Hammer and Sickle Review: HAMMERTIME!
Review - posted by Naked_Lunch on Sat 25 February 2006, 00:42:51
When I first caught wind of Hammer and Sickle, I must say I was pretty psyched for the game. I loved Silent Storm and it’s expansion to death and the prospect of ramping up the role-playing elements and adding dialogue checks and so on made it my number one Must-Have game.
As time went on, more and more details slipped through the cracks (Thanks to our Ruskie friends at the Codex who had been merrily playing the game months before us NATO-types) and the game looked better and better. Suffice to say, it looked like Nival and the modders who worked on it had a hit on their hands. Perhaps not a commercial one, but definitely a critical darling that gamers would speak of amongst the lines of Fallout and Planescape.
Finally, after months of waiting, the game had hit North American shores and the response was…lukewarm, cold even. The game was universally panned, it’s highest review score was a 78, which on the Gaming Journalism Review Scale, means "Sorry, it didn’t have enough flash, let’s play some WOW okay???" Hell, Computer Gaming World even named H&S the worst game of the year.
Did these people play the same game as me?
Hammer and Sickle will be incredibly familiar to anyone who ever played Silent Storm, as it started off as a mod for Silent Storm before Nival saw it’s potential and turned it into a full retail game. To those who haven’t played Silent Storm (For shaaaame! For shaaame!) basically it’s a tactical turn-based combat game in the vein of Jagged Alliance. In SS, like JA, you could recruit party members to join up with your squad and it’s the same deal with H&S. All this said, the biggest and most important enhancement that Hammer and Sickle brings to the table is the welcome addition of a non-linear plot structure and abundance of new role-playing options.
Combat, as you might imagine, plays out the same, too and that’s damn good because Silent Storm has top-notch turn-based combat. For those who haven’t played SS, it’s action-point based like Fallout or Jagged Alliance. Movements and actions take different amounts of action points, and there are variable degrees of actions. For instance, running takes less AP than walking, but you’re louder (and thus more noticeable if you’re trying to hide) and offsets your aim a bit. Guns also have different modes, some are fully automatic that let you tear into people like a mother, while others let you concentrate reeeaaal hard to get off that perfect shot.
Speaking of guns, there’s still the gigantic assortment of real-world weapons to be found, over 90. Weapons can also jam now and degrade, which can get annoying. Fortunately, repairing them is as easy as having the right tools and clicking on the weapon (In combat, it costs you valuable AP, though). But once a weapon degrades enough, it’ll break and be broken for good.
The game begins with you creating your character as you did in Silent Storm. You can choose from 6 classes (Sniper, Surgeon, Scout, Solider, Grenadier, Engineer) and distribute points amongst your three attributes: Strength, Dexterity, Intelligence. These in turn modify your skills such as sneaking, shooting, spot et cetera.
Silent Storm’s "skill" tree is also here (They act more like Perks that give bonuses to your attribute and abilities) and offers a wealth of options to further customize your character. One problem I found is that H&S seems to liberally dose out skill tree points at you, so in about 2 hours of play or so I had at least half of my skill tree filled up, basically making specialization useless. Basically, by the end your character is a lean mean killin’ machine, which isn’t bad considering how awesome. That doesn’t mean all characters end up as the exact same type of killing machine. You can have a solider that rocks the house with handguns or grenades, or one that uses heavy weapons. Hell, my favorite build I made was a scout that did most of his dirty work using throwing knives.
After your done making your character, you’re thrust into a Cold War-era game world with intrigue at every corner and bad Russian accents in every dark alleyway. The gist of the plot is you are a Russian saboteur and your intelligence officer is sending you over to East Germany, currently occupied by those scheming American pigs and their ilk, to make contact with a man who has some quite valuable information…information regarding NUKLEEAR VAAR. You have to get this info and then figure out what the hell is going on and see if you can put an end to this.
Of course, it’s not always that easy just meeting up with the guy, shaking hands, chat for a bit, and then get the hell outta Dodge. Seems someone didn’t want any information falling into the wrong hands so when your arrive to meet your contact in the rural village of Gaffburg, you run into some mysterious-looking chaps who just shot the hell out of your contact and his cronies. What’s worse is when you radio back the situation, requesting immediate evacuation from this hellhole, you learn that the Intelligence Center was blown to shit by terrorists and now you’re trapped with no way out. The only bit of advice you get? "Adapt to the situation and report back when necessary."
It’s at this point when the game really opens up and you see for yourself how non-linear it is. In fact, it can be overwhelming at times. Not "Morrowind oh my gosh where’s the spymaster so many houses Jesus Christ cat people" overwhelming, bur rather the kind when you realize that everything you do (or don’t do) has effects. Unlike Silent Storm, this game doesn’t have an "Objective" screen that highlights what you have to do. All you get is a Journal that records down important events and can sometimes offer hints. The game really hammers down (haha) the feeling that you’re isolated here, that something big is going on around you and you’re just an insignificant speck. Of course, you can change that, but at the beginning it’s just you and your wits.
