Version tested: PC
You've seen it a hundred times before: "the most authentic and realistic [insert topic] experience ever!" We all want that to be true, but know it's just a handy sound-bite to slap on the back of the box. Even with our cynic dials whacked up, we still hope that there's going to be gargantuan amounts of fun attached to all this realism.
Take the 2004 Full Spectrum Warrior; that was pitched in much the same way and came out as one of the most interesting and fun games of the year. Originally conceived as a military simulator for the US Army, Pandemic soon realised that it was actually a really entertaining little urban warfare concept that played out like a puzzle game, as opposed to your typical squad combat affair.
On the face of it, Ten Hammers is an incremental update to the original, sticking firmly to the successful formula with some control and AI tweaks. Once again, you're put in charge of arranging two squadrons of four men around various dangerous fictional Middle Eastern war zones. Like any war game, it's all about eliminating hostiles, taking out key installations, destroying tanks, calling in air strikes, rescuing key personnel, and generally staying alive - you know the drill. But, just as with the original Full Spectrum Warrior, it's very different from the strategic shooter herd. In this case, you never actually take direct control of individual men. You can't even fire a single bullet in anger yourself, but simply point a four-blob formation cursor (also used to good effect in Brother In Arms) to where you want the whole squad to stand, click it, and then sit back and watch them take position, take cover and await further orders. Sometimes you'll get it badly wrong and reel in horror as they all get picked off by a previously unseen sniper, but it's a game that challenges you to plan, cover all options and out-think your foes in ways that few games ever have before.
Although shooting is still important, it's only a small part of the process. Most of the game involves making true strategic decisions that most military-minded games throw out of the window - things like making the best use of cover at all times, directing a fire sector for everyone to aim at, outflanking the enemy, lobbing frag and smoke grenades, flushing out Tangos and moving on until you reach your objective way point - real strategy moulded into a real-time action game. At no stage do you ever do the shooting, but all the while you effectively act as tactical commander and give the word as to where and when they point their weapons - a guiding hand placing and shifting the pieces in a fascinating game of war chess.
The original had some basic limitations, though - some of which conspired to make it feel like a brilliant work-in-progress concept that hadn't been fully implemented. Some have been partially addressed in Ten Hammers, others not at all, while some all-new ones have been thrown into the mix to make the game possibly more realistic but definitely far less fun than the charming original.
On the plus side the game doesn't exclusively take place out of doors now, and you can enter buildings to get the sort of vantage point your enemies routinely enjoy - albeit only some of them - but it's the most minor concession to progress possible. The vast majority of the time you'll still curse as enemies pour out of buildings with doors left ajar that you can't enter (explained away as 'Safe Houses' with swords on the door that you must destroy in order to stop the respawning - I ask you), and spit fury at enemies stationed on rooftops that you can't get anywhere near. Worse still, the buildings you can enter generally just give the AI another opportunity to seal your doom thanks to some depressingly psychic AI which manages to get the perfect bead on you the instant you happen to stray past an open window - even though it's obvious that they wouldn't have been instantly aware that an enemy was about to appear.
And while it's perfectly believable that the urban war zones of the Middle East are all based in flat environments (without, ahem, having done our research on that), it means the entire game takes place in non-undulating zones - a limitation of the creaking engine more than anything. Could it be that the game simply wouldn't work as well if it were placed in more varied locations?
Even so, the game's engine still has serious difficulty in making the combat look anywhere near as convincing as it should. In just the same way as the original, Ten Hammers still has us believe that enemies are capable of showing half of their entire torso and still, apparently, be in full cover and therefore impervious to a hail of bullets and the blast of a grenade. Similarly, the AI can be exceptionally dim witted on regular occasions, with your squad glacially slow to react to a dithering foe that's busy bumbling fully exposed between cover points. At other times they pull off amazing feats of marksmanship, leading to a combat experience that's so inconsistent that it soon ceases to be amusing.
Ten Hammers tries to make the combat more involving by adding new layers of control. For example, each member now has the ability to go into a Precision Firing mode so that you can gain a more precise level of command over each squaddie. As soon as you enter this mode, the camera switches to an over the shoulder view, and a big cursor appears in the middle of the screen. After a second or so, a red dot appears on your target to let you know you're locked on, at which point you can successfully carry out the order. Working rather like the shot system in popular golfing titles, the curved indicator in the bottom right of the screen begins to fill up to give you a visual warning of how exposed you are. Pull off the command before the bar fills and you'll evade enemy fire, but wait too long and you'll enter the agonising slow-mo view of your soldier being shot. Each soldier has a slightly different specialist Precision Fire mode, so your Team Leader has the ability to snipe from afar, while the Automatic Rifleman has suppress abilities, and the Grenadier can fire off an M03 grenade and take out the annoying gits lurking in faraway windows. Occasionally you'll even get Laser Sighting to call up an Apache chopper to deliver a powerful airstrike.
The problem is, Pandemic still wants to wrestle combat control away from players wherever possible, and stops tantalisingly short of allowing you to click the trigger by implementing a system where it's more about the timing and direction of the command itself than the action. By doing so, combat feels clumsy at times, and you'll inevitably find yourself falling victim to a catalogue of one-hit-death scenarios. The margin for error in these Precision Fire situations is incredibly tight to the point where a split second delay makes the difference between success and failure, and the blame here comes from a fascist health system that assumes that one bullet equals instant incapacitation. Sure, you can potentially drag them back to the Casevac once you've cleared up, but doing so is a time consuming bore. Like we said, it might be realistic, but is it fun? All we really wanted to do was administer a medipack and get the hell on with the game.
