Only gamers who need to play a WWII real-time strategy every other week will want to bother with Silent Heroes: Elite Troops of WWII. This production of Russia's Dark Fox, available online via Paradox Interactive's Gamer's Gate, is being billed as a stand-alone expansion to 2004's highly regarded Soldiers: Heroes of World War II; however, it plays like more of a quickie knockoff. Extremely hard difficulty, the complete absence of any multiplayer modes, some artificial intelligence problems, and a few bugs mean that it doesn't come close to living up to its predecessor.
Essentially, this game follows a WWII RTS by-the-numbers design. It perfectly follows the template established by Pyro Studios' Commandos series back in 1998. The only difference is that instead of guiding a small force of plucky Yanks and Brits against carefully placed Axis guards, here you guide a small force of plucky Russian soldiers against enemy forces that at times seem to encompass the entire German army. The gameplay leans more toward Rambo than realism. This fact is emphasized from the very first mission, when you send just three of your "elite troops" to blow up a Nazi ammo depot guarded by about 100 of Hitler's finest, a few half-tracks with machine guns mounted on their roofs, an antitank gun, and a bunch of Panzer tanks. You later get to control as many as five and six soldiers per assignment, but both enemy numbers and firepower scale dramatically upward so that you are always facing impossible, Hollywood-style odds. Every mission seems loaded with enemy armor. Don't even consider taking this one on unless you have an extraordinarily high tolerance for loading saves or have a lot of experience with WWII squad-combat games (a recommendation further underlined by the absence of a tutorial in both the game and the PDF manual).
However, there are some amenities that ease the challenge somewhat, at least after you've gone through maps and memorized enemy locations. Enemy AI is about as astute as a sack of hammers, so once you learn a map from an initial run-through, you can establish ambush points and lure the bad guys into slaughters. If you use one soldier as bait and hide the rest of the squad in the trees set on fire at will, you can just sit back and watch enemies sprint into the crosshairs. Even then, the enemies are often so numerous that they'll soon overrun your position. You usually have to adopt hit-and-run tactics and continually fade back into the woods to hide for a while when the heat is on (you're so silent and heroic that you can almost immediately lose yourself in the trees).
Also, as in Soldiers, every vehicle in the game can be captured at least partially intact if you're careful about the amount of damage you deal out. Still, this isn't easy, particularly when it comes to tanks. Your accuracy when tossing grenades is woeful, even from point-blank range. So you often need a sack full of grenades to disable tank treads and do enough damage to force the crew to flee. Occasionally, though, you toss one in the perfect location and blow the tank you were desperately trying to capture to smithereens.
Some quirky control issues make it tough to beat a mission even after you've committed it to memory. A combination of quick game pace once the shooting begins and fidgety icons for targeting enemies and for taking cover make it hard to lock on to enemies in combat and smartly hide in the brush. It's easy to get caught up in battles and accidentally click beside foes, which of course just triggers a movement command and makes your soldier a sitting duck. Soldiers also seem to change posture on a whim, abruptly standing up to toss a grenade or squeeze off a couple of rounds, which makes them easy targets. You can pause and issue orders, slow the speed down when needed, and take full control of an individual soldier with the direct control option, but you have to adjust all of these functions so much during battles that it sometimes feels like you're playing with the interface rather than with the actual game.
That interface is also pretty rough and ready. While Silent Heroes features the role-playing-game style interface common to squad-based WWII games, it quickly becomes irritating because you have to use it constantly. Ammo and supplies, such as bandages and grenades, are very scarce in your default troop loadouts, so you have to eternally scrounge supplies from dead Germans to avoid running dry during firefights. As a result, you can spend more time managing your inventories than killing the enemy.
Other features are about what you would expect from such a budget game. There are no multiplayer modes at all. Once you've wrapped up the 10-mission solo campaign, you're done. The game frequently crashes to the desktop while loading a save. The look and sound are fairly average. Graphics are quite nice for the most part, featuring realistic vehicles and buildings that look like they've really been through a war. But the maps are somewhat jaggy, and all rely on repetitive Western European terrain (farms, copses, muddy dirt roads, and so on) that has been featured in dozens of WWII games. Audio is similarly limited. Just a single voice actor seems to provide all the lines for your troops, which means that your lone female Russian sniper is voiced by a man. All of these lines are also shouted at full volume, so apparently these heroes don't have to be too silent. However, battle effects themselves are suitably bombastic. When you wrap up a tank battle, you really feel like you've wrapped up a tank battle.
Even with its good points and price tag of just $20, Silent Heroes exudes such a "been there, done that" vibe that it's hard to get interested in it. The excruciating difficulty, limited map design, poor AI, and lack of multiplayer make it a tough sell. Even if you are one of the few gamers out there still craving to take on the Nazis in an RTS, there are much better options available.