Soldiers of Anarchy offers players a future where a genetically engineered virus has eliminated most of civilization. The aftermath, the anarchy, is a terrifying place where armed hoodlums rule the world, people are enslaved, and the creeps who designed the virus are roaming free. Gameplay involves controlling small groups of units who gradually gain strength and abilities, stockpiling equipment and weapons, and engaging enemies on huge maps (1.5 by 1.5 scaled miles) . As the game progresses, vehicles are critically important, functioning as currency and as the deciding factors in battles. Friendly fire, shockwaves, vehicular strengths and weaknesses, and detailed troop management options make the battles interesting. Multiplayer modes for up to eight people are available. An option to build your own levels, maps, and campaigns is available.
Silver Style's Soldiers of Anarchy is half like Sirtech's Jagged Alliance and half based on the stuff that made Interplay's Fallout franchise a legend amongst PC gaming. Anarchy begins its story in the not too distant future - actually, only a few years from now when the 'weapons of mass destruction' that we hear about so often today actually are let loose, go haywire and decimate much of the human population. A hardy bunch of military personnel track the news right down to the last television and radio broadcast. Fearing the worse, they consciously give up visiting rights to their families and close themselves off with the outside world for a decade. You'll command their initial steps to re-establish contact with society and try to learn what really happened after the heydays of human civilization.
Anarchy's title seems to suggest that what's left out there consists of nothing but a ragtag mob of anarchists. No, no, that isn't the truth. I remember in university, one of my student colleagues was an ardent anarchist. He was the card carrying NRA member who had most gun specs memorized. Of course, I took the opportunity to ask once if anarchy is about promoting the absence of order, why then is the campus anarchist group an organized movement. It's of my opinion that whenever people are involved, there will undoubtedly be order. The first live human you meet in Anarchy immediately says he holds a 'seeker' rank, that is, he is a merchant trader in antiquities: tanks, weapons, vehicles, etc. So already, you know someone has forged a new order in the aftermath of disaster.
In roughly a dozen missions, Anarchy will let you choose what you want to do with the outside world, ultimately culminating in a couple of different and unique endings. Anarchy is a complex game. It starts off like a real-time strategy game, focusing on small team tactics but its engine is able to render such enormous landmasses that each stage of the game could really equal three, four, even five missions in a similar title. That's because a good dose of narrative is involved. You'll be cruising through villages, interacting with people and making conscious choices that change the objective you have to achieve on each map. Except for the multiplayer outings, no mission you're sent on is equivalent to blasting everyone off the third rock from the sun.
Unlike the more mainstream real-time strategy titles, every unit in this game counts. There are no barracks to suddenly generate a few machine gun toting soldiers. In some cases, your soldiers won't be armed with anything, which makes salvaging materiel from dead bodies and crates strewn about a top priority. Vehicles, likewise, are a necessity but a luxury in the post-apocalyptic setting. The attention to detail is strengthened by the fact that most of your starting characters are key elements to the story. Obviously, if they die, you'll have no story to continue on.
Much of the combat is not unlike what was pioneered in Fallout Tactics or the venerable Jagged Alliance. You'll have an assortment of modern weapons to work with and depending on your armament you'll have to craft some tactics to overcome overwhelming numbers. It doesn't help that many of your soldiers can only take a few bullet hits. With a grenade or explosion, you'll kiss half your squad goodbye.
Because your units are so sensitive to damage, you'll have to meticulously setup each conflict to maximize your firepower and use the element of surprise to make sure more shooting goes towards the enemy's direction than yours. That includes using the terrain as cover, using decoys to draw fire and using explosives to scatter the enemy. Perfect execution will lead to no losses and bountiful amounts of ammunition for salvage. However, it's the perfect part that is hard to get down, unless you're a cyborg directly tethered to game. The very nature of real-time implies that you won't be able to perfectly micromanage everything, especially if some part of your plan goes awry.
Like Jagged Alliance, there's plentiful selection in terms of military hardware, although for all intents and purposes, a machine gun is a machine gun. Realism is a mixed bag in Anarchy though. Despite its attention to including all forms of guns, curiously, you can't control firing rates or ammunition types. By default, everyone just keeps firing on automatic and there's no option to use fancy things like incendiary or armor piercing bullets. On the other hand, there are some nice touches of realism. Soldiers have to open doors to enter/exit vehicles. So if you want to drive by an enemy outpost just to get out and start blazing. Think again. Also, soldiers don't reload their weapons when running at full tilt.
