Silent Storm
Dec. 7, 2003

I recently checked out Silent Storm, a new game (currently available only in Europe, expect it here by early '04 -- but finish this review before you even decide to keep an eye out for it) from Nival Interactive.

Man, did it take me for a ride.  I went from "holy cow, this fucking game is fucking amazing" to "Christ, just another bait and switch."  

Naturally, one reviewer's experience is not necessarily that of another's, and there are an awful lot of glowing reviews popping up on the Internet about Silent Storm (note that some sound like they haven't even finished the game, yet -- you'll know why I say that later in this review).

Let me give you some history on my expectations for this game, and explain why ultimately Silent Storm sucks. But if you want to skip the backstory and get straight to the review, click here.

One of -- if not the -- best video games of all time has to be Jagged Alliance 2.  Let's be clear:  It fit a certain niche, as it was technically a "turn-based, squad-based, isometric, tactical simulation/role-playing."  In it, you are a mercenary character who led a squad, or squads or other mercenaries, fighting with the rebellion to overthrow a brutal dictator of some fictitious third-world country.

The mercenaries you could choose were all unique and asserted their character throughout the game
-- Magic, with his geri-curl afro and parachute pants and silenced Mac-10 submachine gun; Fox, with the sexy voice and ambidextrous shooting skills.  Hell, half the fun was the way the mercs would interact with each other (for example, the prim Buns never got along with the sultry Fox and they would cat fight constantly).

The selection of weapons was awesome
-- a huge range of modern firearms, both NATO and Warsaw Pact, with appropriate ammunitions and variations thereof (armor-piercing, solid shotgun rounds, etc.).  Even mortars entered the late game.

JA 2 was a great deal of fun, from start to finish, but... there was some darkness tinging this silver cloud.

There were two very specific items about the game which annoyed me, which were:

  1. The "Science Fiction" elements.  After you installed the game and started a fresh campaign, you would be prompted to choose whether or not to turn ON the "Science Fiction" elements.  No real suggestion as to what they were.  If turned ON, then after quite a bit of gameplay, you'd discover that they consisted of two things: (1) giant bugs, living underground and swarming various towns to kill civilians and troops, and (2) giant saber cats, doing the same, only above ground.

    You wouldn't be able to avoid them if the sci-fi elements were turned on and you'd be forced to invest a LOT of effort in fighting these things off.  It was pretty fun, and you could have chosen to not do it, but it sure wasn't very accurate or relevant to the traditional "tactical simulation."

  2. The rocket guns.  Oh, the fucking rocket guns.  Now, these should have been excluded by choosing NO to the sci-fi elements, but no.  The rocket guns were magazine-fed rocket-firing rifles.  Compared to the various other weapons in the game (such as the G11 or M1), they did about 100 percent more damage, had about 20-30 percent more range than the best automatic rifles, and actually had a higher single-shot rate of fire than most rifles.

In other words, they were the best gun in the game for about the last 20 percent of JA 2.  And, unlike the giant bugs or saber cats, you couldn't avoid them.  Oh, you could choose not to use them, but that sure didn't stop Deidrianna (the current dictator) from arming her "elite troops" to the gills with rocket guns and sending them after you!

It was pretty goddamn annoying, and most purists like myself just said "fuck it," and left the damn rocket guns on the ground and saved the day anyway, with normal gunpowder and lead, like fucking men!

JA 2 was an almost perfect game for it's time and for fans of the genre
-- but it introduced elements which jarred the experience and left a bit of a bad taste in one's mouth, much like drinking a 40oz malt liquor, which usually doesn't taste very good at all as you swallow the last mouthful.

In any event, so you know my position leading to a review of Silent Storm: Gimme the real.

Silent Storm takes place in Europe in 1943.  You control a team of either Axis or Allied Secret Forces operating throughout Europe.  The two campaigns are more than modestly different, obviously, but they both narrow into the same events towards the end of the game.

Silent Storm is a fully 3D game, polygons and all.  There's only a few other 3D squad-based tactical games, most notably Shadow Company:  Left for Dead and Soldiers of Anarchy.  Like Soldiers of Anarchy, the field of play is dynamic, but in SoA you were limited to destroying buildings and walls
-- the destruction in Silent Storm is much more granular.  Glass can be broken, tables can be shot up, walls can have holes punched in them (or be flattened), and entire buildings can be reduced to rubble.  

