Faces of War

Face front, Soldier. You're going off to war. Again.

While we're selecting levels when preparing to play this Soldiers: Heroes of World War II except-in-name sequel, we notice a small legend in the bottom left hand corner of the screen.

"This level is not 100 percent historically accurate."

And you think "Hmm" then select the first mission in the Nazi campaign. An hour of third-person Commandos-esque action/strategy leaves an allied bodycount upwards of a hundred and fifty (plus several tanks and some big barge thing covered with guns) with total losses on the side of the cheery racist eugenicists low enough so they all could fit into the boot of 4-door hatchback, you think "No shit". Hell, by the time you play some of the allied missions, you wonder why they bothered making the Omaha landings such a big deal. With soldiers capable of producing kill ratios this high, you could have fit a military force capable of reclaiming Europe in a decent-sized dingy.

One of the major criticisms of Soldiers was its punishing difficulty level, and it's a little different this time around. In fact, the developer's somewhat curious desire expressed in our previous preview to allow you to "Just do a few clicks - okay, attack here, attack there - and then you can sit back, relax, and see how your tactics unfold on the battlefield" is certainly there, at least in the early missions in the campaign. The individual AI is smart enough to deal with most second-by-second conflict situations. If you want to sit back and watching a firefight take apart a small village brick by brick, you can.

So easier, but - it should be stressed - not actually just a walk-over. The prime consideration for the more horrified strategists at the idea of these small groups taking on massive armies is that it only flows as a full on brawl on one of the game's difficulty settings - turning onto the higher, more realistic level will demand a hell of a lot more in terms of character management and strategy, turning what can occasionally feel like a terribly posh update of Amiga Classic Cannon Fodder into something more cerebral.

destruct

See that house? You won't for long. The wonders of destructible scenery.

The secondary consideration would be that while a successful mission involves mass death, it's possible to fail. Your troops' survivability, at least in this build, compared to the opposition is akin to the survivability of your character versus your average opponent in an first-person-shooter. Your energy bars are generous, with them surviving some fairly harsh punishment - survivability boosted by medkits and similar if you retreat. The FPS comparisons come into play in the direct control mode of play. At any point rather than dealing with the ordering system you can directly manoeuvre any of your charges, dodging around and deciding where you want them to shoot. This sort of control's ideal for fine detail, and dealing with certain close-quarters battles - and especially when you find yourself in one of the game's many armoured vehicles.

With the survability of the soldiers, you may think the tanks monsters... but it's less than you'd expect. Occasionally it seems a soldier is more survivable than a tank. Tanks blow up and don't heal too easy, while your soldiers always can. While not many things can hurt a tank, what can hurt it takes it down quickly. They are beautifully modeled though - and not just in looks. For example, rather than simply falling to pieces as most games, you can lose a track from a hit, immobilising your vehicle. Having one of your crew get out with a repair kit while under heavy-fire is as stressful as... well, being shot at while trying to fix a tank.

It's this level of detail which continues throughout that impresses. It's primarily a small-squad based game, with you only controlling a unit of troops. However, on some levels, it opens up to forces just shy of a real RTS - and on almost all, there's computer-controlled troops on your side fighting alongside you. The options you can use in a fight are entirely on par (at least!) with something like Hidden & Dangerous - area-suppress fire, holding grenades for a timed release, climbing things, commandeering vehicles, multiple-crew in a tank with less crew leading to less efficiency - but on the larger-scale levels, it feels like an actual battlefield rather than just the special-ops commandos of most games of the type. Similarly, you're given enough detail so if the designers want to, they can cut back and do a traditional Commandos-esque mission of stealth, silent-knifing, spotlight avoidance and mine-disabling.

1939

Not that "the wonders of destructible scenery" was often said in Europe between 1939 and 1945.

There's a couple of issues which stop the excitement growing to Armistice-day shagging-in-the-street levels, however. Firstly is the control system, which moves between elegant and innovative and just a bit clunky seemingly at random. It's a game which relies on either a lot of keyboard short-cuts or menus of icons. The training missions introduce you, but don't actually give any hints (glowing icons, or similar) and once you've skipped past the text there doesn't appear to be an easy way to get back. This makes it a little easy to forget details. For example, presumably there's a way to select your unit leaders without selecting the whole unit, but I must have skipped it in the tutorial. Thankfully, this is stuff which is entirely fixable before release. Even now, that the individual's AI is so competent that it can act intelligently while you work out what to do next - diving away from grenades is especially lovely - means that wrestling with the controls doesn't normally mean losing a man.

Secondly, it's another WW2 game. And as much as this Commandos-which-could-afford-more-extras-and-snazzier-sets game has a feel very much of its own, it is another WW2 game. Examine the comments thread of the previous preview and 90 percent of people note it. Faces of War won't just have to be good to gain our affections. It'll have to overcome people's reticence to storm Berlin again. And while this isn't as tricky as starting a land war against Russia, it's still quite the challenge.

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