It's a strange time to look at old turn-based shooters. While we're hardly swamped, the genre has left its dormancy, casting strange shadows on our old sacred cows. Whisper it now: maybe some of those old things we championed for so long aren't all that great?
Fortunately, Silent Storm can ignore such insinuations, as it was never sacred. Its 2003 release by Nival Interactive caused little splash, and it didn't find the legendary status of UFO or the dedicated mod scene of Jagged Alliance 2.
Playing it now, that strikes me as completely unfair.
The setting is an obscure conflict called World War Two, apparently a dispute about whose voice acting was the worst. After picking a side, you create a character and select up to five soldiers from a roster of 20. The detailed biographies of those soldiers are wasted, as aside from their class and voice (which you'll soon mute as they never bloody shut up), they're entirely interchangeable. Unlike Jagged Alliance, there's no real difference between any two characters of the same class, and no strategic layer.
It relies entirely, then, on its tactical combat, and while I could praise the fetching, varied, and detailed environments this takes place in, the truth is that the appeal comes not from admiring but from absolutely demolishing them.
If you never really took advantage of the destructible buildings in UFO, and were perhaps baffled by how passionately some players celebrate them, Silent Storm will convert you. Every bullet leaves a permanent mark, and rarely only one. Everything breaks. Windows crack and shatter all round, furniture splinters noisily as doors are torn apart by gunfire and tables crushed by tumbling bodies. Floorboards are blasted apart, walls gradually fill with holes then give way. Clouds of dust kick up in the wake of huge explosions that rip open entire buildings across multiple floors. You know those WW2 films where the houses and cafés are already bombed out, and lurking soldiers make do with sheltering behind whatever's left? You get to cause that. There's a little faint guilt and horror, but the sheer joy of blasting is simply irresistible, and even for stealthy approaches the tactical benefits are too many.
In contrast to the relatively clean and predictable boardgame-inspired approach taken by Firaxis' XCOM, Silent Storm favours a simulationist approach to shooting. Instead of a binary hit/miss dictated by dice, each shot fired is an entity in the world. A bullet fired at a soldier might hit the crumpled body in front of your prone shooter. It might hit someone next to him. It might put a hole in a door, or go straight through his belly (causing him to reflexively squeeze off a round and topple off a balcony) and shatter a window, then hit a stash of explosives and blow away half the building. I've watched a patrolman take a potshot at my scout and miss, but the sniper I'd hidden behind her was blinded by the ricochet.
To facilitate this, there's a wide array of grenades and guns, any of which can be used by any soldier (classes are defined by perks, not restrictions), plus an interesting system of 'familiarity', wherein they become more proficient with a given weapon with use, so you need not betray your sense of fondness or inexplicable loyalty to a weapon when bigger numbers come along. Unfortunately, what actual effect it has is unclear, and it's both buggy and prone to punishing versatility rather than rewarding a character's practice - familiarity is a zero-sum game, and you'll lose skill with your rifle for every shot of your revolver during that house clearance.
Inventory feeds back to the map, where every item is scavengable, with a unique model and physics when dropped. There are multiple firing stances for pistols, you can see exactly which grenades people are carrying on their armour, and if you zoom in impractically close, people blink.
The detailed demolition is not just for show, either. The AI responds to destruction marvelously, with soldiers effortlessly finding alternative paths through ruined buildings, cheerfully scaling a ruined building to flank a would-be ambusher. The enemy aren't savvy enough to shoot through walls, but they manoeuvre well, and an unwary player might find themselves flanked by a crafty enemy who made use of a hole you made earlier. At times I fear they're better at thinking in 3D than I am, so prone are they to climbing up a building and then halfway down again rather than taking a longer, flatter route.
Your troops can hear enemies moving, which works perfectly with the wall-piercing ballistics. It's something of a wonder the first time a soldier hears someone clomping about on the floor above and you realise you can have everyone blast at the spot from below. It can be everyone, too, as Silent Storm resolves the weird idiosyncrasies of asynchronous action by letting you order multiple units at once. Audio contacts are if anything a little too perfect, effectively letting you see through walls. This is perhaps to compensate for that ubiquitous problem in turn based games: line of sight problems.
Here, Silent Storm frustrates. It's genuinely impressive how well the line of sight calculations deal with the frequent structural changes brought about by all those exploded walls and perforated ceilings. You'll feel clever the first time you kill someone by shooting blindly downwards. Then his friend will see you through the hole and shoot back. A scout running through a factory might report a fleeting peripheral glimpse of a stahlhelm on a distant watchtower, through a second floor window, at night.
But that same scout might enter a brightly lit room facing an enemy whose moustache she could reach out and satirically tug, and see nothing. Which, of course, means a dead scout. And they don't come back. And you only have 21 troops. And on most difficulty settings you can't save the game during combat (this can be bypassed via the console. But that's no excuse, devs!). Most of the time, the line of sight is robust. But when it bugs out, it really bugs out.
There are other bugs too. Characters improve at a slothful pace, while those you leave at base somehow wind up with triple their stats. It's not insurmountable, and modders fixed it long ago, but again, that's no excuse. As for the game's other flaws... well. Two come to mind, and those of you who've played Silent Storm probably expect that they're "goddamn" and "panzerkleins". You're half right.
Midway through the campaign, your commando raids against Allied/Axis troops give way to fighting a third, fictional power hostile to both sides, who field panzerkleins: great clanking robotic suits of armour, impervious to gunfire, with devastating weaponry. Walking tanks. Mechs.
They are dreadful. Even if you accept the sci-fi element they and their complementary energy weapons introduce to an otherwise straight-laced setting, they do something far worse: fighting them is simply No Fun. Even moving the damn things around is slow and annoying, with none of the crawling, sidestepping, climbing, or risky dashes across a street worth a damn anymore. Suddenly this exciting, satisfying tactical game turns into a turgid irritant full of crap that can only be overcome by bringing your own crap to out-crap the other crap. Less subtly: panzerkleins are crap.
There are mods to weaken or remove them. But. That's. No. Excuse.
The other major flaw of Silent Storm is this: the same old collection of frustrating nonsense that comes up in every turn-based shooter. An awkward compromise between real time and turn-based (combat's turn based but reverts to real-time when nobody's attacking, thrusting fundamental gameplay shifts upon you without warning). Elite warriors who throw team-killing grenades like sedated toddlers who hate themselves and life. Stealth and melee options guaranteed to let you within a millimetre of glorious satisfaction and then unfairly kill you. And those infuriating moments where you know for certain exactly where and when the enemy will appear, and set your troops up with their guns jammed in the space where his nostril will be, only for them to stand there doing nothing while he blithely waltzes in, has a little nap, and then wakes up, does some stretches, and merrily kicks everyone to death. Won't someone please fix interrupts, or opportunity fire, or whatever synonym you use for "ridiculous garbage cheating bastard hate this stupid game goddammit" time? Maybe give us some way to, y'know, communicate with our soldiers beyond "stand there" and "shoot that" and "no not that oh Jesus Christ when did I last save aargh".
Every game in the subgenre has these problems to some degree, particularly the simulation-heavy ones, but it seems like few are interested in doing anything about them. It's easy to see why some devs opt for pausable real-time instead (it may invite shrieks of heresy, but "real time with pause" is certainly a valid approach if done with care), but that's avoiding the issue. What Silent Storm represents isn't quite a dead end, but a big step towards resolving the common shortcomings of its peer group that few followed up on. For all my complaints, it's an excellent game that trod a difficult path with admirable grace, and its fields have lain fallow for far too long.