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Classified: France '44 review

 The heroes of Classified: France '44.
The heroes of Classified: France '44.

Need to Know

What is it? An XCOM-like tactics game set in the days leading up to the D-Day landings in 1944.
Release date March 5, 2024
Expect to pay $35/£35
Developer Absolutely Games
Publisher Team17
Reviewed on RTX 3070, AMD Ryzen 7 5800H, 16GB RAM
Steam Deck TBA
Link Official site

For me, the best battles in turn-based tactics games are the ones where the momentum can shift on one perfectly (or disastrously) executed turn; those pivotal moments where you harness the abilities that you maybe forgot even existed when things were going smoothly, but suddenly justify their existence in one audacious sequence of manoeuvres that imbue the orderly grid-based combat with the cinematic splendour of backs-to-the-wall movies like The Dirty Dozen or Saving Private Ryan.

Here's a case in point in Absolutely Games' World War 2 XCOM-like Classified: France '44. My merry band of spec-ops resistance fighter archetypes—the French woman with a beret, the bourbon-loving American, the 'chin up, cheerio' Brit, you get the picture—have just planted several demolition charges on a German U-Boat, and are now pinned down by the Gestapo reinforcements arriving on the scene. One of our own is down, while another two have had their morale shattered under a fusillade of gunfire, and are due to miss their turns trembling helplessly in the "broken" state.

My solitary available soldier that turn, our all-American hero Cassidy, issues a rallying cry, which recovers enough morale for my two broken fighters to get back into the fight. One of those, Lili 'Wolf' Pierry, shouts to our fallen ally to "Quit Messing About," which revives him from across the battlefield, before she leaps over a barrier and unleashes a volatile shotgun blast that downs not only a German officer, but the medic standing next to him. Next, our freshly revived soldier Alami uses his limited AP to set up overwatch with his machine gun, bolstered by a skill that means his overwatch doesn't break after shooting just one enemy. Come the Nazis' next turn, two more of their number will fall to Alami's gunfire, completely turning the tide of battle.

Classified is a refreshingly forgiving game for the genre, giving you ample opportunities to shift the momentum both within battle and in the wider campaign, where you have 50 days to cause as much disruption to Third Reich operations in northern France before the D-Day landings in Normandy. There is no permadeath here, presumably because each of your recruits is a preset character whose stories the devs wanted to tell (more on that later). Each soldier pretty much has two lives in battle, as losing all their health the first time puts them into "recovering" mode, where enemies kindly ignore them for three turns after which they can re-enter the fray; certain skills that revive fallen allies and restore morale apply to all units irrespective of where they are on the battlefield; and levelling up is swift, letting you quite easily specialise in two or more of the four skill branches that each class possesses.

On normal difficulty, the campaign feels tense but never overwhelming, nor does it reach that dreaded point where you realise some 20 hours in that you're utterly screwed and have condemned Europe to Nazi occupation (which isn't, I imagine, an easy burden on the conscience). The campaign sees you capturing regions for the French resistance, each of which is inhabited by one of three factions that you build loyalty with to gain access to better, rarer weapons and equipment in their respective shops. You do this using an all-purpose in-game currency simply called "supplies", which can also be used to cure wounds, retrain troops, and earn FFI points—which disrupt enemy operations—between missions.

An overview of the battlefield in Classified: France '44.
An overview of the battlefield in Classified: France '44.

(Image credit: Absolutely Games)

The factions are a cool concept, but lack a bit of dynamism. There's some cutscene chatter about how France is split between these squabbling factions, but that doesn't really manifest in the game. Siding with one faction doesn't lose you favour with another, and there are no special events or characters that better acquaint you with the Gaullists, Rebels or Criminals. The factions are really just loyalty bars that fill up as you help each of them out. Occasionally you'll have a choice of missions where you need to choose whether to aid one faction or another, or to save one potential recruit or another, but none of this fleshes out or branches the narrative, which feels like a bit of a missed opportunity.

As you build up resistance strength through your derring-do missions—which span the gamut of spec-ops shenanigans we've seen in WWII movies over the years, from stealing documents to sinking U-Boats, to taking out officers and fending off waves of enemies while holed up in a countryside manor—the enemy will increase their strength. Gestapo officers, who move around as little pawns on the map, reinforce enemies in a given area and launch reprisals against regions you've captured, forcing you to repair those regions using soldiers you don't plan on using in your next mission.

