|Soldiers at War By Maurice Fitzgerald|
Lately the sights have been primarily on armor sims in the land warfare arena, with Microprose's M1 Tank Platoon II and iMagic's iPanzer '44. SSI will also be adding to the growing number of tank sims with their soon to be released WWII title Panzer Commander, and then Psygnosis Panzer Elite will make its appearance.
Aside from Zombie's Spec Ops there hasn't been a lot on the burner for "ground pounder" sims, but this year has just begun and we'll be seeing more ground sims as the year progresses. SSI has now released their latest title, "Soldiers At War," a turn based WWII squad level game of combat that takes place from the deserts of Africa to deep in the heart of Germany. The game comes with 15 missions that can each be played separately or as part of an ongoing campaign. The game also comes with multiplayer support for up to three people AND a full featured mission builder.
I've always been a fan of ground based sims more than flight sims and when I got my hands on the early beta for SAW I knew this was gonna be one FUN review. Now with the final out my intution has proven right. For anyone out there who's ever played the board game Advanced Squad Leader, you may find this game quite similar (though not nearly as involved). Fans of the Close Combat series will also be interested in this one as this one is similar yet has a lot more detail and a better view of the field and soldier animations.
The game has some really nice SVGA graphics supporting screen resolutions up to 1024x768 and 256 colors. Details are handled very nicely, with holes in walls and rubble strewn through battle scarred areas creating nice atmospherics. There are 4 levels of play ranging from Private (easiest) to Commando (toughest), as each level increases so does the chance of enemy reinforcements.
You start the game with a briefing from Capt. Spencer telling you of your upcoming missions and how they will affect the overall picture. You are then brought to the squad selection roster from which you choose your 8 man squad. This is easily done by clicking on the portrait of the soldier you wish to use, after scanning through their admin files and reviewing their personal information including strengths and weaknesses.
Once your selection is made you move to the outfitting screen from which you will pick and choose who will carry which weapons from your inventory. This is where you must be pay close attention to each soldiers strengths as each weapon has a certain weight and each character has a differing "encumbrance" (this defines how much he can carry before his actions and movement capabilities are affected). There is also an online weapons database of all weapons you will use and see in the game to help you with your outfitting decisions. Once you've outfitted your men it's off to the mission itself.
Throughout all your missions in SAW you will use 2 main menu options: the SOI (slide out interface) and the MODI (menu on demand interface). The SOI pops up for each individual soldier as you switch from character to character and is the nerve center for the game. The SOI gives you the rundown on your character and game controls such as: how many movement points he has left, type of weapon and rate of fire selected, health gauge, fatigue, ammo and save game options etc.
The most critical part of the SOI is the "enemies seen" portion: you can see whom your soldier sees just by clicking on the characters in sight icons in the SOI. The SOI can easily be hidden and brought back on the screen with a simple press of the spacebar.
The MODI is the second essential menu you will use during your engagements and to move your character around. From this menu you will select actions such as stand, kneel, prone; types of movement such as walk, run or crawl. You target your weapons from here as well as change weapons in use, inspecting the surrounding area and switching to your next character.
The MOI is also where you drop and pick up objects. From here you also give first aid, toss grenades and exchange items between characters. There is also a very fun little part of this menu called the "tank menu" that allows you to "secure a tank:" get in/out of the tank and load the main gun of the tank. Securing a tank is done by standing beside the tank and tossing a concussion grenade inside. From there you will move inside and can use the main gun freely on your enemies!
Now that I've given you a brief rundown on the game interface let's talk about gameplay. The beauty of this game is that its very simple to sit down and jump right in to. Any gamer can sit down and feel comfortable with this game within an hour. The missions will usually take between 45 minutes to 1 ½ hours depending on how slow you want to move. You will find yourself doing a lot of "what ifs" as you think your movement strategies through, which makes this game so much fun.
This is not a game where speed is essential, but strategy is! You will move your characters from the map screen by simply clicking on an area to which you wish your character to move. You can choose the movement type from the MODI (walk, run, crawl) and as your character moves he will uncover more of the buildings and objects as they come into his line of sight. Your characters will alert you when they've seen an enemy by saying "enemy in the open" which will allow you a chance to engage the enemy.
Targeting is done by simply placing the mouse cursor over the enemy you wish to fire upon and you will be given a numeric value ranging from 0 to 100 (0, you can't hit the enemy, to 100, you WILL hit the enemy). I've found that anything over 70 is the best probability for engaging the enemy. Remember though if you can see him odds are that he can or will see you when he makes his movement.
The MODI has some sophisticated options that allow you to do "point saving" movement. In short, this will allow you to save enough points for opportunity fire when the enemy moves. When you place the cursor over the cell you want your character to move to you should always use the CTRL keypress before clicking the left mouse button. Using the CTRL key will show you the movement points needed to get to the point you want to go. This in turn will allow you to better plan your movement and not be short on points and lose out on an opportunity to fire. Movement is not restricted in the game map as long as you have the movement points you need to get you where you want to go.
There are different tiers to the map as well, such as hills and interior parts of buildings and houses, which adds a whole new dimension. To see the different tiers you must get used to changing levels using the keys 1-7, which are a bit awkward at first but you'll soon get a feel for them. At first I didn't like it but once I got the hang of it I found it very easy to use and an easy way to judge movement. There is also support available in the game for your squad in terms of artillery, mortars and air strikes, so be sure you have your radio to call in for support.
Once you've moved all of your characters you end your turn and the computer takes care of enemy movement. But that's not all, there are also civilians in the game! This brings up the only point of this game I don't like: the civilians. While I think it's a nice way to add a bit more difficulty for the player, it's actually a slowdown to game-play as the civilians have to be moved along with enemy movement.
Its also a complication for the player. You cannot kill the civilians or you could face criminal charges. Now in reality most people wouldn't want to harm civilians, but sometimes the civilians are asking to be shot. The civilians move about the map as if there is no care in the world, and will sometimes wander through an area where there is a firefight going on! This is why I would like to see the ability to disable the civilians in the game. It would not only speed up gameplay but it would make it easier to engage the enemy.
After accomplishing all your mission objectives you will be shown a mission accomplished dialogue box from which you can exit or continue to explore the map. In the campaigns you will then be brought to a movie theater and treated to a nice little "newsreel footage" cinema. You will also take a trip to the cemetery to pay your respects to any soldiers you lost in battle. As your characters progress through the campaigns they will be awarded medals and promotions. If you've killed any civilians you will be disciplined.
Overall this game is a winner. The attention to detail and easy to use interfaces as well as the multiplayer support and a mission builder that is one of the best I have seen in recent games. I've seen the game at Computer City for $30!! That's a steal and anyone who ever wanted to be a squad leader should without a doubt grab this one, you won't be disappointed.
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Last Updated May 10th, 1998