In many parts of the game, you'll be offered vehicles to help you get around some of the large landmasses. This adds another level of management that proves to be more frustrating than handling soldiers alone. Like soldiers, vehicles can be outfitted with weapons and you can mix and match the combinations too. While the soldiers perform relatively well in micromanaged situations, the vehicles are tough to control. There's a steep learning curve and even if you are on top of the game, they tend not to do what you want it to do. Since RPGs and rocket launchers are a dime a dozen in this game, it's frustrating to see your entire squad blown up because of driving incompetence.
One irritating part of the game is the inability for your vehicles to move when you tell them to. They take time to start the ignition or accelerate. That's understandable for a big lumbering APC but it's true too for a small jeep. Furthermore, they have trouble making it around obstacles. The developers have kindly put in a red marker to indicate that it'll probably never get there on its own. But that doesn't solve everything because I'll have to manually direct the car there (via four, five waypoints) anyway. Obviously, operating vehicles can put a crimp on one's style, especially when you're launching simultaneous attacks. Instead, you might end up driving around, stop and go style, like a teenager learning to drive stick.
The micromanaging isn't helped by the camera. There's a follow mode and also a free camera setting. My guess is most people will be using the latter, which means most of the time you'll have to control the camera yourself. A mouse with a third button and wheel helps make it manageable but still, I never found myself in an optimal position to see the action. Because there's a 360 degree freedom here, I often wanted some flashing indicator on the peripheral to indicate where incoming units might be coming from. There's significant leeway in zooming in and out of the game but the developers perhaps have added too much leeway. Some of the far out zoom levels are hardly usable due to the fact that soldiers and objects are so miniscule in comparison to the landmass.
That's a pity, though, because Anarchy has some impressive visuals. Many titles, like Fallout Tactics and Jagged Alliance, have had to use hand-drawn 2D sprites to achieve a decent level of detail. Anarchy does it all in 3D. Even on an object level, where most 3D real-time developers tend to skimp, the attention by the artists is noticeable. It's too bad you won't be looking at it all that much during the action. The sound is also appreciable, with good surround-like effects for ambient weather and on the whole, the effects are respectable, save for a few of the guns.
This engine is also capable of deformable terrain, which has so far been more of a gimmick. I recall one of the first places where it was shown was in Command and Conquer: Tiberian Sun. Bridges could be destroyed but since they couldn't be rebuilt, it was a one-time tactic. In Anarchy, there's opportunity to use it in a utilitarian way. Explosives can bring down buildings and create collateral damage. Intentionally made craters can provide that needed cover in between no-man's lands.
The technical side of Anarchy is very capable indeed. Since the preview, the developers have polished the editor so it'll be easy for you to create your own scripted scenarios. It's actually pretty intuitive and exists inside the game engine too. But I imagine it'll take some time to craft some of the intricate single player missions found in Anarchy's campaign. Multiplayer, unfortunately, is relegated to a competitive affair. You can't get through the single player campaign with a buddy, nor are there any imaginative modes, like the RPG-style play found in Warcraft III.
All of this comes at a cost. For a game that rests so much on tactics and executing them perfectly, the loading times are pretty steep. Anarchy lets you save anywhere but on a lower end machine, you can expect load times of a minute or more if you made the wrong move or mistakenly set someone's posture on aggressive.
Anarchy's narrative starts off very slow. The punch or arc of the story happens late in the game. Even after a few hours, there's a sense of disconnection with the people on your squad. They aren't as eccentric as the mercenary group in Jagged Alliance. Nor are they as fleshed as the ones in Fallout. Nevertheless, it has an interesting premise to work on but after dozens of firefights, I felt it was missing something warm and comfortable to make it amiable. And then I thought of what made Fallout work. It was the Louis Armstrong music. It was Pip Boy and the Walter Trier-style cartoons. That juxtaposition, between the hopelessly optimistic and the bleak apocalyptic, was what made Fallout so charming. Anarchy, lacking that amiability, coupled with the slow pacing, will find it tough to hold a wide audience. However, there's no denying it exhibits some signs of an uber-hit.
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