Reviewed: July 26, 2004
Released: June 22, 2004
Editor’s Note: While it is GCM’s policy to review the shipping version of a game, there is a certain level of “patch expectation” with online games as they grow and evolve, therefore I am making an exception and reviewing this game as patched with v28610.
Söldner (pronounced “zoldner”) is the German term for “mercenary” and it’s these soldiers that are the heroes of Wings Simulations, Söldner: Secret Wars, the latest team-based online warfare game to follow in the footsteps of games like Battlefield, Joint Ops and countless other titles targeted for online gamers.
Normally I would have passed this game onto my military reviewer, but he’s currently over in Iraq playing the ultimate war game, so you’ll have to settle for the opinions of a gamer and not an experienced soldier, which in the long run might be better for everyone concerned.
As it is, Söldner is not as much a military or tactical simulation as it is a spin-off of Unreal Tournament dressed in fatigues. Primarily designed for online play with up to 32 soldiers divided into the traditional red and blue teams, Söldner is highly lacking as a single-player experience, even though one is included. The single player portion of this game is more like off-line training so when you finally do go online you won’t embarrass yourself or your teammates.
Söldner released about a week after Novalogic’s Joint Operations and while both games are similar in their design and their target audience they are two very different games. Söldner is simply massive in scale, both in the battlefields and the sheer amount of equipment at your disposal. The battlefields easily accommodate huge missions with up to 32 people and there are special servers and levels designed for up to 128 players.
With more than 60 weapons, 70 vehicles ranging from ground and air assault vehicles, and more than 18 million square-miles of realistic and fully destructible terrain, there is more game here than anything we’ve seen from the competing titles in the genre.
As previously mentioned, Söldner does offer a single-player campaign and even a mission generator but save yourself the time and don’t embarrass Wings by witnessing the horrendous enemy AI (tanks that bounce off trees, soldiers that hide behind propane tanks) and overall poor gameplay in the single-player mode. Frankly, if the game hadn’t offered online support I would have been clicking on the Uninstall button after the second mission.
But the focus of Söldner is multiplayer, a fact made perfectly clear on the box, so anyone buying this game for anything other than online play will certainly be disappointed. Everyone else is going to be in for the ride of their life. The scope of this title is massive and there are so many weapons you can never hope to figure out what they all do and which one is better than another. The manual offers little help so you will have to settle for online specs during the “shopping” process or perhaps recommendations from your teammates.
There are numerous vehicles in Söldner that can be used as transportation and for battle. There is a banged up sedan that looks like a 1972 Toyota you can use to race around to various control points, or if you want to spend some serious credits you can buy a tank, attack chopper, or even a fighter jet; there are several models of each. There are more than 70 in all, although not all are available in all the game modes, levels, or purchase points.
While having all of these options at your disposal is certainly impressive from a game perspective, there is hardly enough difference between a lot of the weapons and vehicles to really make a difference. When you go shopping for a rocket launcher you might have 20 to choose from and one might come with one rocket and another has three. Pistols and rifles do variable damage and have defined ranges, but a lot of the combat is up close, fast and furious, so these values have little bearing in an arcade-style shootout.
Söldner offers several multiplayer game modes including the traditional Deathmatch and Team Deathmatch modes as well as Capture the Flag, Hostage Rescue, Extraction, Bombing Run, and my personal favorite, Conquest. Conquest is much like Unreal Tournament’s Domination mode where you must capture and hold several nodes including flags at each team’s base as well as several flags out in the battlefield.
You start off by creating your online soldier, choosing a face, uniform, and other visual options to customize your online look. Then you bring up the server list which at any given time during my two weeks of reviewing had anywhere from 50-100 servers running with at least 20-30 of them offering pings under 30.
The server list not only shows you the ping rate but also the type of game running and the number of current and max players. Once you pick your server you will now have the chance to join a team and equip your character. You also have these same options each time you die and respawn, so if the red team turns out to be a bunch of jerks you can simply join the blue team.
I speak from experience as one game I played had me joining the red team who was outnumbered 8 to 3. I thought I would help even out the odds by joining the red team and not more than 20 seconds after spawning at the red base one of my own teammates chased me down and intentionally shot me. After typing in the appropriate “explicatives” I promptly joined the blue team who had much more money and even a tank that I proceeded to commandeer and drive through the red base. The aforementioned PK’er quickly greased my tank treads before dropping out of the game.
