I’ve been interviewing a lot of QA interns recently that are coming out of game design college. Every single one of them struggles with the concept of testing. When pushed they understand playtesting – playing the game and seeing where people get stuck or struggle with design decisions – but structured testing is lost on them. As a veteran I’ve found myself sighing over and over again as I ask them how they would prioritise bugs, how they would understand when a game is ‘fully’ tested, and getting blank stares. For context, playtesting is good to do but outside of early prototyping, playtesting should be used sparingly. Anyone in QA tends to find playtesting immaterial to a lot of their work.
There was a sinking feeling as I started playing War Mongrels on console, this was a game that should never have got past early prototype stage without a lot more playtesting.
Set during the end of the second World War the game follows Manfred and Ewald, two German defectors, as they meet up with partisan fighters in eastern Europe and wage war with the occupying forces across 10 stages of gameplay.
WM is an isometric action/stealth game in the same vein as Commandoes. It has added some of the newest twists like planning phases that allow the player to line up simultaneous orders similar to the excellent Shadow Tactics implementation by Mimimi Games. War Mongrels manages to come up with two things not present in other titles: an option to turn the game into a twin stick shooter, and online co-op.
With that out of the way, let me write about WM’s litany of problems.
The input system on controllers seems to have been designed by someone that has never held a controller in their lives before. The arcane button press combinations to do simple things like pick up a body are so poorly designed that I forgot it multiple times while playing. The planning system that felt flawless in Shadow Tactics and Desperadoes III is clunky and alien in War Mongrels. The tutorial is littered with poorly explained mechanics and head scratching scenarios, with unintuitive implementation for a number of options.
The player can throw a watch to distract enemies and the game shows 3 different circumferences one is how far the sound of the watch will go, the next is how far Manfred can throw it and the other one is less clear. Picking up items can be a huge chore with the player being required to click down the left stick and then properly highlight the item. This is made worse because the WM expects a lot of snap judgement decisions while simultaneously moving two (or more) characters at the same time.
The communication of how characters move through the world is also inconsistent – with enemies acting erratically in terms of when they can spot the character, when they can traverse an area, or when they hear things.
All of this leads to a lot of mistakes that feel like anything but the player’s fault.
The twin-stick shooting part, the option to throw out stealth and go loud, seems like a good idea but is let down by this being the same developers that made the absolutely shambolic twin-stick shooter Hatred. The aim is twitchy, reloading is tiresome, and it is far too easy to miss. Any time I alerted the enemies, rather than try and deal with the fiddly shooter parts I just gave up and reloaded a save. Something I ended up doing a lot of.
Look, I know each of the screenshots I’ve used is not for the current version of War Mongrels – but the Xbox store was broke – humour me
Which brings me to the messy auto save feature that is about as reliable as the rest of the game. War Mongrels offers a generous amount of autosaves (up to three at any one time) but the ‘when’ of saving happens seems to be on a whim. Sometimes not saving after lengthy combat sequences, other times saving right in the middle of being caught by guards.
Most of the complaints here can be alleviated by the co-op online. Playing with a friend willing to put up with the arcane-verging-on-deranged controls shows off some of the tactical thought put into each level. It just isn’t enough.
The story itself is also a discomfiting. The two initial leads are supposed to be German but both sport American accents, which just does not jive with the gritty ‘realistic’ tone. War Mongrels is keen to talk about how both side of the war (Nazis and Soviets) are wrong. There is some exploration of the Soviet brutalisation of local people, and some big stories of how Manfred was pulled into a war he thought honourable only to find out that the Nazis were bad. Eastern Europe has a long and complicated relationship with Soviet control and so it makes sense that this is stance they would go for. Suffering is just suffering no matter which red flag is waving above you.
It would make the story potentially interesting, except there is the context that this game is made by Destructive Creations, a Polish developer most famous for having to disavow that they were neo-fascist sympathisers, while simultaneously being known for liking anti-immigration and antisemitic Polish movements.
There may be a few people that enjoy the masochistic nature of War Mongrels but anyone looking for a version of this game that plays better, and isn’t a punishing chore to play there are far better options in the games Mimimi have a career of making. They’d even be better served by playing the Commandoes remasters.
With this many clumsy design decisions it is a miracle this game made it past pre-production. I will never look down on anyone that endorses playtesting again.
With a dizzying number of poorly thought-out design decisions, and punishing level design. War Mongrels should be taken out back and shot.Become a Patron!
This game was reviewed based on Xbox One review code, using an Xbox Series S|X console. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version. Game provided by publisher.