And the reason for resorting to the risk-taking Precision Fire a lot of the time is that you'll really struggle to pick off enemies using the old fashioned methods of the original game unless you do. Making good use of cover just isn't enough any more when you're facing an enemy so entrenched that you're relying on some crazy AI behaviour to squeak by. With only four frag and smoke grenades in your arsenal, you can't rely on changing cover and flanking tactics alone - especially when the penny drops that every single level is designed to test you every step of the way. We definitely welcome a more aggressive enemy that acts to flank you, but in Ten Hammers' case it's not dynamic, intelligent flanking, it's actually scripted to the extent that you can clear an entire area, take up a theoretically safe cover point only for two enemies to appear either side of you and cap you before you've even had a second to react. By forcing the player into a tough memory game, you end up making progress via quite torturous trial and error sessions that can take hours.
Part of this is down to the inability to quicksave, part is down to the one-hit-kill health system, and another is the fact that the very mechanics of the game don't make it conducive to responding quickly. In a typical third-person shooter you'd be able to duck and dodge immediately, take a small amount of damage and respond in kind. In Ten Hammers it's Game Over before you've even had a chance to shift the camera around to see what's shooting at you. And if you don't believe us, check out some of the US forums, where the over-riding theme is "why is this game so much harder than the original?" We asked ourselves the same question on the several hundred occasions we died. The other question we asked repeatedly was "is this fun?" and the conclusion we came to every time was "it isn't."
Admittedly, there are some more advanced moves that can help you outwit the enemy, but the game makes little effort to explain them or reinforce them to the player. Once the tips are gone it's too easy to forget them, and arrive either too early in the game, or inexplicably late on. Things like the ability to 'Hot Move' gives your squad an inexplicable extra degree of awareness so that, for example, enemies stationed above you don't come as a surprise - but you're told about it several hours in. The 'Scout' move is pretty useful too, allowing you to send someone running ahead to check a location for enemies before the team arrives - but, again, Pandemic makes no effort to fully explain the potential usefulness of this order. Likewise, the ability to split your squad up into Buddy Teams is merely touched upon right at the beginning at a time when you've barely learned the basics. It's one of those things you've always got in the back of your mind to use, but one that is risky, given the advantage of having four men all firing on a section at once, and something you'll not want to experiment with when you know that if you die, there's ten minutes of careful planning to run through again.
On paper, almost every single one of Ten Hammers' new ideas is good in theory, and should make the experience a more authentic-feeling one, but somewhere along the line the fun that flowed out of the original has been drained away by over-fussy psychic AI, an unforgiving health system and the need to constantly take risks in order to take out entrenched enemies. All of those things lined up together make it a real chore to pick through the 12 levels and leave you wishing for the idle refined simplicity of version 1.0. Ten Hammers feels more like version 1.5, with the legacy of some of the original's flaws, designed by people who believe that maker a game more 'challenging' makes it better. It doesn't. We realise some people prefer their games to really test them to the limit (in which case you'll love this), but for the mere mortals among us, this takes things way too far in the other direction.
And given that the gameplay is a V1.5-esque progression, it's hardly a surprise that it's also weighted down by a creaky-looking game engine that struggles to render environments to an impressive strandard. As early as the second level entire chucks of scenery disappear and pop back in before your eyes, while even minor items pop up on the ground on the game's highest detail settings. There are a few minor concessions to physics, with scaffolding disintegrating and degradable cover points, and some nice incidental touches, like birds flying through the sky and suchlike, but it can't mask the ageing character models and their lack of animation. Even the texturing is distinctly last gen, making its old gen console roots very apparent. No wonder it's not being released on 360.
In multiplayer terms, the old co-op mode returns to allow you to take on the campaign with a buddy controlling one of the two squads, but the main thing of interest is the competitive multiplayer mode for up to eight players. As expected, it's the US (or Coalition) versus those bad old Insurgents across eight distinct scenarios, giving you the chance to play on one side of various conflicts (for example, the US vs. Mujahideen or Al Ra'id, or the Coalition vs. Mujahudeen, etc). Played in a similar fashion to the main game, the US forces operate in fire teams and have the better arsenal, but have to cope with the superior numbers of the the insurgents who operate alone and can hire NPCs along the way. The general idea is to protect/attack key items or locations, such as Radio Towers, ammo stockpiles, bombs and the like, though this mode ends up feeling not dissimilar to the main game. Whatever the premise, it's never that thrilling in practice with much of the action based on second guessing where your enemy is likely to appear and struggling to overcome the control limitations inherent in FSW. Give us direct control any day.
After having a lot of fun with the original, we were really looking forward to Ten Hammers. But right from the word go it takes a backward step by trying too hard to (ulp) be authentic and realistic, introducing some shonky control elements that never quite work and almost completely overlooking the fun aspect that was there in spades last time around. It goes without saying that military combat is a highly dangerous business, riddled with uncertainty, but demonstrating that in a videogame has to be done so with the player's enjoyment as the priority. As soon as you let the game's own AI rule the roost, you've created a recipe for a frustrating experience that takes more dogged determination that all but the most patient, saintly player has to invest in a game. Ten Hammers isn't a terrible game by any means, but it's a potentially great game ruined by a few questionable design decisions that make it feel more like work than entertainment. Unless you like gaming masochism, you'll be screaming along with us, wondering how the normally reliable Pandemic got it so wrong this time.
6 / 10