An alternate version of this article, with pictures, can be found here.
Title: Silent Storm ™ (working title: Codename: Silent Storm)
Developer: Nival Interactive
Publisher: JoWooD Productions / BigBen Interactive / Encore Software
Date Published*: November 2003 (UK), 20th January 2004 (US)
Platforms: PC CD-ROM
ESRB Rating: M

*The game was possibly published a few months earlier in Russia.

Silent Storm is a turn-based tactical combat game set in World War II Europe, the latest game from Nival, the colossal Russian development studio previously responsible for Etherlords and Blitzkrieg. It casts the player as the leader of a crack special forces squad, specialising in intelligence-gathering and subversive operations. The game includes two campaigns (Axis and Allies).

In many respects Silent Storm closely follows the conventions laid down by the 20th Century leading lights of the genre (Laser Squad and the X-Com and Jagged Alliance series). The player controls a small squad of soldiers, each with their own skills and abilities. The squad is dropped into a geographically small mission zone (usually just expansive enough to contain a handful of large buildings) and given a set of objectives (capture a spy, steal some documents, assassinate an enemy officer, etc.) to carry out as they see fit. The turn-based nature allows for control of several characters without the need for superhuman reflexes (compare the Commandos series).

World War II in colour

Nival's main goal with Silent Storm was to reinvent an aging genre using up-to-date technology and design concepts. Apart from the obvious aesthetic enhancements introduced by using polygonal 3D graphics, the technological overhaul has also had a profound effect on the gameplay, introducing a much more richly realised simulation than was possible with the technology available in X-Com's day.

The game uses a fully-realised 3D representation of the playing area, viewed from an isometric perspective. The player can pan, zoom and rotate the camera to get a better view of the scene. Buildings and structures can be 'cut away', allowing the player to see into each storey. (The game features buildings of four or more storeys, such as church towers, and there can also be one or more basement levels under the ground.) The engine uses a fairly robust Level of Detail system (based on View Independent Progressive Mesh technology, graphics fans) to maintain a steady framerate, which proves invaluable considering the extreme complexity that can result from busy scenes.

Anyone who has played any of Nival's previous games can know what to expect in terms of visuals - that is to say, really good things. Rich, vibrant colours, beautifully subtle particle effects for flames and smoke, swaying trees, dynamic lighting, authentic period detail, uncannily life-like animation, and a logically-laid out interface are all aspects of Silent Storm's visual design that could merit pages of elaboration. The first time I saw an early build of the game, I assumed that the characters were pre-rendered sprites, which I think speaks for itself.

You're only supposed to blow the bloody doors off...

Where things really start to get interesting (in terms of gameplay, rather than just eye candy) is the destructibility of the environments. Buildings and structures are not simply static, indestructable models. It is possible (using explosives and bullets) to blow arbitrarily-shaped holes out of walls, ceilings and floors. Bullets can pass right through thin wooden doors, and concentrated machine gun fire can gouge chunks out of brick walls. Rooves and upper floors can collapse if they have insufficient support (for instance, if all the lower storey windows are rigged with dynamite and a landmine is placed under the doormat). Bushes, fences and railings can be smashed apart to flush out enemies using them as cover. As you can imagine, interactive scenery such as this allows the player to concoct their own plans to reach their objectives, based on the equipment they have to hand and their prefered playing style.

Thankfully, the soldiers under the player's control are a limber bunch, and are capable of picking the best route through swiss-cheesed buildings without getting stuck. This is thanks to highly reliable path-finding, as well as a broad range of available movements (lifting themselves through holes in ceilings, climbing through windows, crawling through low spaces, etc.) which are stitched together on the fly using Inverse Kinematics (ensuring that, for instance, feet don't float above stairs and guns don't get pointed through walls).

Another area where the developers have been able to go to town (due to the relatively low computational requirements of a turn-based game) is the physics simulation. As should be expected, this includes ragdoll physics for dead bodies, allowing them to be thrown around by explosions, and also to swing about realistically when carried (brought into play when the squad must knock someone out and carry him away for interrogation). Dropped and thrown objects roll to a halt under the same physical rules (a fact that opens up a number of possibilities). Projectiles are simulated with painstaking accuracy. Every material has a different penetration value. Bullets can ricochet off of hard surfaces, or even pass through several walls (and people) before coming to a halt.

