Most memorable scene in '60s war epic, The Longest Day? Probably the one where the US paratrooper, snagged on a French church tower, watches helplessly as his buddies fight for their lives below - observing a brutal yet engrossing WWII drama from a lofty vantage point. A perfect metaphor for the experience offered by the excellent Ukrainian-made RTS Soldiers: Heroes of World War II, if it wasn't for that 'helplessness' element.
In Soldiers, the reason that trooper down there just collapsed in a haze of crimson blood is because you exposed him to merciless MG-42 fire by sending him into the street to retrieve a dropped bazooka. The reason why, seconds ago, that halftrack slewed to a stop in front of the cafe, disgorging panic-stricken, flame-wreathed passengers, is because you ordered a Molotov cocktail to be thrown. The Normandy heifer that's now a shower of beef chunks and bone? Your AT gun. Your wayward gunnery. You did it.
If there is a hint of helplessness it's in those marvellous moments when Soldiers' fabulous physics, rich environments and imaginative AI produce such totally unpredictable results, you can only look on in amused dismay. More on such incidents later. First, let's strip this super little submachine gun down to see what it's made of.
Well, there's plainly a lot of Commandos here. The personal inventories, the low headcounts and stealth flavour of many of the 30-odd missions all have a whiff of Pyro about them. The choice of locations and the care and naturalism with which the maps have been dressed is also reminiscent of the Spaniards' best work. Swimming between sweeping searchlight beams, en route to sabotage a pair of coastal guns; slithering through shrubberies and veg patches on the way to a railyard rendezvous; the closeness is uncanny. But the differences are significant too. You've got that extra spatial dimension for a start. Then there's the complete absence of distraction techniques, vision cones, or corpse dragging which make avoiding detection far more hit-and-miss than in the Commandos series.
The relatively simplistic skulking would be more of a problem if Soldiers didn't also have a size 12 jackboot in the Blitzkrieg/Sudden Strike RTS camp. Sweep away the sentries and the shadows, replace them with grunts, militant maisonettes, and coils of barbed wire and you see a whole other side to this glorious game. Best Way's pitched battles might be on a smaller scale to their Fireglow and Nival equivalents, and have much less aerial and artillery involvement, but they have a level of detail and cinematic intensity that's unmatched in the genre.
Did you ever weather Silent Storm, employ Fallout Tactics, or join the Jagged Alliance? These games - all absorbing in their own way - take ballistics seriously and model the destruction of their combat environments with painstaking care. Soldiers does the same. Nudge a tree over with a tank and it won't hit the deck and disappear. It'll stay where it fell, functioning as cover and obstacle. The same goes for rubble and wreckage. When a Panther flips 20 metres over a hedge into a corn field, seconds later two troopers are tucked-in behind it.
With no first-person view, assessing cover in this deliciously dynamic environment could have been a nightmare. Best Way have got round this fairly elegantly with a simplified system of cover slots highlighted when the cursor moves over them. This also applies to vegetation, ensuring player-controlled personnel are always effectively exploiting the terrain.
All too often tactics in a WW2 RTS are determined by the game's line-of-sight approach rather than military doctrine. Soldiers is far better than most of its peers in this respect, with no silly sight radii or landscape-obscuring fog-of-war. Although fans of Close Combat hoping for a 3D successor won't like the stunted tank-gun ranges (Or the lack of morale, hull MGs, mortars and flamethrowers - Grognard Ed). It might be impossible for a crack-shot panzer gunner to put a hole in a scurrying T-34 at 2000 metres but the modelling of bullet and shell trajectories at closer ranges is impressive. Fire a burst from a bren at a distant target and the slug spread can wound enemies, shatter windows and molest masonry metres from the aim point. It's the kind of firefight realism more usually associated with the FPS rather the RTS. Which brings us rather neatly to Medal of Honour, Call of Duty, and any other shooter that knows one end of a schmeiser from the other. Soldiers, understanding that it's more fun to pull a trigger or a grenade pin in person than to order it done with a mouse click, introduces 'direct control'. Directing individual tanks and infantry units with cursor keys while simultaneously aiming weaponry with the cursor is not only fun, it's dashed useful too. Need to manoeuvre a Sherman into a tight spot without demolishing the surrounding scenery? Quite feasible, thanks to this feature.
The stamp of CoD and MoHAA can also be seen in some of the visual flourishes and AI behaviours that help make the mayhem in Soldiers so memorable. A burst of automatic fire stops a sprinting GI in his tracks, jerking his head back, ripping the helmet from his skull. A comrade caught in the same lead storm switches direction and dashes for the cover of a nearby pillar. Then he pops his head out and gives his tormentors a taste of the BAR he carries.
With only one multiplayer mode - co-op - (a deathmatch-style game will be added via a patch) and no skirmish engine, a lot rests on the quality of the four linear campaigns and half-dozen single scenarios. Thankfully episodes are imaginative, varied, and highly replayable. Less commendable is an uncomfortably constrained camera set-up (when the action is this vivid, why can't we get closer to it?) and an unnecessarily fiddly task system (fixing tanks, for instance, is stupidly convoluted).
Closing the review with these minor complaints would be unjust; therefore permit me one more battle anecdote to - hopefully - cement your purchasing resolve. An hour ago in an urban scrap, I was hanging onto a tenuous defensive position by the skin of my teeth when around the corner appeared a Panther pushing before it - by some splendid fluke of physics and pathfinding - its own extra layer of forward AT protection: a mangled car wreck. Brilliant.
Soldiers: Heroes of World War II is out now for PC