Friday, December 02, 2005

Hammer & Sickle Review

Hammer & Sickle, developed by Nival Interactive and published by CDV.
The Good: Very well thought out and complete, realistic ballistics and damage, decent graphics, comprehensive RPG elements that don’t feel tacked on, different styles of play are supported, your actions have consequences, you play as a badass Russian
The Not So Good: Ridiculously difficult, “correct” solution not always apparent due to vague objectives, only one campaign and no multiplayer
What say you? An awesome tactical role playing game, if you can weather the high level of difficulty: 6/8

Oh, those wacky Russians. Those neighbors to the west (or east, depending on which way you go) were always up to something after we teamed up for World War II: Hitler’s A Crazy Man. The newest addition to the Silent Storm franchise (which now makes a total of two) is Hammer & Sickle, a tactical role-playing game where you fill the shoes of a Russian super agent and carry out various missions using stealthy and not-so-stealthy maneuvers. The marriage of two popular genres, how will Hammer & Sickle stack up against the competition, especially in the swimsuit category?

Hammer & Sickle is viewed from an isometric perspective (think SimCity 4 or Rise of Nations) but rendered in full 3D. This eliminates annoying camera controls but still provides for stunning effects. One of the hallmarks of the game is the dynamic environments that show appropriate damage. In most RTS games, a generic “damaged” building texture will appear once a structure receives some incoming fire; in Hammer & Sickle, the specific portion of the building that was hit will show the damage, using realistic ballistics to determine where that actually is. This greatly increases the level of immersion, and trumps the attempts of most other RTS and RPG games. At first, the graphics may seem to be behind the times, using a method of showing the levels that most games have left behind. But there is more beneath the surface than just a fixed camera height. I would much rather have an isometric view than a hard to control camera that detracts away from the gameplay. The sound falls along the same path; there are effects that accompany every action that are realistic enough. All of the dialogue in the game is voiced, which is always an added bonus. The auditory elements of Hammer & Sickle neither detract nor add to the overall gameplay.

In Hammer & Sickle, you control a Russian super agent man who takes on difficult missions for the good of the motherland. This is done through a turn-based approach, where you are allotted a certain number of action points each turn you can use to do a variety of different activities, such as walking, changing posture, shooting, reloading, or moving objects. There is an extensive RPG background to the game; you earn experience points while you play that can enhance certain abilities. You start the game by creating a character much like you would for a classic RPG game. You choose the hero’s soldier class (such as medic, sniper, or scout) and head out for your first mission. Between each mission, you are housed in your “base,” a friendly underground apartment, where you can heal, recruit allies, and buy or sell weapons. You can pick up items during each mission and then sell them at your base to purchase weapon upgrades: not many RTS games have that as an option. The missions are chosen from a map of Germany, and can change depending on the choices you make during each mission. For example, if you “accidentally” kill a contact you’ll need in a subsequent mission, your task will be more difficult later on. There is an optimal path of completing each mission, keeping certain people alive who will prove beneficial in later missions. Of course, the game doesn’t tell you specifically what the path is, so it’s almost trial and error. In the very least, the dynamic nature of the campaign gives Hammer & Sickle slightly more replay value.

The missions themselves are really friggin’ hard. I started the game on easy difficulty and got killed no less than six times in the first introductory mission before I figured out what to do. Part of this has to do with my incompetence, but part of it is due to the fact that the objectives in Hammer & Sickle are not specific enough for most players. Giving the freedom to do pretty much what you want in a given level is a double-edged sword. On the good side, this allows gamers of different play styles to complete the same mission using conflicting tactics and increases the replay ability of the game. On the bad side, sometimes you can feel really lost when given a generic directive of “travel across the map.” Some gamers will become quite frustrated (as I did), especially because of the realistic damage your character takes (one shot kills are common). Because of the turn-based nature of the gameplay, you usually can’t react to an enemy threat before they’ve pumped you full of lead. It also seems like the developers have a hidden intended way of completing each mission, which is not a good thing if you allow the player a lot of freedom. Still, those people who are adept at this kind of game will probably have less problems playing that I did.

Hammer & Sickle should be highly praised for it’s ultra-realistic ballistics and damage. There is a sophisticated physics model under the hood here, and it powers some impressive damage results. As I mentioned earlier, buildings don’t just receive generic damage for the entire structure. The building is broken down into parts, and when it receives damage, calculations are made to determine the stability of the structure. So if you blow up a load-bearing pillar of a particular house, it may come crashing to the ground. You know that’s cool. In addition to sophisticated building damage, there is also full modeling of personal injury. You can receive 8 types of head injuries, 6 types of chest injuries, 7 types of arm injuries, and 5 types of leg injuries. Seriously. Most games will just accept a generic health bar, but Hammer & Sickle takes the higher road and specifically each injury type, from paralysis to an unusable limb. To inflict all this damage, Hammer & Sickle has some after-WW2 era weapons at your disposal. The arms in the game include pretty much everything you’d want in a military-inclined game: pistols, revolvers, rifles, submachine guns, tommy-guns, machine guns, grenades and grenade launchers, bazookas, knives, swords, and land mines. Of course, if you’re using these weapons a lot you’ve probably lost the mission, but it’s nice they are included. The probability of you hitting and object is computed and shown as you select targets, so you can get a feel for which targets would be most appropriate. There are a number (that number being 11) of variables that determine the hit probability: distance, cover, weapon type, shooting skill, repetition (shooting continuously at a target increases accuracy), posture, aiming time, movement, target location, weather, and time of day. Obviously lots of work went into making the damage model of Hammer & Sickle the best of any game, and it’s rather close.

Hammer & Sickle is a very intriguing game. The developers spent some man-hours honing and polishing each aspect of the game, and it shows. The graphics are well done, especially the dynamic destruction. The ballistics and damage modeling is first-rate. The RPG elements are finished and don’t feel like a cheap add-on. The only problem I have with Hammer & Sickle is the difficulty level. I know I should have fun playing this game, but man is it hard, at least for me. More specific and clearly indicated objectives would help tremendously in this shortcoming, as I often wondered, “What do I do now?” Maybe I’m just too used to games being straightforward, but I like a fun game that’s also easy to play. Complexity has its place, but once you pass the initial learning curve, it should be smooth sailing, and it isn’t in Hammer & Sickle. Still, I’m hoping this successful marriage of strategy and role-playing continues, as there are lots of time periods and different theatres that could be covered. We have a wonderful engine for a series of games here, and it’s up to the developers to make it appeal to all difficulty levels.