Another day, another squad tactical WWII combat game. Soldiers: Heroes of World War II is the game that Squad Assault: West Front should have been, visually, except that Squad Assault had a leg up in the gameplay department. If war is supposed to be hell, then Soldiers emulates war in a fashion that makes you wish you were one of the footmen slaughtered in a battlefield scrum.
Soldiers covers the perspectives of four different factions during WWII: Russian, UK, USA, and German. Each faction has its own set of missions, totaling 30 in all, and many are based on key historical events. It’s a decent spread of duties and does a good job of portraying the unique strategic impediments on each side of WWII; Russia with its continual press to stem the German tide into the Eastern front, the USA playing out the most well-documented battlefield stories already told, etc. As would be expected, the missions are largely set up with the odds stacked against the player, though it does switch up a bit between careful forward assaults and covert missions requiring no detection by the enemy. In addition to the campaigns, there is also a set of Bonus Missions of increased difficulty. Multiplayer over LAN and IP hosting is also available, but for the reasons that follow at length, frustration with the game is not something you generally want to experience with other people whom you consider friends.
The basics of the gameplay teeter precariously between very thoughtful, tactical approaches and the frenetic reactions in tight situations. Unit numbers and types are limited to those chosen (“purchased”) by the player before each mission. The problem is that there’s not a whole lot of good reaction in soldiers or vehicles. Movement across the completely accessible maps, showing the placement of enemy and allied units, is an exercise in twitch management, which is about as much fun as learning to drive a stick shift vehicle for the first time. Much of this is due to the context-sensitive action icons that appear when certain locations or items are moused-over. Instead of soldiers finding the most direct possible route from point A to B in a fashion that would exude some sense of self-preservation, you have to account for obstacles in their path all the time, like fences or water. The context-sensitive actions show icons that allow the soldiers to leap the fence or swim in the water, but you must constantly instruct them to execute these natural maneuvers, and this is not generally the best way to spend time moving essential and very limited battle units around. This all could have been a very enriching command structure, but is so erratic and inconsistent that it destroys the entertainment value of plotting out intricate and devilishly effective assaults.
What the action diversity is supposed to do is present a great wealth of options to the player, who might want one soldier prone in a wall break, sniping unsuspecting on-rushers, while another will fire from a protected position in a building window, breaking the glass as he prepares to fire. Foliage of all kinds can be sources for cover, but their effectiveness is as variable as the flight of a butterfly, and this can be crippling in some of the stealth missions presented. During moments of forgiving gunfire, one can appreciate the action options a bit more, but what it really boils down to is a micromanagement system that is neither helpful in battle, nor consciously present during intense action.
Vehicles in certain missions are also subject to high maintenance, but because of their relatively precise usages and abilities, the number of things to keep track of is mercifully smaller. You will have to worry about restocking ammo, making sure you have enough fuel, and shielding specific damage zones. For the most part, it’s just easier to fire until you’re dry and drive until you’re broke on gas, then unload the crew.
If there’s one thing that almost makes up for the cannon fodder infantry dumbasses and the maddening war phrases and repetitive incidental music, it’s the beautiful landscapes and unit models. This is, perhaps, the one part of Soldiers that doesn’t fall down on its own Rambo knife; the visual adeptness rules the game. Buildings, town structures, and farm shelter – even things like fences and half-walls create very personalized arenas for battle. I had a hard time finding two buildings that looked alike. Each and every one can be used as some sort of cover, whether from the inside our out, and are lovingly constructed to take battle damage. I surprised more than one Tiger tank after shelling an adobe/straw hovel to dust in order to unravel the Tiger’s treads with a destructive T-34 anti-armor round. Brush and trees will be set ablaze by a violent explosion nearby, and larger buildings will fall apart in stages, depending on where they’re hit. Soldiers will even exhibit a casual stance if left alone, smoking a cigarette, milling around, or ducking back and forth behind a corner. It’s a very impressive visual engine, and it made me wish that the gameplay had been similarly refined.
Essential in any isometric tactical game is a competent camera, and while the player’s perspective in Soldiers is a “camera” in the practical sense, it responds a bit more like hummingbird in traction. Moving the camera with any sort of care is nearly futile, as the scenery will jerk and speed by at the slightest provocation. Need a better angle on that town to see incoming targets? You can almost forget about it, as the angular adjustability is limited to about 15 degrees from the norm, up or down. If we had a separate camera score here, it’d get a 2.
Soldiers: Heroes of World War II is a perfect sister specimen of the German Nazis; though it has high ambitions and generally operates as a differentiated tactical game and employs a wealth of detail, beauty, and intricate depth, it’s ultimately defeated by its own shortcomings and underdeveloped foundations. Overwhelming movement options, a unit management system that parallels hardcore babysitting, and a hair-trigger camera combine to diminish Soldiers’ entertainment value like General Montgomery snuffing out the German forces in El Alamein. I can’t imagine a soul that would enjoy this sort of brutal imbalance in the delicacies of a tactical game, unless you were already predisposed to spend more time with it than you probably should. War buffs may be the only ones that will derive any victories from this impatiently executed game.