SoA focused on vehicular combat; Silent Storm (or S2 as the developers dubbed it) is much smaller in focus, but much richer in detail.  The maps are as simple a setting as a grove of trees -- and as complex as a walled factory with multiple buildings, peaked roofs, basements, offices, catwalks and five levels.  And all of these elements can have holes punched through them, or be destroyed outright.

The strategic import of truly destructible terrain cannot be overemphasized
-- for example, three members of my squad (a scout armed with a submachine gun and two heavy machine gunners, dripping with explosives) had entered a room in a suite of office above a factory main floor.  We could "hear" the footsteps of someone in the other room, and surmised that they were the enemy. Rather than trying to rush through the door to the room, I decided to make use of my firepower.  One machine gunner opened up on full auto and blasted a huge hole in the wall, damaging the enemy hiding behind it -- the other hurled grenades through the hole, and the explosions ripped out the rest of the wall, and blew out most of the floor, dropping the bleeding bad guys onto the next floor.  My scout ran up to the hole and neatly plugged the bad guys and put them out of their misery.  

Of course, it was now impossible to enter the room and get to the staircase it contained, but hey, bloodshed is fun.

The animations of the characters are superb: Whether crouched and creeping, or unslinging a bazooka, they look realistic and switch positions with smooth transitions
-- they never jerk abruptly from running to shooting.  In fact, the only time you'll see them abruptly move about is when they're lifted by a burst of machine gun fire and pinned against a wall by bullets.

The graphical effects are pretty awesome.  Lighting is also dynamic, shadows are drawn in real-time, and even muzzle flashes act as specular lighting sources.  

Nival has also done one thing particularly right -- they leave bodies and debris where they lies.  Nothing makes a victory feel more complete than being able to survey the carnage you've wrought, and seeing the bloodied corpses of the enemy is critical to maintaining the illusion that is immersion.

Now, those of you who can even remember the beginning of this review might be wondering, "Hey King Mongo, if you love the game so much, why the fucking caveat at the beginning of this long-ass article?  When do you start reaming this bitch?"  

Answer:  Right now.

Okay, I've linked the front page of the portal for Silent Storm, and you can see the blurb there.  Notice anything missing?  Not your fault -- after all I'm a professional fucking game reviewer and I missed it, too.  For the life of me, I couldn't find a single reference to Giant Swiss-built Robots with Guns for Arms.  

Now, I did see "Equip your squad with over 75 authentic WWII weapons ranging from commando daggers to hand-held rocket launchers, including experimental and rare models."  I'm not World War II historian, but I'm *pretty darn certain* that nobody had any Armored Robotic Power Suits in World War II, not the Germans, not the Swiss... NOBODY.  

So, imagine my surprise when, after about 12 hours of gameplay, my squad of WWII Axis soldiers were given four freakin' Giant Swiss-built Robots with Guns for Arms as a reward for defending a Nazi facility from attack.  

I was a bit non-plussed, I'll admit -- after days of playing one of the best squad-based tactical games I'd ever seen, with truly "authentic WWII" weaponry, the sudden leap out of "authentic WWII" weapons and into the far-flung future was like being told "you just don't understand the Matrix, man."

Just as in Jagged Alliance 2, suddenly the game balance had completely changed.  I attempted a mission without using the Giant Swiss-built Robots with Guns for Arms, but of course the enemy forces were using them, leaving me with little option.  

Nival Interactive also deliberately choose to balance the the game in such a way that the Giant Swiss-built Robots with Guns for Arms were virtually immune to small-arms fire, as well as heavy explosives.  I spent two hours of REAL TIME with three of my squad running circles around an enemy robot suit.  My team fired Panzerschrek rockets, heavy incendiary grenades, TNT, .50 caliber bullets, and even DROPPED A BUILDING on it, and dealt it almost NO DAMAGE WHATSOEVER.  And there were FIVE MORE ROBOTS to handle afterward.

So I bit the bullet, at first.  I equipped and used the Giant Swiss-built Robots with Guns for Arms for a couple of missions.  The game's dynamic was completely different, unfortunately.  My squad in Power Suits (called "Panzerkleins" in the game) moved at a snail's pace compared to unencumbered.  In a turn-based game, slow movement is a fun-killer.  The Panzerkleins are deus ex machina, absolutely impervious to "authentic WWII weapons," so using them in a mission takes all the fun out of it.

