Söldner: Secret Wars is a military-based shooter set in the year 2010. Warfare is now fought using teams of Special Forces operatives who travel the world looking to quell potential hotspots. As commander of a Special Forces team, players have control over fellow squad members as well as helicopters, Harrier jets, and light armored vehicles to ensure their missions are a success. A dynamic campaign system allows key decisions, victories, and failures made during previous operations to influence subsequent missions, with players having the opportunity to outfit their team with new weapons as the game progresses. Completing missions earns players cash, which can be used to purchase more than 70 types of armaments.
While the game is primarily played from a third-person viewpoint, players can switch to a first-person perspective at any time. Available moves (outside of shooting) include the ability to jump, crouch, and lay prone, with the amount of damage received influencing a character's overall movement. Objectives are sought out using both a mini-map display and radar, and characters can be equipped with night vision goggles and similar technology to help isolate targets. Up to 32 players are supported via LAN or Internet, with multiplayer games offering hostage rescues, bomb runs, team deathmatches, capture the flag, and other customizable options.
While most of Soldner's main ideas have already appeared in other shooters like Tribes, Operation Flashpoint, and the Battlefield games, on paper it's nevertheless a game brimming with exciting possibilities. Soldner tries to meld a lot of interesting ideas together into an ambitious whole: you can run across sprawling battlefields, fly choppers, man tanks, parachute into enemy territory, wield a variety of real-world firearms, take the role of battlefield commander, and more.
Once you start playing and the reality of the gameplay sinks in, however, you'll see that those possibilities are mostly wasted. You'll have to deal with a clunky interface and menu, silly single-player missions, brain-dead A.I., bizarre vehicle physics, horrible net code, dull graphics and sound, and more bugs than a Georgia swamp in June. Soldner: Secret Wars aims for the skies, but it only gets about three feet off the ground before crashing with a dull thud.
Soldner has mostly been pitched as an online game, but there's also a single-player component, which does a good job of highlighting the game's many basic flaws. You choose from a variety of missions where you have to blow up enemy fuel tanks, rescue hostages, and so forth. This portion of the game, frankly, feels like a joke. There's no attempt at immersion or storytelling, so you never feel like a real soldier fighting real battles in real places.
It all begins by plopping you in a deserted base with no fanfare and forcing you to figure out what you're supposed to do. All you know is what the manual says: you're part of some vague secret mercenary army ("Soldner" is German for "mercenary") in the year 2010, an army that mysteriously has access to American tanks, Austrian assault rifles, and other high-tech gear.
The missions themselves feel unrealistic and silly, with poorly guarded enemy compounds right down the street from your base, for example. In one mission, all you have to do is drive a couple kilometers and kill a guy casually walking down the road. Who is this menace to society? What has he done to deserve a military strike against him? In Soldner, who can say?
The A.I. is equally laughable, as a driver will zoom around and randomly and repeatedly bounce his vehicle off trees until it starts spewing black smoke. Meanwhile, enemy guards at the nearby base will casually go about their routine, ignoring this hubbub until you're right on top of them. Of course, if you decide to fire at them, you might not be able to hit them, thanks to the game's frequent and inopportune slowdowns. Or, you might blow yourself up the instant you try to use your grenade launcher, thanks to the game's swarm of bugs (even with the latest patch, which itself addressed literally dozen of issues). Sometimes Soldner feels more like an episode of Monty Python's Flying Circus than a realistic military game.
Trying another tactic, maybe you'll walk up to one of the Tribes-style equipment stations and select a helicopter, which then magically appears out of thin air. But, oops, the sluggish, awkward controls mean your helicopter literally ends up hanging in a nearby tree like a child's kite that got away. So, you try again with another chopper, parachuting out before it veers out of control and crashes, but suddenly you soar through a village roof and find yourself inexplicably stuck on the floor. The jeeps aren't much fun, either, since the physics feel about as realistic as Mario Kart. You have to keep slowing down to avoid nasty encounters with trees, and there's no option for a first-person view, meaning that said trees often block your vision. Tanks can be even worse: we bumped into some sandbags at slow speed, and our tank flipped twenty feet in the air and landed upside down.
While Soldner's vehicles are a mess, the alternative of running on foot instead of using the game's sloppily implemented vehicles isn't much better since you run as slow as molasses in winter. There's a sprint function, but like many commands in Soldner, it often requires multiple button presses to register, and movement is still way too slow. By this time, you're probably sick of the game and want to quit, and then you learn that Soldner takes even longer to quit than to load. (Sometimes it won't even load properly, for that matter.) Even after the game has returned you to your desktop, your hard drive might keep thrashing wildly for a few minutes.
Most of these problems, as you can guess, are equally present in the multiplayer modes, which support 32 players per server. Soldner includes a host of game modes, though none is particularly original: deathmatch, conquest (akin to Day of Defeat or the Battlefield games), capture the flag, hostage rescue, and so forth. Just finding a decently populated server is a challenge in itself -- it's like a ghost town out there. Bugs can make connecting -- and staying connected -- extremely hard. Choppy net code makes aiming or steering a frustrating chore, even when you have broadband and a low ping. You might enjoy a few brief moments that showcase the game's missed potential, but most of the time it's a mess. Compared to the 150-player matches of the also just-released Joint Operations, it's no contest which game you should be playing.
Soldner isn't entirely bad. You at least get to use a wide range of real-world weapons, including pistols, assault rifles, sniper rifles, and rocket launchers. Firearm accuracy is affected by movement and whether you use HUD crosshairs or the gun's own iron sights. You'll also get to carry grenades or a bomb kit that lets you detect and lay timed, proximity, or remote explosives. You can select first aid or engineer kits to heal comrades, fix vehicles, restore troops' ammo, and the like. There's also a money system for weapon and vehicle purchases at bases. Usually all you can afford are unarmed trucks or civilian cars, creating unintentionally hilarious moments as you run over some poor slob and then do donuts around a tank in your powder-blue Lada. You'll even see troops puttering around in farm tractors. There's certainly some variety to keep you busy.
To Soldner's credit, the game at least features some semi-realistic damage modeling. Large weapons can damage buildings and terrain to provide cover or flush out the enemy in dramatic fashion. Blasting buildings to rubble with an Abrams tank is one of the very few highlights of the game. Soldiers and vehicles feature basic location-based damage modeling, too. It's ambitious and interesting, but at the same time, the execution comes nowhere close to providing the fully deformable world and emergent gameplay we were hoping for when we were first shown the game long ago.
Soldner's presentation leaves a lot to be desired. The terrain and buildings look a lot like those of Operation Flashpoint, which would be fine if Soldner had been released three years ago. In today's Far Cry world, that doesn't cut it. Fortunately, vehicles look better than their bland and blocky surroundings, with the Blackhawk choppers particularly menacing. A few neat effects, like bullets sparking off of metal fences, add a bit of desperately needed visual drama. Sadly, you're more likely to notice frequent slowdowns and choppiness, even when your system well exceeds the game's recommended requirements. The audio is no better, with weak sound effects marred by stuttering, as well as the silliness of an announcer who dramatically intones "Soldner!" at every opportunity.
Soldner is a victim of bad timing in more ways than one. Obviously, it was released at the same time as the similar and much superior Joint Operations. More importantly, however, Soldner just didn't get enough development time before being rushed out the door.
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