Silent Storm Review
Developer: Nival Interactive
Reviewed on PC
Windows System Requirements: Pentium 600 MHz (2.2 GHz recommended), 128 MB RAM, 32 MB video card, 2.5 GB HD space, CD ROM drive, Windows 98 or more recent operating system
The year is 1943 and war has enveloped the globe. Vast forces are engaging each other in Europe and elsewhere, but both the Allied and Axis sides have a use for a talented, multi-national group of special operatives. Both sides may have larger concerns than just each other. There appears to be a covert, third side that offers allegiance to neither the Germans nor the British. Instead, that new force has access to frightening technology and is working to bring to fruition a frightening operation – Operation Silent Storm.
Silent Storm delivers something that PC gamers haven't seen much of recently – a solid and entertaining turn-based strategy title. The game has studiously learned from the shortcomings of other turn-based strategy games, and embedded the entire game in a 3D world with excellent physics and destructible terrain. While the game has flaws, they are mostly minor issues, such as mistranslations of dialog. Silent Storm most closely resembles Fallout Tactics: Brotherhood of Steel. In fact, it is almost as if the design team had spent months studying Fallout Tactics, noting everything that could be improved, and placing it all in a more colorful, World War II context, with team banter evocative of the Jagged Alliance series of games. World War II buffs be warned: as you move through the campaign, the game becomes even more like Fallout Tactics, exploring retro-futuristic technologies. While the plot is no more farfetched than many games, the vast array of period weaponry is augmented by massive lasers and walking tanks (that look a cross between a steel trash can and a 'Mech) once hordes of infantry are no longer a match for your squad of elite commandos.
Like many turn-based games, each of your (typically six) squad members has a set number of Action Points (APs) available each turn. These can be spent on actions such as moving, shooting, laying mines or battlefield surgery. The need to carefully micromanage the actions of individual characters is what makes these games both so time consuming and appealing to fans of the genre. Real-time strategy games offer a brisk pace and engaging action. Turn-based strategy games offer control. To the usual turn-based strategy paradigm, Silent Storm brings two impressive features: an incredible 3D engine and an action/role-playing-game-like character development system that offers players a lot of choice.
The game is modeled in full 3D, in a colorful and detailed environment with considerable control over the camera. Pretty much everything is destructible, so not only can you blast crates and explosive barrels, but you can also destroy walls and doors. Even if your grenadier is hiding behind a masonry wall, it can be destroyed if he takes powerful enough fire. Individual projectiles are modeled, so misses can be as important as hits, shattering a window behind your target and striking a hidden sniper. Many surfaces can be shot through, so you can blast at a noise heard on the other side of a door before opening it (if you don't think there are civilians around). Your engineer can't pick a lock on a door or chest? Shoot it to splinters with a machine gun! Characters are also modeled, and fallen soldiers will tumble down stairs or hillsides or fall off ledges and towers. The destructible terrain can be a pain if you happen to collapse a stairwell, but it's hard to get stuck, as characters can jump up and pull themselves to the next floor through holes that you either find or make. The destructible environment alone makes Silent Storm worthwhile, as explosives are suddenly a powerful tactical tool, able to reshape the terrain and open up new approaches.
There is also a substantial character development system that offers not only character attributes and skills such as shooting or hiding (which improve through use), but class-based abilities that take a cue from Diablo II-like games. Each time a soldier advances in level, he or she can choose another ability (if the prerequisites have been chosen), making that soldier slightly more effective. Engineers get better at abilities like detecting traps, while grenadiers learn abilities such as throwing further. The ability trees intertwine, but there is typically a specific path most appropriate to your play style. While you control a whole squad, five of those characters are chosen from a limited roster. The main character, which serves as your avatar, can be chosen from a variety of templates, or custom designed. There is an interface that allows you to extensively customize your character's head to give you that personal connection to the character. Of course, you have so many choices that you can design a black, female, bearded, Nazi soldier. But there's no point in worrying about the roles of gender and nationality in a World War II setting that has laser weapons and bipedal tanks.
Silent Storm has nicely executed many of the seemingly minor features that make turn-based strategy gameplay flow. There are clear icons to indicate where enemies (that one of your squad can see) are located, even if they are off-screen. Different icons indicate if the active character has direct line-of-sight or knows about a threat because of other squad members. Depending on characters' skills, they can detect hidden enemies by sound, even on a floor above or below. These are indicated with ear icons, and ghost images (that can be targeted), but such are just best guesses and not firm locations. The tutorial mode is thorough, and gives a good introduction to play. There are two quick-save slots that alternate so you can't easily get stuck in a completely untenable situation. You target specific body parts with shots, but snipers can spend extra APs to better aim, even carrying that aim bonus into the next turn. Many missions include large groups of allies as well as enemies, allowing you to turn the tide as part of large battles. Best of all, you don't have to pursue missions in a linear fashion. There are two campaigns, which both allow you to visit any locations you have unlocked. Similar to the Fallout-style overland maps, you can also indulge in random encounters that will help you train and improve your squad.
But None as Large as the Difficulty in Completing the Campaign
For all the good in Silent Storm, there are some minor issues. The voice acting is pretty bad, especially for "ethnic" voices, but the writing does add a lot of personality to the individual soldiers. It is, however, a little odd that Nazis will still yell "Intruder!" when they sight enemies, even while invading an installation in the UK. Doors will open right through a character, and it can be difficult to prevent your characters from politely shutting doors behind them (wasting APs while under fire). Computer allies and foes do surprisingly well, given the complexity of situations they face, which are made more difficult by the destructible terrain. While foes often will duck for cover or pop out to take a shot, they will sometimes happily funnel through a choke point, letting you pick them off at will. Also, when it seems safe, the game will switch to a real-time interface. This should move things along, but often results in your characters getting shot in the back while trying to manage characters in disparate locations.
It could be argued that the Panzerkleins (the WWII-era 'Mechs) imbalance the game, but in truth they just change the nature of play. At the same time as these behemoths appear, you find weapons that can deal with them. All of these issues are ultimately minor and surmountable. The real problem that keeps Silent Storm from being simply amazing is the objective system. You progress in the game by completing objectives, which usually consists of capturing informants or acquiring important papers. These clues tie together to identify future missions. This means that if you can't find the clues (they aren't easily identified on harder difficulties) or if the clues are destroyed, the game is over. It makes sense that the game should end if the lead character or squad are killed, but it can be hard to figure out how to prevent clues from being destroyed, such as in one of the Allied missions, investigating a factory. It's rare that you can sneak in, steal an objective and sneak out without eliminating the opposition. Even if you could, your characters wouldn't advance in skills and abilities, so you wouldn't want to. Silent Storm might as well have just demanded you eliminate all foes, and been more entertaining.
Of course, should you get stuck at that point, you've probably gotten more quality play time out of Silent Storm from part of one campaign than many games offer in their entirety. Playing the campaign from the other side is somewhat different, but is mostly worthwhile because of a different set of characters and weapons. All together, Silent Storm is a lot of fun, and is a needed, recent addition to the turn-based strategy genre. The campaigns themselves provide a lot of entertaining play, and while there is no multiplayer support in Silent Storm, it seems like a great candidate for even more content from both mod-makers and the game's developers.