In what might be considered an alchemical achievement, Nival Interactive came out of nowhere in 2003 to release a game with a perfect engine. Silent Storm combined the two greatest games in the squad-level turn-based strategy (yes, it's a genre) genre, melding the realistic combat gameplay of Jagged Alliance 2 with the massively complex, completely destructible environments of UFO: Enemy Unknown. These two features, along with great physics and amazing ballistic modeling conspired to make Silent Storm possibly the finest turn-based combat simulator ever designed. The only problem was that there wasn't much of a game built on top of it. No story to speak of, no gameplay besides strategic battles—it was really just a series of combat scenarios that had to be fought in a specific order. The next year they released an add-on called Sentinels which added a simple economic system to the game, a little more story, and explodable heads. Finally, in late 2005 they released the third game in the series: Hammer & Sickle, which fulfills the promise of the earlier titles by using the perfect combat engine to make a full-fledged role-playing game (RPG).
The game is structured in fairly traditional RPG fashion. After creating a character the player is sent out into hostile territory to recruit a team and accomplish his mission. While this in an instantly familiar premise, the developers manage to put a bit of a spin on it by setting the story in post-war West Germany. The story concerns a heroic Russian intelligence officer sent under the Iron Curtain to stop a nefarious plot by the American military/industrial complex bent on provoking a third World War. The setting is strictly realistic—only existing weapons and technologies appear in the game, which makes it something of a departure for the series, which had up until now featured power armor, laser cannons, and cloaking devices. This loss actually improves the game quite a bit, as the PanzerKleins (or "Little Tanks") had massively unbalanced the previous games, making the second half of each far too easy on the players.
The combat itself is structured in classic Turn Based Squad Level fashion, which has remained basically unchanged since Laser Squad. Each character has a set number of action points he or she can use to move around the environment and shoot at the opposition. Once all their points have been spent the player ends the turn and the opposition gets to take over. It's combat structured like a boardgame, only with much better sound effects. While it may not be especially realistic, it's fantastically rewarding and entertaining for people who enjoy careful strategizing.
There are signs that this is a first attempt at an RPG, though. There aren't very many quests, or locations, or characters to talk to, or even branching conversations. It does have a surprisingly advanced non-linear structure, though. The plot can branch at three different places, sending the player down a number of different paths towards the same ending. These branches give the game a surprisingly high replayability, especially because a few of the recruitable characters are difficult to find, meaning that players could find themselves with a significantly different team line-up on multiple playthroughs. Also, since any structure in the game world can be destroyed and any character killed, players can even break the game's plot any time they like and be rewarded with a sad ending for doing so.
Hammer and Sickle is also much shorter than a traditional RPG. A major reason why is because the game features no random combat of any kind. In fact, the game isn't padded out at all. This does lead to a few gameplay oddities, though—to make sure players can cope with the sharp difficulty increases as the game progresses, character advancement happens at a startlingly fast pace. In addition to the fact that weapon skills get noticeably better every time a shot is fired, it's not unusual for players to advance one or two levels in a single fight. It's possible to get through the entire game in a little under ten hours, if all the correct path choices are made.
This unusually pared-down length is due to the fact that a number of the game's fights can be avoided through conversation and careful planning—in fact, following one path, it's possible to play through the entire game experiencing only six different combat encounters. That may not seem like very many, but when one considers that resolving the larger battles can take up to two hours each, it still makes for a respectable game length.
The length of these large conflicts is due almost entirely to the game's truly harsh difficulty level. There aren't many fights in the game, but all of them will find the player's team outnumbered at least three to one facing enemies that are, to a man, every bit as skilled and tough as the player's forces. The guns are realistically powerful, and characters will generally die after just one or two hits. As someone who's been playing these games since the first Jagged Alliance, I found the game's monstrous difficulty level oddly satisfying—If I won one of the fights, it's because I'd really earned it. It's a game made for lovers of the genre but it manages not to exclude newcomers either, through the inclusion of both an excellent tutorial and the most customizable difficulty level since Goldeneye. While all the default difficulty levels are fairly punishing, novice players learning the ropes can make the game as easy as they need to, reducing the enemies from vicious killing machines to drunken nearsighted sloths. A perfect way for players to cut their teeth until they're ready for the real thing.
The only major flaw I was able to find was the developers' continuing and inexplicable decision not to include a multiplayer 'skirmish' mode. Now, I'm no developer, but how hard could it possibly be to include a simple feature to allow players to compete against one another, either over the internet or by simple "hotseat" gaming? The thing is turn-based, for gosh sakes! Not offering multiplayer here is like having a single-player only chess game.
Hammer & Sickle is something of a strange case—it's by no means a perfect game, but it features a perfect game engine. The combat in this game is so beautifully thought-out and constructed I can't imagine myself being satisfied with any other Turn Based Squad Level strategy engine. Really, the engine is so good that a developer could just drop any new set of graphics and maps into it and end up with a great game. Now Nival has proven that they can use the engine to move beyond simple combat simulation and into the world of real RPGs. I hope that next time around they put a little more work into the role-playing aspects, so they finally have a game worthy of the engine it's built on. Although, if they want to just keep cranking out games about people in different time periods shooting one another, I'd probably be okay with that as well.