Well, my SpellForce review came in a little later than I had anticipated after I developed an unexpected and severe addiction to playing the Lineage II open beta. Fortunately, another game came along that drew me away from the siren song of NCSoft’s upcoming MMORPG. That game was a little turn-based, squad-level tactical shooter from JoWood Productions and Encore Software called Silent Storm.
Now, I know that a good many gamers see the terms "turn-based" and "tactical" and immediately say, "OK, this game was made for the kind of uber-strategists who have the patience to play chess via e-mail". I know this because the turn-based strategy genre has remained a niche category despite fairly universal acknowledgement of the excellence of its classics like X-Com and Fallout. But seriously, if you were ever inclined to put down the action-RPG you’re currently hacking your way through in favor of game that rewards your ability to calculate odds and synthesize the strengths and abilities of a squadron of soldiers, Silent Storm just might open your eyes to a whole new world of gaming.
Since it’s set in a sort of sci-fi revisionist history of World War II and mostly involves squad-level combat, you might not think of Silent Storm as an RPG. I was pleasantly surprised, however, by how many "RPG elements" you’ll find in the game. You start out the single-player campaign (unfortunately there isn’t a multiplayer option at this point) by choosing to fight for the Axis or the Allies and either choose from a series of pre-made characters, or customize an avatar for yourself.
If you choose to make a custom character, he’ll be a specialist in one of six classes: Medic, Sniper, Soldier, Grenadier, Scout, and Engineer. Each class has it’s own skill tree that you’ll use as you level up and obviously each serves a specific role within the squad. You’ll then get the opportunity to tweak his abilities and his appearance. When tweaking, you can’t really stray too far from the parameters of his specialty. A sniper is going to have a high dexterity, for instance. Tweaking your avatar’s appearance however, gives you an impressive array of options. It’s almost like using a police artist’s tools, as you decide where your character’s chin falls between weak and pointed, how battle weary he appears, and the angle of his eyebrows. You can even give him burn scars.
Once created, your character will be thrown into the game’s story and given the opportunity to prove that you’ve understood the tutorial by killing off a few low-level enemies. But once you have done so, you get shown to your base, are given a brief idea of where to start looking for missions and set loose upon enemy. Certain missions advance the plot and are indicated by blinking icons on the regional map screens, but you are free to pursue them whenever you tire of playing random encounters and hunting for better weapons in side missions. There is a bit of restriction to the order that you can play missions in that you have to find clues in early missions to unlock later ones, but that’s just to keep you from getting in too far over your head.
Also around to keep you from being overwhelmed are the crack squadron you assemble at your base. There are at least two characters representing each specialty class to choose from and each have their relative strengths and weaknesses. Each also has a fairly unique personal biography and personality, though they sometimes lapse into cliché or stereotype. Still, I’ve seen movies with less convincing average-Joe-turned-war-hero characters than some of the ones you find in the game. I’m really bad about treating my NPC allies as cannon-fodder, but I found myself becoming attached to some of these characters and restarting some maps dozens of times rather than letting one die.
Partly it’s because of the in-mission dialogue written for them, although the writing is sort of schizophrenic. Sometimes it’s atmospheric and gives you deeper insight into your squad mates, like when you ask the British Engineer to do something particularly onerous and he reminds you that he’s a grandfather. Sometimes it’s fairly witty, like when the same character opines that the Germans "shoot like they bomb – anywhere appears to be satisfactory". Then sometimes it’s corny – "our goose is cooked!" – or downright goofy "good night . . . mommy!". Otherwise, though, the voice acting is pretty good. Astonishingly good compared to JoWood and Encore’s Spellforce, in fact.
Likewise, the graphics and music give that extra bit of polish that keeps you from being distracted by the gameplay, which is of course the star of the show. Like most games of it’s type, Silent Storm uses a gameplay system in which actions are assigned a certain amount of action points and each character gets a certain amount of points to spend during his turn in a combat round. If you haven’t played this type of game before, here’s basically how it works. Your character moves around in real time until an enemy soldier spots him. The soldier initiates combat and spends a few action points to crouch, then a few more to fire a round at your character. The round misses and the turn passes to you. You now get to decide how you will spend the action points allocated to you. Will you crouch and return fire, or dash into the nearby forest and hide behind a tree to reload?
Of course, with five soldiers at your command, you will have to make these decisions six times a round, and wait for both nearby enemy and NPC allies to take their turns before moving to the next round. This method of gameplay is either frustratingly slow because of the down-time involved while waiting for the computer to make its move, or incredibly engaging because of the amount of control you have over your characters ability to react things happening around him. If you get hooked on it, you can easily one-more-round yourself into the wee hours of the morning.