But such is the case with these online games and you will constantly be forced to seek out “quality gamers” who want to take the game seriously. Sure, things can get silly at 4am when we all get into those Toyotas and drive around trying to kill each other without weapons, but for the most part, Söldner has a solid fan base with plenty of eager gamers willing to play the right way.
My first time playing online I lucked out and found myself playing with one of the best group of guys in the game. Not only were they giving me plenty of good advice, they were also giving me loads of cash so I could try out the more expensive weapons and vehicles that would normally take me hours to work up to.
During the game you will earn money, both as an individual and as a team. Team funds are allocated by the team commander who is chosen through an online vote. From time to time you’ll hear the “cha-ching” of a cash register and see that money has been transferred to your account. You can use this money to purchase new weapons, vehicles, and equipment from the various purchase points scattered throughout the game. Some points only offer weapons and gear while others will offer a fine selection of air and land vehicles.
Some of the major purchases like a tank can be bought with team funds when permitted; otherwise you will have to spend your own cash. You also have the option to lock-out the vehicle so anyone around the spawn point can’t take over before you climb aboard. You can buy weapons prior to each spawn back into the game, but this can be dangerous as you might load up on gear, spawn into the game, and die right away, only to have your stuff taken by the enemy.
You can play Söldner from either a first or a third person view. I found the chase view worked just a bit better since it offered better peripheral vision. You can always hit the aim button for a quick look down the gun sight, but you cannot move while doing this. The game does seem to play a bit smoother in first-person since it doesn’t have to render or animate your character and all his complex details.
The interface is simple and effective. You have a compass that shows the location of everyone in the game as small triangles that increase in size the closer you get. Teammates are shown in the 3D view with their names hovering over their characters while enemies must be spotted by their character model only. This makes things much more challenging and realistic and avoids accidental friendly fire.
When you hop into a car, tank, or plane you get an instrument panel overlaid on the main screen that shows speed, altitude, or any other pertinent information. Information like weapons, ammo, and personal health and body armor is displayed at the bottom corners.
Controls in the game can be a complicated affair since you have to find a happy medium for ground, air, and character movement and actions. I would have preferred three separate setups and have the game know what I was controlling, but in this case you must pick a universal command that works for all modes. So if you want the right-mouse button to make your character jump, you cannot have that same button become secondary fire for a plane or tank.
Controlling the vehicles and aircraft with the mouse and keyboard can also be a bit twitchy. Using a good analog gamepad will make these parts of the game more enjoyable, but character movement and combat is still best with a mouse and WADS cluster, so you’ll probably want to have both or simply settle for the mouse and keyboard combo. Even though it’s not the best multi-purpose control system, you’ll get used to it.
Driving and flying in the third person view can be a bit difficult since you still have free control over the camera with your mouse while the WADS actually controls the vehicle. This is great for driving in one direction and firing in another, but when you have to start navigating your jeep through a thick forest you will want to switch to first-person to weave your way through the trees.
There is a surprisingly good physics engine at work here that delivers some excellent vehicle performance as well as environmental impact. Don’t be surprised when you see a tank blast through a forest and trees start falling like dominoes. One particularly devastating encounter for me was when I was pinned down by a Panzer. I had only one RPG left so I was hiding behind a thick tree waiting for the perfect shot when the tank simply blasted the tree, knocking it over and crushing me. The same goes for buildings. You might secure an effective sniper location in the upstairs window of a bombed out building, but a single shot from a tank or a rocket from a chopper can send that building crashing down beneath your feet.
Even though I was playing the patched retail version of the game there are still some problems and bugs. Occasionally my character animation would flicker or stutter. One time I was climbing a ladder up the side of a building only to find myself falling through a blue void and finally splashing into some water several miles from shore. Unable to surface, I eventually drowned. There are also some oddities with the physics engine that might send your jeep or other objects sailing crazily through the air, and the game also has some insufferably long load times.
But like any online game, these titles are almost always a “work in progress” and the earlier you join in on a new franchise the more problems you will have to suffer through. Other reviewers have been extremely harsh with the game, most likely having reviewed the original box copy or perhaps even a pre-release version. GCM received our copy after the patch was available, so we had the luxury of reviewing a game with many of the bugs already eliminated.
