If you go to the official web site for Soldiers: Heroes of World War II you’ll find the following description: “Take control of the most elite... forces ever to impact on the war-zone. Up against overwhelming odds, you must complete your missions incorporating stealth, guile, speed and aggression.” Now, is it possible to see that, not to mention the name of the game, and not think that Soldiers is going to be some sort of Commandos clone? In some ways that conclusion is apt -- Soldiers owes a lot to the Commandos franchise -- but Soldiers at least tries to do some new things. In a sense, you could consider it to be a real-time strategy version of the Commandos games, with a disregard for stealth (despite the quote above) and more of an emphasis on gun battles and tanks. Unfortunately, it appears developer Best Way Company spent way more time on the look of the game rather than on the AI or the interface, and so Soldiers ends up being a near miss.
If you’ve played games like Commandos or Silent Storm then you’ll be right at home with Soldiers. In the missions, you’ll find yourself in control of a handful of units, and you’ll generally have to kill a whole bunch of enemies to meet whatever your objectives are. However, unlike those other games, you’ll often get to control tanks and have to defend yourself against enemy tanks. That means, while you’ll sometimes be able to use stealth, generally battles are noisy and the missions are more about positioning your units in good places to shoot rather than in sneaking around and disabling enemies.
Your soldiers are able to take care of themselves to some degree. You can set their stance so they’ll hold their fire, return fire, or fire at will, and you can position them so they’ll use walls for cover, and only expose themselves when they want to shoot. However, soldiers aren’t very good at choosing targets (they often get stuck shooting at a guy behind a wall and ignore guys in plain sight), they don’t use the full range of their weapons, and they don’t fire as much as they’re capable of. That means, if you want to get something done, you’ll have to control a soldier (or tank) directly. This system, while sounding bad, actually works well enough because it means the game doesn’t play by itself. You’ll have to take a direct hand in things.
In another interesting move, and in a move directly away from games like Silent Storm, while Soldiers comes with a wide variety of weapons (with everything from handguns to bazookas), it doesn’t have a huge assortment of ammunition. Instead, there are only a few types of bullets, like “rifle bullets,” and they work in all appropriate weapons. That takes away from realism, but it makes the game easier to play.
Unfortunately, that nod to bullets is about the only place where Best Way made the game friendlier. Consider this. Best Way didn’t include any information about the weapons in the game, so while there are, for example, dozens of guns, there isn’t any way to tell which ones you should be using. Is the EM-2 rifle better than the G-41 rifle? Who knows? The only thing the game tells you about them is their ammo capacity. And some weapons I couldn’t even tell what they did, like in one mission where this thing that looked like a gattling gun was actually a rocket launcher, and what a difference that makes. Best Way also mishandled the interface (no way to coordinate the attacks of your soldiers; no quick save feature), often provided vague mission objectives (“scupper the patrol boat”), and created some funky game mechanics (it’s almost impossible for tanks to destroy other tanks).
Now, I can deal with some oddities and interface issues, especially in a game I otherwise like. But what finally got to me in Soldiers is the woeful enemy AI. Enemies don’t seem to notice things like, oh, dead bodies lying around, and they don’t have any sort of complicated patrol routes. Mostly the enemies just stand there and only react if you do something in their radius of detection. So for most missions you can just create a disturbance, kill the few soldiers that notice it, and then repeat. And it gets worse if you have a rifle, because enemies don’t notice rifle fire at all, even when a guy a few feet away gets shot. That means the missions come down to how to deal with enemy tanks if you don’t have any your own, or how to do things quickly enough if the mission you’re on happens to have a timer. Fun, fun.
On the good side, Soldiers does look nice, and it runs smoothly. Plus, the terrain is pretty well destructible, so you can have fun blowing up buildings, knocking over trees, and burning up fields. The mission maps are also nicely detailed, and I generally enjoyed the stories behind the campaigns. It’s just that, these are the sorts of things I want a developer to get to after it polishes the gameplay, and Best Way did just the opposite.
Overall, Soldiers isn’t a horrible game. It’s just unlucky to be in one of the best genres out there, and so it suffers by comparison. If you’ve enjoyed other tactical strategy games, then you might want to take Soldiers for a spin -- its 28 mission should provide well over 50 hours of gameplay -- or you might want to wait for the Silent Storm expansion pack to come out (hopefully next month).