Just when you thought World War II was pretty played-out as a setting for computer games, along comes Silent Storm, which has enough great qualities that it'll make you happily indulge in yet another game that pits the Axis and Allies against each other. Occasionally in top-secret walking tanks. It's primarily a turn-based strategy game of small-squad tactics, and it plays out like an homage to the cult classic Jagged Alliance 2. Silent Storm features a surprisingly impressive presentation, complete with realistic physics and some of the most destructible environments ever seen in a game, which lead to some very exciting unscripted moments. The game offers a lot of interesting tactical depth, to boot. Silent Storm is unfortunately a little too open-ended for its own good, as the dynamic campaign structure is a little weak, and the game suffers from some noticeable balance issues. However, the core gameplay is so cool that you'll probably be willing to forgive Silent Storm's shortcomings.
Unfortunately, there's no multiplayer mode, but Silent Storm does feature two big campaigns--one for the Allies and one for the Axis--that may be played in any order and at any of three levels of difficulty. The fact that one of the difficulty settings is called "easy" is a bit misleading because even at this setting, Silent Storm will provide a hearty challenge even for an experienced squad-tactics gamer. In any case, the campaigns' stories aren't well told and primarily unravel through the discovery of awkwardly written textual "clues." Regardless of which campaign you choose, you'll get to select or create a main character, who can belong to one of several nationalities and six different classes, like soldier, sniper, grenadier, and scout. After an introductory mission, you'll get to select five additional squad members with whom you'll conduct a top secret campaign throughout Europe and Asia.
Like Jagged Alliance 2 and games such as X-COM: UFO Defense, Silent Storm features role-playing elements in addition to turn-based, tactical combat, which means your characters will gain experience as they fight, find better weapons, learn new special abilities, and become more resilient to damage. At any rate, while it's theoretically possible to replace killed team members with fresh recruits back at base (it's game over if ever the main character dies, though), this is the sort of game that will have you saving and reloading your progress frequently. Not that there's anything wrong with that. For what it's worth, the game is quite forgiving about character death on the easy and normal settings--characters who lose all their vitality points merely fall unconscious, and will recover if extracted from the mission area.
The nuts and bolts of the gameplay are very interesting and represent the best part of the game, along with the presentation. As in many turn-based games, your characters' actions here are governed by abstract "action points." Things like running, aiming, firing, and crouching all require different quantities of action points, and for the most part, this is an intuitive system. For instance, it generally takes more action points for a sniper to draw a bead on an enemy than it does for a soldier to squeeze off a pistol shot. Actually, Silent Storm features a number of different firing modes, so in any given situation, you'll often need to weigh the relative advantages and disadvantages of being able to take a number of relatively inaccurate "snap shots" versus using all of your remaining action points for a single "careful shot." Furthermore, you can even attempt to cripple an opponent by specifically aiming at his head, arms, or legs.
Characters also have a great range of motion. They can run, walk, crawl, move while prone, and they can also lock which way they're facing and can then move backward or side to side without looking away. They can also hop over fences, they can leap out of first-story windows, and more. In short, they can pretty much do everything you'd want them to be able to do, and excellent animations make all these different actions look convincing. You'll need to be careful, though, because your character's movement may be interrupted if he or she stumbles upon an enemy. Your characters can interrupt enemy phases, too, so it's often strategic to conserve action points.
The game seamlessly switches between real-time and turn-based modes depending on whether or not your characters are engaged in battle. All combat is turn-based, and the real-time mode is conveniently there for when no opposition is present. The game's pacing would be excellent were it not for significantly long AI phases both for enemies and any computer-controlled allied characters in the area. Turn-based games, by their nature, are best suited for patient players, but Silent Storm definitely would have had a better feel to it if its turns didn't take so long to resolve. It can be pretty frustrating when your main character gets smoked right at the end of an enemy phase, thus forcing you to reload, retry that part again, and hope the enemy misses the next time around. Partly because of the length of the AI turns, and also because many of the maps are quite big and feature multistory buildings that must be carefully explored, individual missions in Silent Storm can easily last a couple of hours.
