Blurring the Line: Silent Storm

World War II games are a dime a dozen these days, so normally it takes a unique hook or extremely skillful presentation to set a game apart from the pack. Silent Storm, a strategy RPG by Nival Interactive, has the good sense to try for both, and fortunately it usually succeeds. It is a game brought low by technical issues and a threadbare plot, but elevated to almost epic status by fantastic gameplay and almost unprecedented tactical depth.

Silent Storm puts the player in charge of a commando squad during the later years of the war, shortly after the Allies made their D-Day landing at Normandy. Players have the option of both an Allied and Axis campaign, a true rarity for the setting; the game stays away from the more sensitive issues of the war, such as the Holocaust, and you’ll see why in a bit.

One can choose from a pre-built character, or design one of their own, picking gender, character class, nationality and stat placement. Your stats determine your starting aptitude in weapons and technical skills – sniping and burst shooting, first aid, spotting traps and melee fighting, to name a few – and how quickly you advance in them. Obviously, soldiers and snipers will be more competent marksmen while engineers are better suited to picking locks and using explosives, but any character can advance in any skill through enough practice. After a short introductory mission, players will get to assemble a squad of six from a pool of around thirty other commandos. The player is then brought to a map of Europe, where they can select from a number of theaters of operation, which open up into regional maps where one can head to missions or engage in random encounters. Access your home base is through the main map, where you can store gear, heal up, and change out squadmates.

The game plays from a third person floating perspective, which can be rotated, angled and zoomed as necessary. The optional tutorial walks the player through basic movement and features a mock battle; the environment is deep and complicated, but movement and combat are handled through simple point-and-click commands. However, there are a wealth of options which affect both, and players unfamiliar with games such as X-Com or Fallout can be overwhelmed at first. Hotkeys for the various movement and firing modes are laid out logically on the keyboard, while the right mouse button lets one fix the camera on a certain point and rotate or tilt it as necessary with the mouse, but the interface nonetheless presents a rather steep learning curve.

Stolls, L.A. and Viper broadside an AT gun crew while the other half of the squad sweeps an adjoining bunkhouse.

Fortunately, combat is entirely turn-based, so the player will have as much time as they need to take action. Once combat starts, everything is based on action points; moving, shooting, reloading, healing, even doing an about-face to see if someone’s behind you. All members of one team move during their turn, then the other team gets its turn, and so on until one team is dead, or neither team has any visible targets. The addition of quicksaves is a welcome one, as the difficulty can often charitably be called unforgiving; even a skilled player is bound to stumble into a waiting soldier’s crosshairs at least once, and some enemies are fond of hiding silently behind doors or around corners, just waiting for you.

You may recall my brief mention of unprecedented depth. Rest assured that this is not hyperbole; few games, let alone strategy RPGs, approach the level of interactivity that Silent Storm provides. Buildings are completely destructible. Your character can hop railings, go through windows, climb cliffs, fire through a wall, blow open a door or locked container, pitch a grenade over a wall, and many, many other things. Bullets eventually tear holes in walls, splinter wood and chip away at bricks. Bodies spill over and crumple like rag dolls, and a well-timed burst will send a soldier through a window, throwing him to the street below in a shower of glass.

The wealth of interactivity encourages unorthodox answers to common problems. Can’t find a key or pick the lock? Break the door down. Can’t find the door? Grab some explosives and make one. Bad guys on the stairs? Blow the stairs out from under them, or blow a hole in the floor and climb up through that instead. Can’t take down the bad guys without rushing into an ambush? Shoot blindly through the walls, ceiling or floor. Don’t feel like searching room-to-room? Level the whole building. It’s all there, it’s all possible, it’s all yours for the doing. This can occasionally cause problems, such as if you blow up the stairs leading to a set of documents you needed to pick up, but otherwise it works very well. All you need are some guns, some explosives and some imagination. While your computer-controlled enemies and allies won’t be quite so creative, no two encounters will be the same, especially when you start bringing in the special abilities of each class, turn interrupts, and armored mechs.