There are two distinct camps at the Söldner website and forums. It seems you either love or hate this game with no middle ground and little room to convince the other side to join yours. I won’t deny the game has some problems, but the sheer potential for online fun outweighs these inconsequential glitches. My first night online I played for five hours straight and have since logged more than 70 exciting and often intense hours. All of the bugs combined couldn’t keep me from playing this game.
My first impression on the look of Söldner was pretty bleak, but so were the graphics. The character model was nice and detailed with realistic textures and equipment dangling off the soldier, and the overall landscapes were very nice, but the designers seemed to have skimped on the details.
Buildings are generally empty with the rare exception of a chair, or if you are lucky, a couple of chairs and a table. The buildings are merely there to decorate the landscape and give you a place to hide, perhaps to snipe through a window or chat with your team in relative safety. You’ll likely notice other oddities like grass and bushes that hover above the ground and eerily wave in the breeze or rain that falls in 2D sheets when you look straight up.
Then again, you can find problems with just about anything if you look hard enough. Söldner manages to deliver an overall spectacular visual package, especially when you factor in the massive maps, realistic and deformable terrain, lush forest, rippling transparent water, and dozens of buildings, simple as they may be on the inside.
And all of this was running smooth as silk at 1600x1200 on multiplayer games with up to 24 players. I’m not saying that it will run slower with more players but 24 was the most I ever found in one game. Even when you take to the skies and the engine has to render out terrain miles ahead, the game never falters. The closest game to ever come to this level of detail and scale would have to be the IGI games, and those used a flight simulation engine.
There is a modest amount of military style music in the menu screens but once you get into the game it’s all about the sound effects. And what glorious sound effects they are, not so much in their variety; after all with 60+ weapons all of the rocket launcher are going to sound like each other after awhile. The AK47 still has a unique sound but the M4 sounds a lot like the other assault rifles in the game and most of the other weapons double up on sound effects.
Perhaps the best thing about the sound is the excellent use of EAX HD 3D audio. You can be walking through the woods and hear the mechanical rumble and clatter of tank treads in your rear speakers and instantly know where an enemy is. In one instance I was crouched on a hillside sniping anyone who would try to enter my team’s base when I heard the whine of that blue sedan approaching from behind. I spun around to see the car bearing down on me. I quickly switched to my RPG and shot the car and it exploded, sailing over my head and tumbling down the hillside.
That is just once instance where sound saved my life. You can also hear planes and choppers flying overhead and easily locate their position by their sound. This is useful when you need to catch a ride from a friendly transport or hide in the trees from an enemy recon flight.
There is no voice chat support built into the game, but Söldner does come with pre-configured commands and gestures that can be used for quick interaction as well as global and team-based text chat. Just make sure you are in a safe place before you start to type.
The single-player campaign features several missions set in locations around the world, each with their own objectives. The campaign dynamically unfolds based on your success or failure with each of these missions, but as I mentioned before, the AI is horrible. It’s easy to see this game was primarily intended for human competition, but if you insist on playing the single player game you can probably get 8-12 unsatisfying hours from it.
The real fun starts when you go online and I wouldn’t presume to put an estimate on the time you will spend with this game. I’ve played and since put away EA’s Battlefield games and Joint Operations, but Söldner is one game that will be spending a long time on my hard drive, and one of the few titles that actually makes me look for free time so I can get online and play, even if it’s just for an hour.
The game also has an editor and plenty of development tools and add-ons for 3D Studio, so you can design and customize this game to your heart’s content. With a large and thriving community already firmly in place, I see no end in sight for Söldner. Another patch or two and this game will be rock solid and ready for prime time action.
Söldner is probably going to be a hard sell. The demo was really bad and in no way indicative of the final product, and the press is having more fun bashing this title into the ground than they obviously did playing the game. The shipping version was also plagued with plenty of bugs requiring an immediate patch just to play, and only with the most recent patch has the game achieved a level of playability that would earn it the score I’m giving.
Out of the box, Söldner is bug-ridden and weak, but in its current patched state the game is a worthy contender in the recent crop of online war game titles. It’s fun, and in my opinion more fun than Joint Ops and even the Battlefield games. It’s certainly more accessible to casual gamers but sophisticated enough that if you take the time to learn the intricacies there is a complex battlefield simulation buried beneath the action.
The active community that has sprung up around this title will keep everyone playing for months and perhaps years to come. I’ll be one of them, so if you get online look me up. I’m “Nick Danger” and I’ll be kicking your ass today…unless you are on my team.