We've been playing Eugen Systems' Cold War strategy game ever since it entered Early Access and now we have some thoughts.
Warno (short for 'Warning Order') is French developer Eugen System's latest take on all-out tactical warfare, treading in the footsteps of its previous games, Steel Division II and the Wargame series. This time, the battle takes place in the so-called Fulda Gap in West-Germany in 1989. NATO and Warsaw armies clash in a hypothetical Cold War where the world has lost it's cool. It's an RTS, but it skips the base building and instead, you're fighting over tickets you gain by controlling strategic areas on the map. If that sounds exciting to you, you might want to keep an eye on Warno, which is currently out in Early Access.
Warno can be considered as the Cold War-themed successor to Eugen System's previous game, Steel Division II (set in the Second World War) and the graphical update to it's even older Cold War RTS game called Wargame: Red Dragon, which came out in 2014. In fact, the game borrows many things from Steel Division II, including the basic UI, unit commands, graphics engine, and unit types. The basic gameplay remains unchanged: there are large maps with many tactical strongpoints, forests, villages and rivers that provide a scenic battlefield to fight your opponents. There's no base building, but you're awarded tickets when you capture strategic zones on the game map. These tickets allow you to purchase reinforcements from your personal premade deck of units, called a division.
In Warno, you pick a specific historical division from either the NATO side or the Warsaw Pact. The divisions have different unit compositions. For example, the American 8th Infantry Division is (as the name implies) focused on infantry, giving you lots of foot soldiers and transports to pick from. However, you'll only have some older types of tanks available during a match. This can of course be challenging when facing a state-of-the-art Soviet armoured division, meaning you might need to rely on friendly players to help you out in certain situations. In my experience the division system works well, as it stimulates planning beforehand and adaptation on the battlefield.
Because Warno is still in early access, the game launched with only one NATO and one Warsaw Pact division, alongside six maps to play online or in skirmish mode. There's no single-player story for the foreseeable future, and it even lacks a tutorial. Eugen Systems has released a road map packed with regular updates though, and at the time of writing two extra divisions, new units and an additional map have been added to the schedule. New content will be added about every two weeks. I think being part of a developing game can be nice, as it allows you to try out new divisions, units and maps regularly. You are paying almost full price for a partly finished game though.
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Considering the gameplay itself, how enjoyable is Warno to play? Firstly, the game looks and feels very realistic. The graphics and audio effects are top notch, with lots of detail in individual units and the environment. Explosions look real and are visually distinct from each other. Looking down on an airstrike with cluster munitions or napalm is simply spectacular, as is pummelling your enemy with rocket launchers. Warno really lets you observe realistic warfare, which combines well with the historical division system and detailed historical units. Helicopters are a treat as well. However, it's a shame that there's practically no time to zoom in to look at your units during a match. The tanks, helicopters and villages look great, but things are simply too hectic and unfortunately the camera is too clumsy to zoom in and have time to enjoy them.
Still, playing Warno is quite enjoyable. You're constantly taking up the best positions, pushing and defending strategic points and hoping to outwit your opponent by sending in an unexpected type of assault or defence. It's also very challenging, especially without a game tutorial. I've played a bit of Steel Division II previously, but still consider myself a new player to Warno and its game system. In order to play Warno and actually know what you're doing, there is a steep learning curve. When I first started a skirmish against the AI on medium difficulty, there were a lot of different things going on simultaneously and I felt more like an (amazed) spectator than an active participant in the battle.
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Besides positioning units correctly, like in forests for cover or on heights to provide vision, you'll want to counter attacks by enemy units with the correct response. An enemy tank can decimate your units if you haven't thought about bringing anti-tank support. Likewise, you don't want to be caught off guard by sudden air strikes, so you'll need to save resources to deploy fighter aircraft when the need arises. At the start of one of my first online matches, my opponent immediately sent in bombers to attack my units at spawn. He fittingly chatted "highway of death" as I watched how my tanks and trucks were reduced to smouldering heaps of fire. As you can see, Warno can be difficult. It also seems like not all units are balanced correctly yet and some seem outright bugged. I've occasionally lost valuable artillery units, because they just mindlessly drove into the enemy, for example.
There are a lot of different units to get to know and memorise, like in Steel Division II. Infantry isn't just a generic unit like in Company of Heroes. There are helicopter-borne heavy infantry units, lightly-armed local German border guards riding in unarmed trucks, all the way to specialised anti-tank or anti-air infantry units entering the battlefield in powerful APC's. Do you know the difference between an ATG-M and a Stinger missile? If you don't, you'll need to learn quickly in order to effectively choose and deploy your units. The same goes for every vehicle in the game, as there are a lot of different vehicles, even of the same type. To me, it's a very enjoyable thing about Warno, as it shows the real-life composition of historical units from the Cold War era.
I think that when Warno keeps releasing more content, its campaigns could become an enjoyable experience for lower-level players. Playing online will offer plenty of challenges and replayability. So far, I've enjoyed the up to 10v10 matches, fighting for every inch of ground to help my team gain the upper hand. And while I've seen some bugs and would've liked more content upon release, the steady stream of updates and added content points to Warno becoming an enjoyable game in Eugen's line-up. The only thing I really couldn't stand initially was the game's soundtrack: an extremely loud, high-paced, eighties-ish kind of music that seemed very out of place for a wargame. In the end, I've grown used to it, the same way I've been steadily learning how to play. And all things considered, as someone who likes strategy games, realism and historical titles, Warno gets my recommendation.