Soldner: Secret Wars Review

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Publisher: Encore / JoWooD
Developer: Wings Simulations

Platform: PC
Reviewed on PC
Windows System Requirements: Pentium 4 1.4 GHz, 256 MB RAM, CD ROM, 32 MB DirectX 9.0b-compliant video card, 1 GB HD space, Windows 98 or more recent

A scant six years from now, world powers like the United States have tired of acting as the world's peacekeepers. As most of the planet's nations have chosen to forgo building up conventional standing armies, mercenaries have taken up the slack, serving as the commanders and foot soldiers in the covert conflicts that spring up around the globe. Purchasing weapons ranging from pistols to tanks to helicopters out of their own paychecks, these mercenaries now do battle in secret wars.

Kyle Ackerman

When it comes to online multiplayer shooters, with so many quality titles available, there's little room for a second-rate game. Regrettably, Soldner: Secret Wars is a game with a lot of interesting ideas, most of which are poorly executed or partially finished. There is fun to be had in Soldner, but it may not be the first place you look in this title going up against the likes of the Battlefield series of games. The attempted versatility of Soldner lets you create situations entertaining in their absurdity, but the game falls short as a realistic shooter.

The feature list for Soldner is impressive. The game has an economic system, and advertises more than 60 weapons, 70 combat vehicles, a chain of command and a dynamic campaign based on the "simulation of a highly complex diplomatic system." Perhaps most impressive is what the developer calls the "Advanced Destruction System," which allows for destructible terrain. You can knock over trees to use them for cover or to block narrow roads, blast craters in the ground or even destroy a building being used as cover by enemy infantry. Everyone on the same server will see those changes in the environment and be forced to cope with them.

Problems Aplenty

Fundamentally, the problem with Soldner is that it is unresponsive. Even if the game were much less ambitious in scope, it simply doesn't work well. While the firing and movement keys typically respond properly, hit the use key to enter a vehicle or try to hit the run toggle, and you'll often be faced with a one- or two-second delay before the game follows your command. Both enemy and allied units move jerkily, often briefly remaining motionless and then snapping to a new location. While many might take that as a sign of internet latency, it happens in both the single-player and multiplayer game (more so in multiplayer), on a high-end system with up-to-date drivers, and can be extremely frustrating.

Soldner is also unbelievably complicated. The effort to add depth to the game has mostly resulted in befuddling complexity that can make it inaccessible. The manual goes through the many commands necessary to play (many of which are familiar to first-person shooter fans), but the manual doesn't even touch upon the game's massive assortment of weaponry and vehicles. That means unless you are a serious weapons buff or a mercenary yourself, you'll either have to do substantial research or just pick something and hope it suits you. While it's fairly easy to tell the difference between a shotgun and a sniper rifle, it will take time to distinguish between an all-purpose assault rifle and an antique with longer load times. The same goes for vehicles. It's easy to tell a helicopter from a tank, and it's clear that the M1A2 Abrams is powerful, but can you really distinguish between a wide variety of armored personnel carriers? There are also myriad special load-outs that take time to discover and learn to use properly.

In most such games that are fundamentally online shooters, the single-player game is tacked on, and (at best) serves as a chance to orient you to the game's playstyle. Soldner's single-player game is best described as cryptic. There is essentially no explanation of what to do or how to do it, and when you start to figure things out, the AI is so awful that you'll have a hard time telling if that tank driving in circles is an enemy or madman. The first single-player mission I attempted had me stealing two tanks from the middle of an armed encampment. Once I figured out what to do, which took a while, I was able to stroll past machine gunners, hop in a tank and drive off. What I thought at first was pursuit was just an enemy tracked vehicle driving repeatedly into a fallen tree. You'll have a much easier time simply hopping into an online game and asking other players for help if you get stuck.

Some Thoughtful Features

Soldner tries a lot of things that would be exceptionally cool, if they were fully comprehensible or worked properly. The economic system is interesting, in that you accumulate cash with which to purchase weapons and vehicles. Prices range from a Desert Eagle pistol at $700 to an M1A2 Abrams tank at $20,000. Commanders can allocate cash, and you'll need to stay alive and complete objectives to earn enough to purchase expensive (and powerful vehicles). The system can end up one sided, with players unable to purchase decent enough equipment to deal with multiple tanks and helicopters, but you'll always have enough cash to purchase a basic load-out. The problem is that there are too many choices to be effective. Most players will always go with one or two familiar choices, and a poor commander can mean that team cash is allocated in a nearly useless manner. That's not to say the system doesn't work – it's great to see a bunch of heavily armed mercenaries spawn at the beginning of a round, purchase a light blue compact car, and hop in to race for a nearby checkpoint. Also, there is a balance of vehicles, with tanks ruling the ground, but vulnerable to helicopters, which fall under anti-aircraft blasts. You just have to figure out which vehicle sports the anti-aircraft rockets.

The deformable terrain is also a brilliant idea. It was thrilling the one time I managed to blast a large crater in front of a fast moving jeep, diverting the driver into a mountainside. But most of the time, things aren't smooth enough to operate with any accuracy. You can drive through some trees, while seeming twigs can sometimes immobilize the largest of tracked vehicles. You can blast buildings to bits, but they already seem like vast shells – all wall and no substance. While the world can be huge, it feels like battling on a gigantic movie set or invading a "maskarovka" village. The maps are also truly huge, but get stuck without a vehicle, and you'll be running much of the match. And a sniper on a distant hillside can pin down most of a team if they are down to one spawn point.

There are also a lot of neat details beyond the economics, deformable terrain and massive selection of equipment. You can do a diving roll through windows to quickly attack or reach cover. It doesn't look good at all, but the idea is sound. You can run, and extended running raises your heartbeat and lowers your accuracy until you rest. Weapons stay around for a while after a kill, so a poor mercenary can kill a bazooka-toting enemy and take his equipment. You can even lock purchased vehicles for a time, so that they can't be stolen by rude teammates. Of course, sometimes realism gets in the way of fun. If you open your parachute too high, you can spend most of a session slowly drifting down to the battlefield. If the game were more responsive and straightforward, all these creative ideas would make for a game that could at least capture a dedicated, core community.

So Where's The Fun?

Just as the game has a startling (and baffling) array of realistic military hardware, there are some very mundane items that can prove tremendously entertaining. Once of the cheapest vehicles is a simple farm tractor – a tractor that continues to provide me with absurd entertainment. Simpler moments included prolonged circling as I tried to mow down a bunny-hopping soldier as he fired his panzerfaust. The physics of the game provide more interesting opportunities. I was often able to drive my tractor down a hill fast enough to jump on the roof of a barn, and once even managed to squash an enemy soldier by driving off the roof, landing squarely on him and the bush he was using for cover. You can also customize your avatar to eschew the typical green and brown camouflage for a more garish purple and green. To be fair, I had some fun on foot as well as in conventional military vehicles, but the quirks can be frustrating if your attitude is less than lighthearted and tolerant.

At least for the moment, you can find a full Soldner server without any difficulty. If you do play a game, what you'll see most of is unfulfilled potential. An online multiplayer shooter needs a dedicated, core community to thrive, and there's little reason to join Soldner's when there are several stronger, better executed games available. We can only hope that the game Soldner wanted to be is eventually made.

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This page contains a single entry by Editor published on July 14, 2004 12:50 PM.

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