Stupid boy

Nival have used this virtual sandpit to recreate a huge variety of weapons and items. There are dozens of kinds of rifles, pistols, machine guns, explosives, melee weapons (including samurai swords) and heavy weapons, along with a bewildering array of ammunition types. There are also special items such as lockpicks and mine probes, as well as an assortment of medical items from painkillers and bandages to bullet-extraction kits. A soldier can perform medical actions on themselves or on team-mates. Unlike Jagged Alliance, wounded soldiers are still able to move (although they might have reduced action points, sight, hearing or accuracy), but conversely a soldier can never be permanently killed in battle - if a soldier loses all their health points, they simply drop their weapons and become unconscious until the next mission. (MightyMooQuack informs me that characters can be permanently killed, if their health goes far enough into the negative - with the required amount depending on the difficulty level.)

Silent Storm uses technology licensed from a company called Lifemode to give all the human characters in the game a unique physical appearance. This system allows the player to modify all aspects of their avatar's face (including gender, age, ethnicity, shape of features, hairstyle and colour, eye colour, glasses and distinguishing features). Their clothing and voice is determined by the character class and nationality chosen. The player can recruit up to six additional soldiers (from a pool of around 20 for each side), all of whom are predefined characters with their own backgrounds, nationality, specialisations and voice acting. Unlike Jagged Alliance or Midwinter, there are no characters that cannot be teamed with each other. It would have been nice to be able to generate several characters from scratch instead of just the main one - the possibility of network or hotseat games where everyone has their own 'personalised' soldier would have been interesting, albeit perhaps a bit impractical.

All of the characters in the game have a chosen profession (although it is possible for any character to learn some skills outside of their own class): Soldier, Medic, Sniper, Scout, Engineer and Grenadier. Each character has a full compliment of stats that can be raised through experience in the field. Each character also has a skill tree that allows skill points to be traded for bonus abilities (such as improved aiming, better awareness, etc.). Characters can be kitted out from an equipment pool at headquarters, and additional items and weapons can be looted from enemies or found stashed in the mission zones. Generally, characters become more effective with a given weapon the more often they use it. There are no wearable armour items.

The campaigns are made up of two kinds of missions. There are scripted missions that advance the plot (which need to be tackled in a more or less linear order, as events and information in one will result in the unlocking of the next), and (entirely optional) randomly generated missions that can be engaged in between scripted missions to gain equipment and experience.

In spite of the game's mechanical realism, the setting is not bound very closely to historical fact. The central premise is that a secret society (Thor's Hammer) is trying to manipulate both the Axis and the Allies to further their own goals. The designers have zealously embraced the convenient devices of 'experimental weapons' (see also Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe) and 'alternate history'. Later in the game squad members and their enemies get to pilot mechanical suits called Panzerkleins (á la Sakura Wars), and wield lasers and other outlandish weapons. Yes, really.

For you Tommy, ze var iss over

Silent Storm has some shortcomings. The voice acting is the usual nonsense, complete with some alarmingly bad accents (such as the Scottish grenadier who seems to be based on Groundskeeper Willie - "Take that, ye bugger!"). The plot (or justification for the missions) is fairly skeletal. The randomly generated missions (with only a limited range of basic maps) quickly grow stale. The AI can fluctuate between extreme sneakiness and DooM-like stupidity. Strangely, there is no multiplayer option of any kind (play-by-email would have been good enough).

All of these are minor issues though. The game is based on a sound idea that addresses a clear gap in the market. It's extremely deep, rewards skill and ingenuity, and offers the player a huge amount of freedom. I'm sure I've left out a great many of the ideas in the game that deserve a mention - rather like Grand Theft Auto III or SNK vs. Capcom this isn't so much a simple game as an exhaustively long and well-vetted feature list. The game also features an open architecture and comes bundled with a level editor.

Due to a general lack of promotion and lacklustre publisher support, the game didn't make much impact on the print magazines. Since its recent North American release, more online reviews are giving the game decent marks. A mission pack (Silent Storm: Sentinels) is currently in production. Hopefully, this add-on (perhaps bundled into a Gold Edition with the original game?) will go some way to giving the game the exposure it deserves.

http://www.silentstorm-online.de/


Sources

The game, its user manual, and the original design document.

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