Random Games came very close to making a great game with last year's Wages of War. The engine, a detailed isometric view of a battlefield, showed great promise, with its Jagged Alliance meets X-COM style. A fairly clumsy interface, bugs, and a lethally slow pace conspired to ruin this promise, but the same core technology is now back and largely fixed in SSI's Soldiers at War.
Think "X-COM in World War II" and you have a general idea of what Soldiers at War offers. The perspective on the battlefield is a finely detailed god's-eye view of your grunts as they shoot, stab, and explode their way through a series of WWII missions ranging from Sicily to Normandy. All battles cover the European theater in small maps and can be played either in a campaign or single missions. The benefit of the campaign is that you can carry your already-equipped squad from mission to mission and rack up kills. Units gain rank and medals over campaigns, thereby earning more action points.
Each mission has specific goals, and action covers street fighting, building-to-building combat, assault, defense, and special ops. You may, for instance, have to find a map or rescue a trapped unit. Action begins with selection of a squad from a large roster of soldiers, each with varying skills. Some are better shots, while others are tougher, and so on. The unit selection screen is a weak link, since you need to bring up a dossier on each soldier to see its ratings, instead of being able to tell at a glance or scroll through them all. After a squad is formed, it is equipped with a wide array of weapons, including several types of guns, flamethrowers, grenades, knives, and explosives. Medikits, radios, minesweepers, and other tools are also available.
Units move and perform actions in turns, with enemy actions either shown (if they are in your line of sight) or obscured (if not). Units can kneel, crawl, walk, run, shoot, throw grenades, set explosives, reload their weapons, take over tanks, and generally do just about anything by expending combat points. The use of tanks is a bit off in the game: You can hop inside and fire the gun, but you can't drive them around. Plus, not all tanks can be used, which is disconcerting.
Interaction with your soldiers has its strong and weak points. A simple pop-up menu gives you access to all commands, but there is minimal keyboard support. I would much rather play this game without the mouse, but only facing and a few minor interface commands have hotkeys. More annoying is the separate status menu, which obscures almost half of the screen when open. It is unnecessarily bulky and doesn't even have the benefit of including most commands. While this sliding screen does eliminate the need for a framework interface, allowing the game to run full screen, it could have been made more useful.
As a value, Soldiers at War has some hits and misses. The campaign game is too short at 15 missions, and though some extra scenarios and multiplayer-specific maps are included, it just doesn't seem like enough. This is more than balanced by SSI's continued release of missions free on its web site, as well as by the custom mission editor. The editor enables the creation of custom maps and scenarios, and while the interface is a little clumsy and performance flaky (I experienced some palette shifts and crashes), it is a potent tool for extending game life. Four-player Internet multiplay also helps. A bug that prevented the Bulge mission from ending has been fixed in the current patch.
This isn't a realistic WWII tactical sim like Close Combat or Steel Panthers. It's more like a World War II movie, with plenty of dramatic sets and missions (think Aldo Raye in Battle Cry). The combat model will not appeal to tactical wargamers at all, since it is grossly simplified. This doesn't affect the fun factor, however, which is extremely high. Random Games is slowly realizing the flaws in its initial Wages of War design. A more streamlined interface and better keyboard support are still in order, as are faster pacing and larger maps. We can hope Random Games will include some of these refinements in the Warhammer game it's making with the same engine. (And ditch the tacky Clutch Cargo commander intros.)
If you're not looking for a time-intensive, stat-heavy WWII experience, then Soldiers at War is definitely worth a spin. It's attractive, entertaining, and challenging, and while it may lack the depth of Jagged Alliance, it is at least as satisfying as the tactical mode of X-COM.