A bit like with the faction system, it's a cool idea with a somewhat lightweight implementation, as these Gestapo units are fairly easy to subdue using FFI points, and they can't actively retake territory you've already captured. The intensity ramps up steadily in the campaign, but not quite enough to offer the same dramatic momentum shifts as in the battles themselves.

Morale of the story

The map screen of Classified: France '44.
The map screen of Classified: France '44.

(Image credit: Absolutely Games)

Drop down to half-morale, and you become suppressed; lose all your morale and you become broken, forcing that soldier to skip a turn.

Down on the battlefield itself however, things feel great. It's not a perfect simulation by any means—expect to see a few bullets magically passing through walls right before your eyes, in defiance of the game's absence of destructible scenery—but the tactical gunplay is a blast.

Your movement and actions are all bundled into one pool of action points, and beyond your health you also have a morale bar. Drop down to half-morale, and you become suppressed; lose all your morale and you become broken, forcing that soldier to skip a turn. It works both ways, and there's a good thrill to running out of ammo with your primary weapon, switching out to your pistol, and firing at the enemy with 0% chance of hitting them, just to chip away at their morale, or to try and blow up a nearby truck or barrel. It feels like every shot counts, even if it doesn't do direct damage, which means no AP gets wasted and the combat has a satisfyingly scrappy quality you might expect in a real shootout.

I appreciate the inclusion of a stealth system as well. You can insta-kill unaware enemies with a knife, and there are dedicated stealth missions which are best accomplished by you going unnoticed, as well as Ambush missions where if you successfully carry out a certain number of stealth kills, you'll gain an extra turn to ambush your enemies as soon as they become aware. While in stealth mode, you see enemy vision cones and where they're going to move next, giving missions a nice puzzle-game layer before all hell breaks loose. The robust skill tree even allowed me to build one of my soldiers into something of a beret-wearing ninja, delivering critical-damage knife attacks and regaining AP after each successful kill.

An issue with the stealth and the pace of battles in general, however, is the stodginess of the movement and animations. Your troops move slowly, and there's an inelegant pause as they switch animations between moving around and diving into and over cover. A movement speed option (like you have with enemies) and better-flowing animations would've helped the quieter parts of missions feel a bit less protracted.

A soldier stealth-killing a Nazi in Classified: France '44.
A soldier stealth-killing a Nazi in Classified: France '44.

(Image credit: Absolutely Games)

It ticks all the boxes on the battlefield itself, and toys with some neat mechanics and ideas that the studio can hopefully build upon in its next outing.

While the focus is very much on ballsy battlefield exploits and the campaign, I always appreciate XCOM-likes that take the time to build a bit of a relationship between the soldiers. XCOM 2 had the bonding mechanic, where you could increase cohesion between soldiers by sending them out on missions together, while Marvel's Midnight Suns went pretty deep on building interpersonal relationships between missions. Classified is lacking in this area, and while you can trigger a conversation between two soldiers, it's more about little bickerings over French/American/British cultural norms like tea vs. coffee than character-building.

In fairness, some of the chats are pretty interesting, as you hear about the Moroccan Alami's concerns over French occupation after the war, or how butter has somehow become a more valuable commodity than meat in these troubled times. It makes for some neat history trivia, but doesn't add up to the meaningful characterisation you'd have hoped for with a fixed cast of characters like this.

But it's also the case that Absolutely Games doesn't have the resources of Firaxis (who made both Midnight Suns and XCOM), and this is a commendable debut effort from the new studio. It ticks all the boxes on the battlefield itself, and toys with some neat mechanics and ideas that the studio can hopefully build upon in its next outing. Contrary to being the hardcore game that its severe historical setting might have suggested, Classified: France '44 has a lot of thoughtful, forgiving touches that push you along through the momentous historical events that you become part of shaping, ratcheting things up as you approach the fateful Normandy landings. It may even be a bit on the easy side by default, but hey, it wouldn't be a true XCOM-like if it didn't have an Ironman Mode for all you tactics veterans out there.