At one point during my extensive first look at turn-based strategy game Classified: France '44, one of the developers stops what he's saying, stands up, and starts drawing tactical diagrams on a whiteboard using official NATO symbology. I walked into that room barely knowing what a Lee Enfield is; I walked out knowing the difference between "enfilade" and "defilade".
All of which is to say, Absolutely Games is serious about military history. Seriously serious. And that's reflected not just in the premise of its debut game, but in its densely layered systems.
Classified: France '44 is set in… well, France in 1944, during the Nazi occupation. In the run up to D-Day, the Allies deployed a small, elite team of soldiers into the country to aid the French Resistance in undermining German operations. Your job is to take control of that team, building relationships with the fractured factions of the Resistance while using sabotage and guerilla tactics against the enemy.
The game I'm immediately put in mind of is XCOM 2. Though there are no aliens or plasma guns to be seen, the structure is very similar—missions are tense, turn-based affairs, composed of both stealth and firefights with small squads (4-6 seems to be typical). Outside of the action you have to manage your soldiers, level them up, and secure new equipment for them, while trying to gain and maintain control over territories on an overworld map. Like XCOM 2, you're the underdog, surrounded by enemies on all sides and trying to avoid being uncovered and destroyed, but also dealing with the demands of your quarrelsome allies within the different groups that make up the Resistance.
Unlike XCOM 2, Classified: France '44 embraces historical authenticity—the studio wants it to be a respectful reflection of what really happened, which honours the bravery and sacrifice of the special forces and the Resistance. But more than just being drily accurate to the facts, what immediately shows through is that genuine passion for the period. There's a real depth of knowledge on display, that's evident both in the larger premise—Operation Jedburgh isn't exactly a commonly adapted element of the war—and in the small details. Each of the soldiers in your squad has their own backstory and history, and though they are fictional characters, the texture of their lives draws on wonderfully specific aspects of the time, whether that's obscure fronts of the war they've served on, or even their relationship to contemporary pop culture and music.
Better Jed than dead
The game is planned to include mission editing tools almost on par with those the developer uses to create the official missions. Players will be able to make and share their own scenarios, and download and rate ones made by others. Full mod support is planned too, opening up the possibilities for custom content even wider. Given the maps and assets available, it would certainly be easy to model guerilla conflicts from other theatres of the war.
The combat system is similarly interested in the fine details. That means things like grenade damage falling off the further out from the initial blast you are and weapons being modelled carefully on their real-life historical counterparts, elements that play into the atmosphere of authenticity. But it also leads to some really interesting tactical play.
The core concept behind Classified: France '44's battles is the "fix and flank"—a real-world strategy that has shaped modern military tactics. It's a pretty simple idea—one set of soldiers, ideally toting a light machine gun or similar overwhelming firepower, lays down a barrage of bullets on the enemy that keep them pinned down at their position. Meanwhile, your other soldiers sweep round from the sides for a flanking attack, and catch the foe in a devastating crossfire.
It's not a mind-blowing concept—any fan of strategy games has probably implemented something similar in play, and indeed it's not too far away from the standard overwatch-and-flank tactics of XCOM. But the way it's implemented in Classified: France '44 feels pretty special. The key element is morale—the developers use the credo "every shot counts", and what that means is, even if a shot completely misses, it's guaranteed to chip away at the target's resolve. Get that low enough, and they'll be pinned and unable to effectively shoot back on their turn—and more vulnerable to your attacks. That lets you simulate the fix and flank directly, which is a great tactical puzzle in its own right. But it also opens up all sorts of other interesting decisions.
The French Resistance was far from a monolith—it was split into different groups, fighting for very different reasons. The game reflects this with three factions: the Gaullists, the Criminals, and the Radicals. Each has powerful weapons and equipment to sell, but you'll have to earn their favour to access their best wares.
In one mission I play, I'm sneaking up to a Nazi-fortified building hoping to free a prisoner. The game's stealth system is robust and lavishes the player with useful info about guards' vision and patrol routes—but I manage to get spotted regardless, and the alarm is raised just as I reach their encampment.
Suddenly I'm a rat in a trap—I'm surrounded by enemies on all sides, some of whom are bedded down in cover. What's my escape plan? Well, I can try the obvious and shoot my way out, but there are only a few exposed targets, and going after them may leave me out of position versus the others currently further afield. Alternatively, I can focus on pinning—taking risky shots I know probably won't hit on key enemy targets to effectively disable them and stall for the time I need to manoeuvre into a better situation. But the longer I stall, the closer I get to enemy reinforcements arriving—will I have a strong enough position by then to be able to face increased numbers?
In the end, my hastily improvised plan combines these strategies together—picking off easy targets, pinning down threatening but unassailable ones, gritting my teeth as I roll the dice on a few clutch shots, and using up my limited pouch of grenades for an extra edge. I trust in the gods of bullet spray and gain some extra damage by targeting enemies at the back of a group first—realistic spread ensures that any bullets flying past someone have a chance to hit them, incidentally making crossfire just as deadly as the fix and flank calls for.
By the time the reinforcements get to the battle, things aren't quite as under control as I'd like, but I've managed to get four of my men to a spot where they have a clear line of sight to their arrival point. A few overlapping cones of overwatch allows me to gun them down before they get a chance to take up position—especially thanks to the ability to, at each overwatch opportunity, choose whether I want to fire or wait for the next possible target, giving me a touch more control over proceedings.
Even after all that, my panicked theft of victory from the jaws of defeat feels like it's barely scraping the surface of what options were available—and all the while you have to try and prevent the enemy using the same tricks against you. Yes, your heroes can be pinned too, and they can sure as hell be flanked if you're not careful. It's a tricky balance to find between historical realism and videogame abstraction—the developers admit to me that they started at a much more granular and accurate level of simulation, and it simply wasn't fun until they started making compromises. But Classified: France '44 certainly seems to be on the right track, with the real-world elements it uses actively feeding into a more layered strategy experience, not just existing to please history buffs.
As you play the campaign, you gain an overall score for your performance. When you finish it, you're given an epilogue showing how the D-Day landings played out in this version of history, influenced by your score. Do badly and it might fail entirely, but chip away enough at the Nazi war effort and it can actually go better than it did in real life. You also get to find out the ultimate fates of your soldiers, again informed by real historical context. Some may have happy endings, others might not be so lucky.
I do think, however, that tonally a little something may be getting lost along the way. The game is a very serious take on a very serious conflict—not dour or miserable, but certainly very aware of the realities of war. It seems jarring, then, that for example your soldiers cannot die—if taken out during a mission, they simply retreat from the battle. Not every game needs XCOM-like permadeath, but it's hard not to feel like it would've better served the themes here, with new operatives recruited perhaps from the Resistance to replace fallen heroes.
Enemies are split into slightly cartoonish variants, such as imposing, well-armed Heavies and grenade-tossing Sappers who have a chance to explode when they die. Explosive red barrels litter the maps, with Nazis oddly keen to crouch behind them. Unrealistic elements like these certainly enhance the experience of play, but they feel at odds with the tone—a slightly more Hollywood approach might have been a better fit for a game about unkillable special forces taking out an improbable number of Nazis.
That gripe aside, this is shaping up to be a really interesting debut for Absolutely Games. It's a dense experience—more layered and intimidating than an XCOM—but that should give history buffs and strategy diehards plenty to get stuck into over the course of its 50 hour or so campaign when it launches on Steam. And if it's a success? The studio is already hinting at plans to do more Classified games in future, taking the idea to different conflicts. Vote with your wallets, people, otherwise we might never get Classified: Emu War '32.