Iron Storm


Developer:    4x Studio

Publisher:    Wanadoo & DreamCatcher

Released:   2002

PC Requirements:    Windows 98/Me/2000/XP, 500 MHz Intel Pentium III or AMD Athlon processor, 128 MB RAM, 8x CD/DVD-ROM drive, 700 MB available hard drive space, 32 MB Direct3D compatible video card, DirectX 8.1 compatible sound card, keyboard, mouse.




by Singer

World War I was mistakenly called “the war to end all wars”.  In Iron Storm, it’s the war that never ended.

If that sounds bleak, dreary, and tragically bloody, then you’ve got your finger right on the pulse of DreamCatcher/Wanadoo Edition’s latest first person shooter (FPS).  The game is set in 1964, but in an alternate reality where the first world war was never resolved.  In the 50 years the conflict has been waged, the ravages of war have become the only lifestyle many have known, and the technology of war the single largest global economic factor. 

As the game opens, we learn that the Russo-Mongolians, led by the despot Baron Ugenberg, have created a new weapon which will not only be disastrous for Allied soldiers, it will also financially cripple the coalition called the United States of Western Europe when this product hits the stock market.  In the wake of yet another mass assault ending in slaughter, it is decided that the only way to stop Ugenberg is with a lone wolf mission to infiltrate the research facility.  Enter Lieutenant James Anderson, a grey haired, grizzled veteran and living legend of the war.  As always, only the best get the toughest assignments, but fortunately for Anderson, he’s got us to make the difference.

Despite the elaborate background narrative, and a story that’s occasionally pushed forward by various cutscenes, make no mistake - Iron Storm is all about action.  What the story does, of course, is set up a unique environment for running and gunning.  The alternate history spin was clever, and although there is very little that ties in to its World War I origin, the atmosphere of the game seems perfectly suited to a relentless, ongoing war.  The settings are dirty, battered, and gritty, and even weapon design is all substance and no style – exactly what you’d expect in times where survival is the sole focus. 

Iron Storm’s graphics are very effective, even if the subject matter can’t be considered attractive.  Washed out browns and greys are the order of the day, but whether in “modernized” trenches scarred with blood, the bombed out remnants of a war-torn city, or the cold steel interiors of a military train, the locations are appropriately rendered.  While not overly detailed, the backgrounds are crisp, and weather effects add some appreciated variety.  The game’s custom engine performed admirably, as the action ran smoothly even in heavier firefights, and the load times were minimal.  The majority of cutscenes are depicted nicely, although the initial mission briefing is in an entirely different format, and is grainy and muted.  If there’s a reason behind that decision, it still eludes me, but ultimately it’s of no consequence.

Sound effects are equally impressive in Iron Storm.  The thunderous crashes of mortar shells nearby, perpetual gunfire in the distance, or choppers hovering overhead help provide a great sense of realism (well, not the realism of actual war, but you know what I mean).  The enemies all utter phrases in Russian (which are translated in subtitles), which is a nice touch.  The few English speaking parts are all done convincingly.  Unfortunately, Anderson himself never says a word, other than the opening narrative.  This is a matter of taste, I realize, as some players prefer to play the role as “themselves”.  Still, as the game seems intent on establishing Anderson’s reputation, and intermittent transmissions keep referring to you as “James”, I’d have much preferred some verbal input to make Anderson seem more involved. 

Although I called this game an FPS, Iron Storm can be played in either first or third person perspectives, and toggling between them is as simple as a keystroke.  Kudos to developer 4X Studio for including this option, particularly as the third person perspective controls smoothly and looks terrific.  Regrettably, there is very little reason to use the third person view.  The only practical benefit is the additional peripheral vision it provides, but this is only useful in the game’s wide outdoor areas, which are few and far between.  In combat, targeting is far easier when seeing  through Anderson’s eyes, and since most of the game IS combat in confined quarters, the third person view is largely ignored. 

One feature the third person view showed clearly was the weapons placement on Anderson.  Unlike most shooters, which allow you to lug around an arsenal large enough to equip a regiment, Iron Storm opts for a slightly more realistic approach.  Anderson has different weapon “slots” where various weapon types are stored, and he can carry only one weapon type per slot – one per leg, and two strapped to his back.  This requires you to make some tough decisions along the way about which weapons to keep and which to discard, since you can’t keep them all.  At some points, these decisions will need to be strategic, while at other times it’s merely a matter of preference.

Weapon types, despite the opportunity to create some purely fictional arms, are standard shooter fare.  From the stealthy sabre and silenced pistol, to a wide variety of rifles (many of which have much-needed sniper scopes), to heavier hardware like rocket launchers and machine guns, there is really nothing new here.  However, each weapon has its own look, sound, and feel, so it was fun to experiment.  The addition of a lethal “mustard gas” grenade and a non-lethal poison grenade that causes disorientation were probably the only newcomers to the lineup.  One quibble partly stems from the fact that the manual includes no information at all about the weapons.  Instead, it refers to the official website for information, which is the first time I’ve ever experienced that kind of buck-passing.  With no printed reference for the weapon models, and many weapons looking similar on the ground, it took quite a while before I learned to recognize which weapons were which as I played.  It was a minor annoyance, but so easily avoidable.  On the plus side, capturing mounted artillery and turning the tables on the enemy was immensely satisfying!