I can see how this can be hard for some people to adapt to. No magic compass pointing you where to go, nothing like that in this game. There’s no hand-holding at all. It’s a great feeling and I’m glad Nival and Co. had the balls to do it in this era of catering to morons and frat boys who just want to play Halo.
As I said before, you actions, and especially your inactions, go a long way. Just refusing to do a quest can branch the game off in an entirely different direction. Make enough bad choices in the beginning (Like, oh, killing every NPC) will railroad you into a path you might not want to have taken, with no way to get out. H&S is very unforgiving. If you get arrested in Zeizenburg, you’re thrown in jail with no way out (At least, I haven’t found a way out yet). The game doesn’t end, though. You just sit there looking at your characters standing idly in their cell.
Another thing, time also matters a lot in this game. Not timed missions, though H&S does have some, but actual time-of-day time. In most games, you can just as easily sneak into someone’s house and steal a document whether it’s noon or midnight. Not in H&S. Light and shadows plays a big role for a saboteur, as certain NPCs have timed schedules that can make things easier…or harder for you. Another thing, when someone says "We need help fast, or else we’ll be attacked!" they will be attacked. The game doesn’t stop for you, the internal clock keeps tickin’ and there’s nothing you can do.
The game also makes use of your stats and skills outside of combat. In the above mentioned Zeizenburg, you’ll get arrested if you’re seen carrying a weapon or wearing an enemy uniform (You are a Russian in East Germany, afterall). However, you can avoid this in several ways:
· You can have a high dexterity and dodge the policemen trying to arrest you
· You can bribe the policeman into letting you go (I think it branches off two ways here, if the bribe is big enough, the policeman will let you stay in the city, otherwise he’ll just tell you to scram)
· You can kill the policeman and you won’t be bothered anymore. Of course, that’ll affect your reputation and definitely raise suspicion.
· If you have the proper ID cards, you can waltz right in with a uniform and your weapon (I think this requires an Intelligence check, too).
H&S doesn’t force you to play as one uber character build. It’s adaptable to all sorts, provided you think before you act because, like I said, many (if not all) actions/inactions you do in the game can have major repercussions. To get the ID, you need to get on good terms with Conrad who will tell you that his mother used to forge things during the war, but has some mental issues. But when you first meet Conrad, he’s kind of a prick and if you bug him enough, he’ll go hostile and try to kill you. If you kill him, you don’t learn about his mother’s experience with forging and it sets you off on an entire different plot path. I mean, just look at this plot flowchart (WARNING: MAYBE SPOILERS)
There is no way in Hell or Heaven you will be able to see and do everything in Hammer and Sickle just one time through. This is the kind of game that merits replaying over and over, and I have no qualms with that.
Alright, so we’ve gone over the great parts of this game (Combat, living world, actions with consequences, and stats that matter), now onto the annoying and not-so great parts of the game.
First off, while I mentioned how awesome the feeling of the game is in regards to being stranded with no help and being on your own, it can be a bit disorienting sometimes. In the beginning it’s a bit hard to find your way and finding your way is often a matter of being at the right place at the right time. I guess you could chalk that up to trying to be realistic and simulate the setting, but it can be a pain nonetheless.
The game also runs pretty slow at times. I have a Pentium 4 1.7ghz Centrino with 512mb RAM and 128mb x600 Radeon Mobile card and it still ran pretty slow at times, even with details turned down to their lowest and at 800x600 resolution. There seemed to be some optimization errors in some areas, too. When I selected my entire party in Gaffburg, the game slowed to a snail’s pace. But, in another area it ran fine with everyone selected. Baffling.
Writing is slightly spotty and generally average, probably due to translating it from archaic Russian into good ol’ English. Some dialogue can get cringe-worthy at times, especially when first talking to the forester and Moshe. But, at other times it can be very, very good, Moshe talking about his time in Auschwitz for example. Overall, it’s nothing to write home about, but it certainly won’t break the game for you.
Audio was another problem for some. The voice-acting is goofy with some of the NPCs, with misplaced accents and often mispronounced words. Same goes for the music, which is pleasant in towns and during loading screens but is extremely cheesy during combat. Instead of playing some sort of up-tempo, big cymbal crashing classical stuff, H&S opted for soulless nu-metal rock for it’s combat music. It seems completely out of place, like having ABBA do the music for Rambo or something. Of course, if it bothers you so much, just turn it off and play whatever in WinAmp.
Finally, the game is also short. The replayability obviously lengthens its lifespan, but there’s been reports of people beating it in about 6 or 7 hours. I think they probably took the "undesirable" path and just killed everyone, but then again, what do you expect when you go apeshit on someone? Me? I average about 12 hours, but that’s because I explored every nook and cranny and did everything I could until I was satisfied with my character. I also wasn’t rushing to meet a deadline like most game reviewers had to do.
I think by now you know the gist of the game and how I feel about it. Asinine CGW editors be damned, this is a great game. If you have even the slightest interest in turn-based combat or roleplaying, this is a worthy purchase. The SS combat engine is second to none and the abundance of options for your character to pursue is mind-boggling. Now, if only the damned thing would sell…