There’s a guard behind that doorway. You know he’s there even though the door is shut, because a giant ear symbol marks the spot where you last heard him. Your engineer drops to his belly and looses off a burst of heavy machine gun fire into the doorway. The wood splinters, and your sniper now has a clear shot. She’ll fire carefully and deliver a single, precise shot into the enemy’s head. End of turn.
Silent Storm offers real-time exploration and turn-based combat in an otherwise unoriginal WWII setting. A subtle reference to armoured suits adds an element of sci-fi intrigue to the plot, but sending a squad of quirky yet skilled soldiers behind enemy lines is something we’ve all done thousands of times, whether in pulp novels or big movies boasting squinting, grizzled stars. This time round we can choose sides, which is morally ambiguous to say the least.
Seeing n**-style propaganda posters in the barrack room may add to the authentic taste, but it’s a rather unpleasant one. I’m not sure how comfortable I am playing as someone who works for the Abwehr (n** Intelligence). In this sort of genre there are conventions to follow: there are ‘good’ baddies – common infantry, tank men etc. and then the untouchably bad baddies. A servant of one of history’s most hated police states is not someone I’d like to identify with, especially when there are no obvious consequences to being on one side or the other.
The developers have a*embled a multi-national cast of heroes, each with a convincing back-story and a reason for fighting on their chosen side. Thus there are Indians and Romanians working for the Axis, and Native Americans doing the Allies’ dirty work. Your hero protagonist has to be picked from a separate pool of physical, national and gender types, each with configurable appearance and voice. Hence it is possible to become an icy blonde female scout who speaks English with a Japanese accent, and still command the respect of tough fighters everywhere. Silly, but fun.
Characters in role-playing games have attributes to improve and focus on; Silent Storm’s snipers, scouts and medics are no different. As you pilot your crowd of ruffians through the missions, you can buff up each one’s skills in specific areas. There is the usually obvious archetype-to-skill mapping; toughness is more valuable to a grenadier, rifle precision worth more to the sniper. A few handy attributes are helpful to all; changing posture for fewer action points, for example, or endurance to battle damage.
Dealing with wounds and avoiding death are two keys to success in this game. Medical supplies and healing attributes will help keep team members alive, but not all is lost if they die. By carrying the seemingly stiff corpse of a comrade out of the combat area it is possible to save the fallen soldier; he or she will spring back to life at home base. This may not ring true but it does help you keep your team intact; more importantly you won’t lose the learning and development for that team member.
Only your hero protagonist must be kept alive at the end of each mission. Effectively the team leader is your avatar, although he/she is controlled just like any other team members. Just remember that everyone except “you” is expendable.
It helps that you have time to look around and plan your tactics during a fire fight. The decision to make the combat turn-based is infinitely wise given the c*bersome camera, the need to find where your troops are, where that shot came from, etc. etc. The 3D view can be perverse enough without time pressures, especially when trying to explore furniture and pick things up.
For example, you might pull a rifle from a chest but miss the vital magazine because of the camera angle. To compensate for this a simple key press brings up text tags showing where each artefact lies, and clicking a tag sends the active soldier to pick it up. Despite this nod to the clumsy interface, I still feel that the Doll’s House type of interface is not best suited for indoor exploration.
The rifle retrieval mentioned above will cost action points when in combat mode but not in exploration mode. The switch between two modes happens when an enemy is in sight or in earshot. In combat mode sending a soldier up the stairs, for example, will show you the cost in action points; if this is green there’ll be action points left at the end of the move to make an attack, change posture or do things like heal a comrade or pick a lock.
Watching the cost of any action is a crucial element of the strategy in Silent Storm. You may often find that sending one man out to the limit of his range will land him smack in front of a pack of enemies, with no resources left to fight them off within that turn. I really like this aspect of the game; it brings to mind hex-based games with “Fog of War” turned on, especially when you can’t undo an action if you stumble across the enemy.
There are many places where being able to destroy things can compensate for a lack of skill, missing equipment or bad planning. For example, my sapper was dead in the front hall of a mansion while I needed him to pick the lock of an upstairs room. Since there’s no way to retrieve items from a fallen comrade (odd, that) my team resorted to lobbing a grenade at the door and getting out of the way. It’s more “Kaboom” than “Open Sesame”, but it works.
The same could be said of the game as a whole. There are many rough spots in its presentation and execution, but the concept and delivery manage to rise above the occasional clumsy translation or ear-bruisingly bad voice acting. If you stare at the game too long, however, the flights of fancy and plain silly elements do tend to stick out. For example, German “undercover agents” in England (this is war-time, let us all remember) can be seen marching about in full Wehrmacht battle-dress. “Somewhere in Scotland” is given as the whereabouts, but surely Jerry wouldn’t have been that confident? And would you expect to find, in a green and pleasant piece of England, a squad of Japanese ninjas led by a sword-wielding officer?
Despite incongruous story points and sometimes clunky camera work, Silent Storm deserves the support of all right-thinking strategy fans. With its turn-based combat and destructible scenery it signals something fresh in the stale mound of World War Two games. I look forward to the sequel, and perhaps this game mechanism being translated to other settings.