The past few years have seen no shortage of games based on World War II. Sometimes it seems as if every other product by a European developer is a WWII-based strategy game. Despite adding to an already saturated genre, Soldiers: Heroes of World War II distinguishes itself with attractive graphics and challenging gameplay, which is an interesting hybrid of strategy and action. The game's level of challenge often borders on being punishing, but fans of tactical strategy games will find that the effort is worth it.
Soldiers is in some ways reminiscent of the Commandos series, but the scale and nature of the battles you fight make it a little more comparable to a real-time version of this year's Silent Storm. You can control your troops in standard real-time strategy fashion by selecting, pointing, and clicking. The context-sensitive controls do a good job of letting you position troops smartly behind cover and corners, jump fences, or take over vehicles and fixed-gun emplacements. Where Soldiers distinguishes itself is that it lets you take direct control of individual soldiers or vehicles, using the mouse to aim weapons and the arrow keys to move and steer. While this is presented as an option, it is, in fact, a necessity, because directly controlled troops are infinitely more efficient than the ones you order around more indirectly.
One of the more impressive aspects of Soldiers is its gameplay engine. The fully 3D engine makes few compromises in presentation, and it features detailed unit models for both infantry and vehicles. Soldiers can run and crawl or hide inside of buildings. You'll see them unsling guns from their shoulders before firing and smoke cigarettes (with wispy puffs of smoke) when they are standing around. If they're garrisoned in a structure, you'll see them break the window before firing out from it. Tanks offer fully articulated turrets and cannons, and the game's dozens of vehicles are accurately modeled in speed, loadout, and weapon power.
Soldiers' artists and animators have done a great job of giving the game a varied look--especially with regard to death and destruction. Wheels pop off of armored cars, turrets snap off of tanks, and you'll see vehicle crews bail out of their crippled vehicles that are on fire. Shoot a guard out of a tower and he'll fall from it like a movie stuntman. Toss a grenade into a garrisoned house and you may even see a dead soldier fly out of the window from the blast. See enemy vehicles parked in a fuel depot? Fire a high-explosive round into the gas cans and you can set off a chain reaction of explosions that destroy all nearby vehicles and level neighboring structures.
The environments in the game's large maps are also well detailed. Towns have dozens of buildings and houses, which can be explored and garrisoned by infantry. Foliage is plentiful and interactive. Troops can crawl in tall grasses or hide in bushes. Tanks and other vehicles can knock over trees and even plow through stone walls. In fact, you can level just about any building in the game if you have the right firepower, which adds to the strategy. About the only thing holding back the game in the graphics department is that the engine is fairly slow. Frame rates drop precipitously when there are too many troops and vehicles onscreen, and in-engine cutscenes look as awkward as a slide show. As for sound, the game's sound effects and music are pretty good, but it's not anything exceptional for a game of this type.
The detail put into the graphics extends to the gameplay. Each soldier and vehicle has an inventory, and every class of weapon has unique ammunition and accurate magazine capacities. In just about every mission, you'll find yourself discarding empty weapons and scavenging dead bodies for new ones. You can even remove the machine gun from a tank or other armored vehicle and carry it around. The game includes more than 100 weapons from the US, German, British, and Russian arsenals, ranging from handguns and submachine guns to grenades and antitank rifles.
Vehicles play a huge role as well. In missions where you don't start with one, it's possible to disable an enemy vehicle, repair it, and then use it to protect yourself against the enemy. Is your armored car out of gas? You can pick up a barrel of fuel and refuel it, and you can even siphon gas out of other vehicles. Your tank is out of shells? Head over to that destroyed Sherman and scavenge the cannon rounds out of it. Vehicles are even modeled with the number of crew members in mind. Most tanks, for example, work most efficiently with a driver, a gunner, a loader, and a commander. It's possible to crew it with just two (a driver and a gunner perhaps), but then you won't be able to turn the turret while reloading, as the gunner has to reload the gun himself. Try to crew a tank with one and you won't be able to even move the tank while reloading.
All of these details sound great on paper, but where Soldiers starts to fall apart a bit is in the mission design and control aspects. The game comes with 30 missions in total, spread out over four campaigns (Russian, British, US, and German) in a set of stand-alone missions. In just about every case, you're presented with seemingly impossible odds to overcome. The very first mission of the Russian campaign asks you to assault a town fortified by about 100 German infantry, a half-dozen 88mm antitank guns, and about a half-dozen or more tanks. Your attack force: one light tank, one armored car, and two additional infantry beyond the six crewmen in the two vehicles. Thankfully, you don't face that opposition all at once, and there's no fog of war in the game, which theoretically allows you to see everyone and everything from any point on the map. But even with those advantages, just about every mission in the game will be a stiff challenge, with long odds to overcome. Expect to reload missions many times over as you explore different approaches. Once you've found a viable route, you'll also find yourself quick-saving frequently. Players with little patience may find Soldiers to be frustratingly difficult at times (the presence of multiple difficulty settings does little to alleviate this), but those with more determination will find the game pretty rewarding once they've figured out a viable solution to a mission.
The control issues stem from the difficult odds you always face and the fact that the game basically forces you to directly control at least one vehicle or soldier at all times. That being the case, it's tricky to try to be in several places at once, managing infantry on the left flank while checking on a machine gunner in the center and also keeping an eye on your tanks on the right flank, and things like that. In some missions, it's actually easier to get by after a few of your soldiers are killed, so you can concentrate on controlling just one vehicle or a couple of troops. The game does include options to pause and issue orders as well as to trigger a slow-motion feature, which can help you deal with particularly overwhelming moments. But overall it's still very difficult to keep tabs on having to control two or more different sets of troops.
As for multiplayer modes, the game was originally supposed to include a head-to-head deathmatch feature, but only a cooperative mode ships with the game. You can play any of the campaign missions and most of the stand-alone missions in co-op mode with up to four players. Each player is assigned his or her own troops and vehicles at the outset, and troops can be transferred to other players as well. Unfortunately, there doesn't seem to be a proper online matchmaking function--a rudimentary direct IP connect is all that's included, but you should be able to browse LAN games easily at least. At any rate, playing through Soldiers' missions cooperatively can theoretically help resolve some of the issues of trying to manage your forces all alone in the single-player mode.
Overall, Soldiers: Heroes of World War II is a very good game that should appeal most to hardcore strategy fans, due to its intricate gameplay and great presentation. However, others may be put off by the game's difficulty, which can make missions seem like trial and error at times, or by the control scheme, which can make for some frantic scrambling with the mouse and keyboard. For those undaunted by these issues, there's a lot of solid gameplay to be found in the game's dozens of tough scenarios. So, if you're a strategy fan who's not tired of the WWII setting yet, and you're looking for a challenging game, Soldiers: Heroes of World War II should fit the bill.