Go ahead and read that last bit again, I’m sure at least one or two of you thought that was a misprint at first. I sure did. This goes back to my earlier point about how the game sidesteps the ugliness of WWII; namely, it’s an alternate history. As the Allies and Axis tear into each other, a group of scientists and officers on both sides begin diverting resources to an undisclosed military project for an unknown third party. The game doesn’t hide the fact that there are armored infantry suits, called Panzerkleins (if my German hasn’t failed me, I believe that more or less means ‘small tank’), and the story concerns itself with discovering who this third party is, and what they’re building these things for.

This Axis officer has some men and real estate still standing.  Let's do something about that, shall we?

And now we come to some of the problems. The mechs aren’t an easy fit into the game mechanics, and tend to be ridiculously overpowered. It is possible for a skilled soldier to disable one or kill the pilot with heavy machine guns, grenades, or even the game’s more science fictioney weapons, but your first engagement with these things comes largely unannounced. There are anti-PK weapons and even empty PK suits nearby, but dealing with the hostiles still requires some trial-and-error at first. Worse, there is a major bug in this mission which causes the game to crash randomly after the enemy PKs arrive. This bug can be bypassed by running the rest of the mission in safe mode, but it remains unfixed and unexplained.

The story aspects are woefully underdeveloped, consisting largely of your squad flying from mission to mission to pick up documents or capture key personnel “alive” (nine times out of ten, you can safely tear a VIP apart with a machine gun without failing these objectives). The documents, and the few conversations your squad leader has with other NPCs, are mostly flat and uninteresting, and often rife with spelling errors or bad acting. Mission goals aren’t always obvious before entering the mission unless you’re paying close attention, though anything critical will be marked as such in the game world, and your goals are carefully noted once the action starts. Most of the voices are tolerable, but accents range from silly stereotype to painfully thick, and most of your squad’s idle banter is pretty dull. Each squadmate has a thorough backstory on paper and a few shreds of personality in the field – grenadiers seem to have the most fun with it – but they are usually less than interesting.

When you exclude vocals, however, the sound fares pretty well. Some of the music is lackluster, but generally it fits the mood of the game well, with somber and calm instrumental pieces at home base and outside of combat. It swells and grows ominously with the threat of impending danger as enemies lurk close by, and picks up dramatically once bullets start flying. Individual shots and explosions sound great and authentic, with booming reports from automatic weapons and the shattering of wood and glass as a rocket rips a chunk out of a building. A stray bullet will sound differently against wood, metal and stone surfaces, and the wide variety of pistols, rifles and machine guns all have distinctive gunshots.

Doors?  Where we're going, we don't need... doors.

Visually, Silent Storm is behind the times, but the fluidity of movement and the destructible environment adds a lot to the game’s appeal. Apart from the ragdoll physics, characters will move believably through the environment; holstering a weapon before hopping a fence or climbing through a window, adjusting their posture or bracing a weapon before a careful shot, navigating around obstacles, and so on. Buildings and the ground are sensibly deformed and damaged by gunfire and explosions, and the aftermath of a battle will look suitably ruined. It should be noted that the game is sparse on gore, with bodies remaining intact, albeit bloody, from all but a direct hit by high explosives. A midrange computer with a gig or so of ram can run the game at high settings with negligible loss of performance, but again the true strength of the game isn’t how it looks but how it moves. And it moves like few before and even fewer since.

Ultimately, Silent Storm is an ambitious title that succeeds when it lets the game itself carry the player forward. Any fair observer can’t deny that the game’s story is lacking, and that there are some technical problems that should have been ironed out in testing. And yet, sometimes raw gameplay is reason enough to keep playing, if only to see what part of 1940s Europe you’ll get to blast to pieces next. Silent Storm drops you in a map, points you to a goal, gives you a ton of weapons of your choice and says “go nuts.” The story keeps it from being epic, the glitches from being perfect, but if you can dig through that, you’ll find one of the most enjoyable SRPGs to date buried within.

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