Take command of a multinational squad of wartime specialists and go behind enemy lines to accomplish dangerous but crucial missions. Initially reminiscent of Pyro Studios' popular Commandos series, Nival Interactive's Silent Storm transports players to the battlefields of World War II and charges them with the responsibility of leading a small group of expert operatives to complete a series of level-based objectives. Unlike Commandos' real-time action, however, Silent Storm offers turn-based play, with a tighter focus on the precise execution of well-planned tactics.
Available operatives vary considerably. The game offers over 40 male and female characters of different nationalities that may be developed as the player sees fit, in one of six professions and with more than 50 possible skills. Mission areas and weapons are also designed to authentically represent the World War II setting. Missions are non-linear, with multiple possible solutions, and two separate campaigns allow play for both the Axis and the Allies. True 3D graphics, real-time lighting, and destructible environments help add to the realism of Silent Storm.
Silent Storm follows hard on the footsteps of squad-level turn-based strategy classics like X-Com and Jagged Alliance, and for a brief, shining moment, looked like it might join them in the pantheon of "strategy games that rule my world." Then I got deeper into the game and found instead an excellent title that reaches for the stars, but just barely makes it into the upper atmosphere.
The core gameplay -- the strategic engine, if you will -- of Silent Storm is beyond reproach. For those gamers unfamiliar with such titles, a turn-based squad-level game places you in charge of a small group of soldiers, each with a certain number of "Action Points." Every action, whether it's running, firing a weapon, or bandaging a wound, costs a certain number of points. Run out of points and your turn is over -- now the enemy gets to go. Play continues until all the soldiers die or you achieve your mission objectives. It's that simple.
Most of the player's time in Silent Storm is spent in such missions -- in this case, a series of preset ones connected by a somewhat contrived story of secret weapons research being conducted during World War II. Each of these missions is well-conceived and designed, as well as being open to a variety of strategic approaches. The designers at Nival have wisely decided not to mess with classic gameplay design, meaning that if you've played this type of game before, you'll be able to slip into the game without much difficulty.
The real fun, though, comes from the new strategic considerations that Nival has thrown into the mix. The game sports an impressive physics engine that simulates the hardness of various objects and makes every object within the game destructible via the application of explosive force. That means that if you hear a group of soldiers walking on the floor above you, it's finally possible to shoot through the wooden flooring and take them out. Take out support structures in a house and the entire thing will collapse -- along with any poor unfortunates inside. I can't tell you how many fun new strategic options that opens up during play. I spent quite a few missions just shooting through walls and leveling buildings rather than taking chances on house-to-house fighting with small arms.
The game also sports an impressive ragdoll physics model. Similar to the one that won our honorary Lens Flare Award for 2003, this feature lets soldiers react realistically to impacts, bullet hits, and grenade explosions. I know, putting a feature like this in a strategy game could be compared to putting racing stripes on a John Deere, but when you watch some Nazi soldier fly through a window in a shower of glass and tumble "bonelessly" off an awning into the street, you really won't care. The feature doesn't affect gameplay much, but never underestimate the value of aesthetics in a game -- especially when they make it look this cool.
Another fun aspect of Silent Storm is the ability to develop your squad of soldiers throughout the game. Each of your troopers has their own set RPG-like characteristics and abilities that can be gradually improved through combat experience. You might want to increase your medic's ability to bandage wounds or opt to improve his marksmanship and instead make your other soldiers' healing powers stronger to increase their self-reliance. While you can choose from 20 different soldiers, most players will gradually develop six or seven favorites. Fortunately, the breadth of abilities allows the team to slowly grow into one whose abilities complement your strategic style.
Unfortunately, the awesome strategic engine is surrounded by a game loaded with what can only be described as amateurish mistakes. Take the game's sounds -- please! Silent Storm's voiceovers are beyond amateurish; it sounds like someone dragged their friends and family to a microphone at the last minute. And the dialogue? Every move by your soldiers is punctuated by badly written (and often hilariously inappropriate) comments. "Ach! I die for ze Fazerland!" for instance, is uttered by a character who doesn't die. The game's music is a pompous bombast of military-esque brass that would make John Philip Sousa stick an M-80 in his French horn.
The poor quality of the writing extends to the storyline. The general idea of a commando team searching out 'Mech-like secret weapons called "panzerkleins" isn't awful in itself (great games have been made with worse stories). The problem is that the storyline is pushed forward through the discovery of secret documents that need to be discovered during missions. These documents are atrociously written, full of poor grammar and spelling mistakes (not to mention a curious lack of paragraph breaks). The enemy characters you're supposedly after are never properly introduced, fleshed-out, or even highlighted during missions when you suddenly discover you've killed them.
Then there's the whole management aspect of the game. Put simply, there isn't one. One of the key elements of this type of game is the need to develop and manage your team. Do I have the proper equipment for the next mission? Do I have a team with the proper skills? Is it worth sacrificing the life of an elite scout to achieve a mission objective? All of that is simply nonexistent in Silent Storm. The player's home base is always chock full of equipment -- too much, in fact. The game often makes it a chore to pick between three different versions of a single machinegun that vary only slightly in their characteristics. There's no reason to salvage enemy equipment or even preserve your own -- there will always be more. In the same vein, personnel management and death don't mean a whole lot when it's absurdly easy to just pick up your "dead" guys and bring them back to base at the end of a mission, whole and hale for the next one.
That brings us to our last issue: the lack of multiplayer. Some games are clearly designed to be a single-player experience, so not having multiplayer shouldn't affect your evaluation of them. Silent Storm is not one of those games. The game has an architecture that's extremely mod-friendly and includes provisions for custom maps. Combine that with a gameplay model that's been successfully used by board gamers to play each other for about a million years, and the lack of multiplayer support in Silent Storm is nothing short of tragic.
In case it needs to be said again, all of this is offered in the spirit of constructive criticism. Silent Storm is a great game ... it's just that strategy gamers like me who have been waiting for a true X-Com successor are still waiting. Given more time and more polish, Silent Storm could easily have been an absolute classic.
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