Summary: Nival Interactive made one of the best turn-based games of the past few years with Silent Storm, now they're getting ready to follow it up with the more free-form Hammer & Sickle. Jakub got some hands-on impressions like he was visiting the cheerleader locker room.
Character skills, of course, were developed and the game included many RPG-lite aspects such as the (somewhat inane) dialogue, weapon collection, experience and so on. However, Silent Storm didn’t really strike out ambitiously to try and push the genre in any new directions. Its technical merits were undeniable, such as an excellent physics system and impressive graphics, but the gameplay remained firmly planted in genre conventions.
Hammer & Sickle tries to address the shortcomings of the original – such as the pointlessness of the RPG aspects and storyline – while portraying the Cold War from a fresh new Soviet perspective and pushing the boundaries of player freedom. There is still an integral, central storyline, but the developer’s ambition is more to develop it like Fallout, giving the player the freedom to follow it or not. Do not, however, get confused into thinking that Hammer & Sickle is a Fallout game. Fallout is an open-ended RPG with tactical turn-based combat. Hammer & Sickle is aiming to be an open-ended tactical combat game with RPG flavors.
The main character’s Soviet origins provide a fresh feeling but the game is not egregiously anti-American despite the very firm chill of the Cold War that had descended over the world during the time period in the game. It’s a little hard to buy the “good” Soviet Union theory, especially given my origins in Soviet-bloc Poland, but it’s not exactly offensive either and, as mentioned earlier, provides a fresh perspective.
The setting is also a little more believable, we haven’t found any evidence of the Panzerkleins, for example. It also works better on another level. Whereas it was a little difficult to believe that 6 people could make a difference in World War II, in the tense Cold War environment of 1949, so full of espionage, suspicion and deception, it’s easier to suspend disbelief.
The combat is highly detailed, with a robust damage and aim model – every object between a character and his target increases the difficulty of the shot. Accuracy also depends on whether or not the target was moving quickly, and each shot improves the chances of the next. Weapons have preferred firing positions, preferred firing modes – like snap shots, bursts, aimed shots or going cycling. There are different ranges, but these are generally scaled down from real the real life capabilities of a weapon. A shot with a rifle at 300 meters in real life is difficult but not impossible, in the game it isn’t even possible. Of course, rifles still have longer ranges than, say, SMGs or pistols.
The environment is of course fully destructible and one of the features we loved most about Silent Storm. Walls may protect from small-arms fire but they’re no good against a bazooka, for example. Hit a building with enough bazookas, especially the support structures on the lower levels, and part or all of the building may collapse – killing those within. The damage is also persistent, meaning that when the player comes back into the map zone, it will remain there. Enemies have factions and remember what the player has done – open up with your weapons on the villagers of a certain location and they’ll be hostile towards you from then on.
Of course, most of that was true in Silent Storm. Where Hammer & Sickle starts pushing the boundaries is by integrating the management of the game. Not only do you select and pay squad members like in Jagged Alliance, but you need to meet them, find them, rescue them – whatever. Weapons are collected and sold, equipment like health packs and forged documents must be bought and the player has to choose his way through the world. It’s not revolutionary, but it is clearly the next step after the Jagged Alliance titles.
It remains to be seen if Nival Interactive can deliver the RPG aspects with the same detail and polish that the combat is done. We hope that they won’t omit, say, a quest reminder. Currently, there are rules for leaving maps – sometimes you can’t go because there are enemies nearby, but most often the player has a task to accomplish and this isn’t always very clear. Overall, though, we have little doubt that Hammer & Sickle is shaping up to be one of the dark horse hits of the coming year.
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