Back in the day when I was but a young lad with a pitiful pocket money budget and before the dawn of the internet, my gaming appetite would be satisfied by magazine cover-mount demos. New games were a luxury and so I would wring every last drop of entertainment out of these demos that I could. A single level demo of Command and Conquer springs to mind, the mission being to destroy a small GDI base, and so having completed it for the 100th time I decided to just make as many rocket men as possible to destroy the final building, a barracks. In a flurry of rocket trails the barracks fell within a second of me clicking it. Soldiers: Heroes of World War 2 is a bit like this situation; except you play the role of the barracks.
Soldiers is about the struggle, not the glory of war, it’s an action RTS game that pits you against seemingly insurmountable odds. Instead of leading an attack you will take command of a failed attack and simply try to keep the survivors alive, it’s gritty, harsh and easily one of the hardest games I’ve ever played. Take the first mission for example, a German occupied town lies ahead of you, scores of troops along with numerous armoured units and artillery guard it. You have to wipe them out with a tank, a light APC and two soldiers. Damn, we’re in a tight spot!
As you can probably imagine from this little description, success in Soldiers relies heavily on strategy, a little luck and repeated quick saves. Success is worth obtaining though as it is immensely satisfying when the tide of battle sways your way, when that high explosive shell finally gets a direct, deadly hit you’ll be cheering over the smoking wreckage.
Despite the emphasis on having a battle plan the game is highly action orientated and there is a large element of chaos in the game that can mean your plans often deviate highly from your small teams intended course.
Your Soldiers are the key to victory, you can have all the armour in the world, but if you don’t have men to put in them they are useless. Tanks are the most formidable sight on the battlefield, their cannons cut down men in seconds, they will destroy the buildings you were using for cover and they take a lot of flack before they go down. To keep them running they need to be fully staffed, positions of gunner, driver, commander etc need to be occupied or your men will have to switch seats to carry out different activities, slowing you down. Your crew will also have to maintain the vehicle with repairs, ammo and fuel, vehicles have full locational damage too, so get a track blown off and you’re a sitting duck.
Sometimes though, vehicles are beyond repair, a wheel might have been blown off or maybe you’re simply out of fuel and can go no further. In which case you can think about borrowing some of the oppositions, that tank you just took out can be patched up and used to your advantage. This magpie like activity is commonplace as you will continually be scavenging for ammo and supplies, every vehicle and soldier has their own gridded inventory and a weight allowance adding an, albeit undeveloped, RPG element.
There is one major innovation in Soldiers and that is the Direct Control feature. You can command your team by standard point n’ click methods, but in the heat of battle this isn’t really accurate enough when your men are such precious commodities. Instead, you can take over a soldier or vehicles actions by hitting a hotkey, then you control their movements with the cursor keys and their fire with the mouse. Suddenly the game becomes Cannon Fodder, but with a slightly more somber vibe.
This kind of control is absolutely vital at times too, I remember once incident where a tank of mine was stranded on top of a hill with a track blown out. I told the driver to hop out and fix it up, as he was carrying out the repairs an enemy troop hidden in some bushes charged in. I instantly took over the repairman, spun him into position while arming a pistol and then fired a few rounds into the attacker before he could react. This kind of speed and accuracy would be difficult to obtain normally.
Detail is a vital component of the way the game is played, and this is mirrored in the game engine. Done fully in 3D, but boasting the kind of attention to detail you would normally expect from a 2D game. Everything looks great; chickens wander though the gardens of French villages, making the long grass shift as they pass through while some washing hangs on the line, blowing in the wind. Then when the battle begins, the mood changes, buildings burn and crash to the ground, glass shatters, dirt is kicked up, blood sprays and men are thrown through the air in some horrible, but glorious looking, explosion. There isn’t a thing in the game world that cannot be destroyed, when the battle is over you can be sure you’ll have left your mark on the landscape.
Soldiers is not without its flaws though. Firstly, the vast detail of the engine means it does perform quite erratically at times, the frame rate can plummet when things get really busy and the cut-scenes that use the game engine for some reason run like slideshows.
There are a few AI glitches too, for instance the pathfinding, I instructed two men to drive an APC to the other side of a trench. Instead of driving across the flat bridge, they decided to drive OVER the trench and ended up upside down in it forcing me to abandon the vehicle. I was also quite disappointed in one mission where I had to stow my men in a German train, I made a run for it, bullets peppering the ground around my team. But then when they actually got in the train the enemy just forgot about them, mission complete. Generally though the enemy AI is good and acts accordingly to your actions, retreating and taking cover from fire and calling in the heavy armour when you are being aggressive.
My major doubt about the game though is the style of play you have to adopt. It is a very hard game and victory comes often through trial and error alongside repeated loading/saving every two minutes. This will frustrate some people I know, but if you can put up with the challenge you will reap the rewards.
One area I think could have been built upon was the way the game is structured; there is a simple, mission by mission progression in place where you take a short campaign for your selected nation. Multiplayer elements are limited at the moment; some co-operative options are available and allow for some very interesting team-work. A multiplayer patch is in the works though that will allow a number of vs. options.
I was fascinated by the aforementioned RPG elements though and would like to have seen a more dynamic struggle, somewhere in-between the grandeur of Total War and the intimacy of X-Com, where you could take your band of survivors to different areas of conflict with whatever equipment you can lay your hands on. Maybe in the sequel.
As it is I found Soldiers to be a breath of fresh air in what is now almost a genre itself, the World War 2 game. Its whole feel is quite unique and I have found it an exhilarating and tense experience with great replay value as well as a very difficult one. If you don’t mind the challenge then Soldiers is a very worthy purchase.
FINAL SCORE: 82%