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.