers few engaging choices. Decisions between missions feel dry and abstract, and progression is organised around arbitrary box-ticking exercises instead of anything strategically meaningful.

Each soldier class has four progression paths – flexible, but confusing

For example, after the successful completion of a tactical mission, the player can choose a nearby region which will gain resistance strength. Oddly, this need not be the region in which the recent battle took place. When the strength of a region has been increased three times, a global bonus is applied, such as shorter injury recovery times. This system is unsatisfying, especially compared to the meaty between-mission dilemmas of the reigning genre champion XCOM 2. The approach of Operation Overlord is not a source of tension, but a monotonous countdown.

In the tactical layer, Classified: France ‘44 adheres very closely to familiar mechanics seen many times in other, stronger games. In each engagement, the player deploys four or five soldiers into cramped battlefields surrounded by ghostly fog. Combined with the rudimentary character models, this gives each battle an odd sense of unreality. 

Absolutely Games have chosen an action point model over the two-action system favoured by Firaxis. While this can be done well, it proves confusing here. Too often, the player is forced to do maths on the fly to figure out what they can accomplish during the turn. None of this is helped by the game’s flawed UI, which has many tiny icons and numbers which can be difficult to make sense of. 

Tactical battles in Classified: France ‘44 are functional, but nothing more. All the expected mechanics are present and correct – half and full cover, overwatch, grenades, concealment, and so on. In those few cases where Absolutely Games have tried something new, they add little to the mix. 

The tactical battles are hampered by dated visuals and an unreliable camera

The main example is the morale system. All units, be they allied or enemy, have a morale gauge. This can be depleted by particular types of attacks, and a unit considered “broken” will miss its next turn. On the face of it, this is logical – but it soon becomes irrelevant. Morale is rarely more than a slight inconvenience in allied units, and it does not pay to focus on morale damage to the enemy, when dealing real damage is the permanent solution. 

One of the most frustrating elements of Classified is the hard division of its missions into three types. The most straightforward are assault missions, which are all-out firefights with no stealth element. Stealth missions encourage the player to remain concealed for as long as possible.

In ambush missions, the player can pull off a fixed limit of stealth kills on enemy troops before subtler methods are wrenched away. This seems totally arbitrary, and a crude withdrawal of player agency. It is easy to speculate that this was intended to cover for the lack of a more interesting stealth system. Again, it is impossible to avoid being reminded of a far superior game – in this case the fair, elegant ambush mechanic in XCOM 2.

In general, tactical missions in Classified: France ‘44 are mundane and predictable. Objectives feel divorced from any wider strategic significance, and rewards are hollow and uninvolving. Even acquiring new troops is underwhelming, because of how crudely voiced they are and how difficult they are to tell apart on the battlefield. The ostensibly realistic setting hurts Classified, because it negates the chance to include interesting abilities. These identikit soldiers are a far cry from the strongly differentiated, characterful gunslingers of Hard West II

Absolutely Games have their heart in the right place and Classified: France ‘44 is by no means a bad game. It is impossible to recommend, though, when it sits within a genre in such rude health. Numerous games have done the same things to a far higher standard, just within the past few years. Classified feels like a gathering of familiar systems which are solidly functional but which do not coalesce into a fun whole. The World War II setting, while mildly interesting, is not enough to compensate for this fatal shortcoming. Only turn-based tactics completists need to sign up for this war.

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