When the bullets and grenades are flying, that's when you'll notice Silent Storm's impressive physics engine. Many action games these days use "rag-doll physics," an animation technology that dynamically models how a body might get sent sprawling from a blast like a crash test dummy in a car commercial. Silent Storm innovatively uses this same technique in the context of a turn-based strategy game, and the results are outstanding. When characters are killed in this game, they don't necessarily just keel over, but depending on how and where they are struck, you'll see them react differently. For example, a well-placed sniper rifle round might blow an enemy clear through a window, down a couple of stories, and through a crate. Plus, the body count mounts very high. Expect four-to-one odds, or worse, in a given scenario. The AI isn't completely stupid, either, and it will often try to flush you out or lie in ambush while waiting for you. The occasional civilian characters behave rather strangely, though, and often won't do anything at all when caught in the middle of a firefight.
Everything in the game's environments is destructible. Open up with a machine gun indoors, and you'll see wood splinter, glass shatter, and solid brick dislodge. Toss a high-explosive grenade down a stairwell, and watch as the entire floor collapses out from under you. The damage modeling is quite convincing, looks great, and has a real impact on gameplay. You'll see often silhouettes representing characters that your squad can hear making a racket in the vicinity, so "pray-and-spray" tactics can actually work very well. Why barge through the only doorway to engage a roomful of bad guys when you can just rip the entire wall apart with high caliber rounds?
The physics are very impressive and add a lot to the game, though in what's perhaps an overly realistic touch, a significant enough blast can destroy the part of a building you're trying to get to. If your mission is to retrieve documents on the second floor of a building and a grenade destroys the only staircase, well, it's time to restart that mission. Fortunately, this isn't a serious problem--it's common sense to avoid using high explosives indoors, right? Also, the campaign missions are dynamically arranged depending on which clues you find in earlier missions. As a result, you may find yourself in way over your head in a given scenario, so you may just have to restore a saved game and try another one. Actually, though, Silent Storm doesn't profess to be a realistic game, despite appearances. It has Jagged Alliance 2's goofy sensibility, which is most apparent in the completely silly voice acting heard throughout the game, and your squad members and their foes can normally withstand a surprising amount of gunfire before dying. In fact, the most dependable way to kill a foe in a single turn is to go full-auto on him from relatively close range because rifles and semiautomatic bursts won't always get the job done quickly.
Then there are the Panzerklein. For some reason, the game isn't very secretive about featuring what are basically WWII-era robot suits--walking tanks bristling with heavy firepower. They come into play later in the campaigns, and while their inclusion in a WWII setting is at least an interesting choice on the part of the game's designers, these things can have a way of being a bit too powerful. Impervious to most weapons, the Panzerklein, cool-looking as they are, seem to disrupt the logical progression of the game's action and seem like they're even stronger than they should be. You'd better hope you have access to these deadly machines by the time you run into enemies using them. Certainly, Silent Storm is a challenging game, but things like its occasional balance issues and its lengthy turn-resolution times make some of its challenge more frustrating than rewarding. Nevertheless, this is an open-ended game in which you're encouraged to experiment and try whatever crazy tactics you can imagine, because they just might work.
Furthermore, Silent Storm looks remarkably good, especially for a turn-based game. In addition to sporting a clean and functional interface, the game boasts a great 3D engine that renders surprisingly detailed characters and environments, yet lets you blow everything completely to hell. The game is surprisingly bloody given its Teen rating, and towards the end of a mission, it's not uncommon to see piles of enemy bodies and stacks of their fallen weapons, helmets, and ammunition clips. The action will slow down when the fur really starts flying, but since this is a turn-based game, this slowing down is never really detrimental to the experience. Though the audio is dragged down a bit by the repetitive and ridiculous voice work and dialogue (Enemies say things like, "Good night... Mommy..." when they die), the militaristic musical score is effective, and Silent Storm sounds great overall, thanks to great weapon and environmental effects. It's particularly nerve-racking when enemies open fire on one of your characters who's hiding behind cover, as you'll hear bullets whizzing past and striking each object in the environment with a realistic crash or thud.
Silent Storm features two long, replayable campaigns, as well as an editor for creating your own scenarios or customizing the game rules. Obvious enthusiasm went into this lively game, and the result is simply much more exciting and visceral than what you might expect from turn-based strategy--though you'll wish more of the game's potential was tapped. Nevertheless, the game is so over-the-top and open-ended that the balance issues and rough edges seem acceptable in the context of everything else, and overall, surely this is a game whose strengths outweigh its weaknesses. In particular, Silent Storm is a must-have for those who've enjoyed games like Jagged Alliance 2 in the past.