Much of these complaints could simply be issues of preference.  The Silent Storm forums are full of the general argument that either (a) the Panzerkleins were a pleasant surprise and was a fun departure from stodgy WWII-based gameplay, as opposed to (b) the Panzerkleins don't have any place in a game that purports to be a WWII-based game and detract from the WWII experience.  These are both valid arguments, and truly can boil down to taste. They tasted quite foul in my mouth, but hey, I'm just a FUCKING PROFESSIONAL GAME REVIEWER, WHAT THE FUCK DO I KNOW?

In addition, some forum participants have pointed out that interviews with the developers and the forums themselves would have revealed that the Panzerkleins were in the game, and some extracurricular research on the part of a game purchaser would have revealed that there were, in fact, Giant Swiss-built Robots with Guns for Arms in the game, contrary to what history might have to say about it.  Of course, that's a flawed premise, simply because game-developer interviews and previews and such are hardly widely read.

There are two primary irrefutable problems caused by the presence of the Panzerkleins.  Firstly, they slow down the gameplay enormously, in what is already a slow-paced game, even for being turn-based.  

An example:  A typical squad member has 60 movement points. If he is running, each step after the first costs two movement points.  So, he can take 29 steps.  The same squad-member wearing a Panzerklein has 60 movement points, but, each step costs seven movement points, so he can take only eight steps.  

In turn-based mode, that means instead of your squad needing three turns to, say, reach a particular wall from across a courtyard, you'll need 11.  And you'll need to move each squad member individually, you'll have to wait for the animation as your Panzerklein-wearing squad slowly tromps through their turn, and then you have to wait for the enemy to make his moves.  On a big map, with 30 enemies or more, this can take an eternity -- a single turn can take 20 minutes to complete, and the map can take three or more hours, and much of the time is simply watching a progress meter tick down.

Additionally, there is one major bug in the game (other than a few crashes to the desktop and one distressingly corrupted saved game). Here's the problem:  Silent Storm features a destructible environment, as I have already said.  Walls can have holes poked in them, windows shot out, entire buildings flattened (with enough firepower and diligence).  However, this has a cost -- anytime the environment is deformed, you can't move your squad members.  Any attempt to move results in a scrolling error message "Valid Path Not Found."  This will continue for about 10 seconds, after which the squad can be moved again.

Nival had a perfectly logical (although not entirely acceptable) rationale for this. They claim that because the environment has been deformed, the game's engine is regenerating movement paths.  I was willing to accept this explanation until I discovered that if I had a squad member who was in the middle of moving when the terrain was deformed, I could continue his movement immediately after the terrain deformation
-- there was never the "path generation" delay that Nival claimed was mandatory.  

So, it's pretty clear that they were covering up a bug with a logical -- but inaccurate -- explanation.  Or, it could be that they're telling the truth, and the bug is simply that the game engine doesn't complete the path generation process in an expeditious manner.

This makes using the Panzerkleins annoying in the extreme because they're all equipped with cannons and heavy machine guns and laser beams (don't ask) which invariably poke holes in walls or floors.  And the enemy also either uses Panzerkleins, or has troops equipped with laser-beam bazookas (again
, don't ask) and rockets and heavy machine guns which also poke holes in walls and floors.  

So, this bug is constantly manifesting, and this Pro Game Reviewer found himself waiting for interminably long enemy turns to complete, waiting for agonizingly slow Giant Swiss-built Robots with Guns for Arms to finish tromping around, waiting for stupid pathing bugs to run their course, and generally not doing so much game playing as staring at the screen, or mashing my keyboard and mouse in frustration.

Silent Storm has, in the end, an awesome game engine.  Full 3D, dynamic lighting, a largely free camera, fantastic lighting effects, skeletal-models with physics, deformable terrain
-- all that is fantastic.  

Sadly, the game itself is flawed -- an abrupt and disappointing switch in the gameplay dynamic, and bugs which become problematic due to the change in that dynamic.

This is the saddest I've felt delivering a negative game review.  It's agonizing try a new game with an open mind, slowly fall in love with it, and then have it lift up its dress and show you its cock.  

I feel like I've been Crying Gamed.

Mongo's been Crying Gamed before, and not just playing a good game gone bad, if you know what I mean...
Unreal II
Nival Interactive
Apparently, Nival doesn't want you to know the game's system requirements, either. What a bunch of fucking losers.

Post complaints here, preferably with:
I love you." and "I know."

King Mongo | Rants | NA!P

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