Blurring the Line: Silent Storm: Sentinels

It’s difficult enough for a video game to tackle the second World War without seeming stale and cliche; to remind us we’ve landed at Omaha beach before, and in better games. Compound that with the typical problems of an expansion pack – that they tend to retread the same ideas in the same engine featuring the same story – and you’ve got every reason to believe that Nival’s add-on to their sleeper hit Silent Storm is going to be underwhelming. Against all odds, however, Silent Storm: Sentinels is bolstered by the strong gameplay of its predecessor and brings enough new ideas to the table to keep the formula fresh – or at least from becoming too stale.

Sentinels sidesteps, to a point, the problems of WWII reruns by taking place after the end of the war. Four years after the original Silent Storm, the Thor’s Hammer organization is nothing but a bitter memory, easily lost in the chaos of the war’s final years. Many major cities still lay in ruins, and the victorious Allies have their hands full stabilizing postwar Europe. Your character, a veteran of the war, is inexplicably blackjacked and kidnapped by armed civilians. While imprisoned, you encounter another captive named Boris, who helps engineer your escape. He warns you that although the organization is certainly gone, that certain powerful interests have begun reviving the Thor’s Hammer project. Not coincidentally, members of the Allied and former Axis intelligence agencies that tracked the organization in the first game have reformed under a paramilitary group called the Sentinels, and are trying to stop them.

Certainly nothing earth-shattering, although this time around the game is more story-driven. A larger change is the inclusion of money: you now earn cash rewards for completing missions, and buy and sell equipment from the quartermaster. Thus, the player is encouraged to scrounge for the more expensive weapons and items on each map; to facilitate this, an inventory screen appears at the end of each mission, allowing a player to automatically retrieve and sort any gear they noticed during the mission – including equipment from fallen enemies, but excluding equipment inside lockers and chests which they did not open, for instance.

These differences aside, Sentinals plays exactly like the original Silent Storm. The camera’s a floating third person perspective, which can be rotated, tilted and panned about the map as necessary. Combat is turn-based and handled through action points, with one side moving their entire squad before their turn ends, then the other side, and so on. The interface is still daunting to the newcomer, but an optional tutorial helps to explain the more complicated parts. After creating your character – which can be customized in terms of nationality, gender, character class and core attributes – and passing the intro mission, you can hire up to five additional mercenaries (which cost money this time around, admittedly) and then travel across European countries from mission to mission.

A day at the park turns bloody.  Fortunately, thanks to this gun's integrated silencer, it is also reasonably quiet.

On the plus side, the core gameplay holds together very well, and still provides some of the most satisfying and versatile action in a strategy game to date. Fully destructible environments and ragdoll physics allow bullets to chip away at walls and doors, eventually tearing larger holes in them, while grenades and explosives will rip open entire walls and send bodies flying. Doors can be blown open, while walls, ceilings and floors can be destroyed, and the holes used as alternate points of entry or exit, and entire buildings can be flattened with enough firepower. Scouts and other stealthy types can sneak around, silently dispatch targets and spot snipers for the rest of the squad, and overall the game does a great job of encouraging the player to think tactically, and to use the engine to come up with unorthodox ways of surviving combat.

Similarly, the player can still fire blindly through walls, take called shots, throw grenades over obstacles and around corners, climb cliffs, and maneuver through just about any environment imaginable. Enemies are ruthless, determined and capable of waiting patiently for you to charge into a room, then unloading a machine gun at you before you can even spot them. Panzerkleins eventually show up again, but Sentinels takes a few very important steps in the right direction with their use. Later missions are designed carefully to encourage their use without punishing players who didn’t bring them along, and there are now more infantry weapons with which a skilled squadmate can disable a PK or its pilot. Still, even just one PK can pose a major threat on its own, and players must exercise caution in bringing down these hulking metal beasts.

The variety of missions has also improved over Silent Storm. An early mission will have the player meeting a contact in a crowded bar full of neutral civilians, only to turn into an ambush as several in the crowd, and on the street outside, draw weapons and attack. Later, the Sentinels send the player into a bombed-out German town, where the squad must question locals living in the ruined buildings about the location of a scientist; predictably, hitmen show up to complicate the search. Still later, the squad must mount an assault on a weapons factory and literally leave no building standing. Some missions turn into the typical ‘find the document’ or ‘capture the VIP’ objectives featured so often in Silent Storm, but by and large the Sentinels campaign is considerably more interesting and clever than the original game.

The visuals haven’t changed much. They look simple and somewhat dated in screenshots, but are fantastic in motion, and chock full of detail. Characters adjust their posture depending on where they’re standing, the weapon they’re holding and how carefully they line up their shot. Animations are smooth, whether a character is simply running through the street, hopping a fence, or being blown out a window. Every object in the game can be torn up by gunfire and eventually destroyed, and depending on the weapons used the aftermath of a battle will look like something out of a war movie. Grenades and rockets will knock huge chunks out of buildings, and a stray bullet into a stack of oil barrels can cause a whole building to go up in flames, and spectacularly so.

A well-placed grenade has collapsed the stairs behind the soldier, allowing him a safe vantage point to pick off the enemies lurking below.

For better or worse, the sound effects and music remain largely unchanged. Guns and explosions are still nice and weighty, and it’s easy to tell different firearms apart from their reports. The soundtrack is generally quiet, content to meander in the background until enemies are spotted and combat begins; the battle music is appropriate, if not memorable, and there are a few standout tracks along the way. Voice acting, however, is still largely mediocre and dull. The main character has a bit more of a personality this time around, having a bit more to say thanks to the plot, but none of the main characters are particularly interesting. Most of the squad banter and action dialog is the same from Silent Storm, which is forgivable since the mercenary pool includes members of both campaigns from the original game.

On the downside, Nival still haven’t ironed out the technical difficulties in their software. While there are few serious bugs during the actual gameplay (nothing on par with the debut Panzerklein mission from the original, which caused crashes after enemy PKs appeared) the program itself is fairly picky and there have been several reported crash-on-startup errors with a wide variety of causes. It’s not uncommon for the game to install normally, but appear not to work in DVD-RW compatible disc drives. The actual game is fairly stable, but getting it to work on high-end PCs may require some trial-and-error.

Overall, it’s not quite enough to say that Sentinels is just more of the same, though it certainly is that. The strategy is still intact, the mechanics are still impressive, and the action is as fun as ever. The changes to the trading system, mission structure and campaign variety are mostly welcome, and give Sentinels just enough innovation to feel like something other than the same old thing. This expansion won’t likely win over anyone who didn’t like the original, and although the story is an improvement over the original, it’s not all that compelling on its own. However, Silent Storm: Sentinels is nonetheless strong enough to warrant a purchase by anyone who at all liked the original.

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