Enemies consisted largely of different soldier types of differing abilities.  Each showed decent AI, as they would dodge for cover to reload, and keep moving to make themselves more difficult targets.  They were good shots, but not flawless ones, which felt reasonable.  Particularly formidable were the rare armoured soldiers with exploding bullets, and the well concealed sharpshooting snipers.  Still, the humans were the easiest opponents compared to the automated turrets, tanks, helicopters, and speedy vicious Dobermans, many of which were “booby trapped” with explosives.  

I had been forewarned of the difficulty of this game, and I can safely agree that this game will provide a challenge even for experienced gamers.  I played on the Normal difficulty level, but Easy and Realistic (commonly known as “flippin’ HARD”) options are also offered.  Part of the challenge was due to the fact that there was no portable health kit, which was sorely needed.  These kits were scattered (sparsely) throughout the game, but occasionally when you didn’t need them, so not being able to carry one was disappointing.  Add to that the impossibility of escaping most turrets with NO damage, and it wasn’t unusual to get Anderson trapped with not enough health to bypass a turret.  Fortunately, the game allows you to save anywhere, and the quicksave should get plenty of use.  If you’re the type of gamer that forgets to save sometimes, Iron Storm will auto-save at various stages for you, although these aren’t overly frequent.

Nevertheless, although challenging, I found the game to be fair, and aside from a handful of scenarios, I wasn’t faced with too many patterns of die & reload.  The only thing missing was a directional damage indicator such as Soldier of Fortune employs, because it was more than a little frustrating to get pegged off mercilessly by a sniper you couldn’t locate.  In those cases, I basically had to sacrifice myself for the purpose of scouring the landscape for the hidden culprit.

As with any shooter, a certain degree of puzzle solving also comes into play, mostly involving overcoming environmental obstacles.  And in keeping with the current trend, Iron Storm also incorporates some stealth elements – two of which even included surrendering some or all of my weapons.  While this added a change of pace, I didn’t find it particularly well implemented here, as there was no real way to gauge stealth effectiveness (until my cover was completely blown).  Still, I felt relieved and gratified when my sneaking was rewarded by finally recovering a weapon, so the change did serve its intended purpose.

One drastically underused aspect to the game was the presence of allies.  This was all the more surprising, because in the earliest moments of the game, Anderson joins other soldiers in a brisk conflict.  Granted, once behind enemy lines, the likelihood of being assisted by your fellow soldiers is diminished, but it was disappointing not to experience it again after such a promising start. 

Iron Storm is rather short, as I’m sure I finished the single player game in 10-15 hours.  That isn’t a complaint for me – I’d much rather 15 hours of engaging gameplay than have something artificially lengthened.  On the other hand, I was enjoying the game, and was a little sorry to see it end so soon.  The game is split into 6 overall levels that move to different locations.  Each level is fairly linear in terms of overall mission objectives, but the maps themselves can often be explored randomly.  Periodic instructions for the next task are received audibly from Anderson’s (female) commander, and clues can be obtained through the enemy’s media devices.  The majority of these communiqués, unfortunately, are far too vague, and without even a map feature(!), periods of getting lost and not knowing exactly what to do are likely.  While definitely not insurmountable, my own preference would have been for a slightly tighter approach.  It’s a tough balance, I know, but this game didn’t quite get it right. 

For gamers looking to stretch out the experience, multiplayer is available for up to 16 players either by internet or LAN, and includes deathmatch, team deathmatch, and capture the flag modes, plus a variation of the latter called isolation case.  

Technically, the game was perfectly stable even without the available patch.  The interface and controls consist entirely of tried and true FPS conventions, and anyone even remotely familiar with shooters will pick up the game quickly and easily.  There is no tutorial, and while there’s a brief opportunity to adjust to the controls and grab some weapons, once the action starts for real, you’ll find yourself in tough almost immediately.  Given this fact and the overall difficulty of the title, I wouldn’t recommend it to genre rookies.

Iron Storm struck me as a fun, successful game that missed an opportunity to be great.  With just a little more polish, and a more creative use of the innovative subject matter, this game could have ranked with the likes of Medal of Honor in today’s war-themed gaming market.  The action is tense, well paced, and delivers solid, consistent thrills.  My only real regret is the potential squandered by not exploiting the alternate history concept to its fullest.  As it is, the game plays out as a good generic shooter with a fascinating concept.  There are better games available, but don’t overlook this unheralded title if you’re seeking a little blood pumping (and spilling) excitement.

Final score:  77%

Played on:

Win XP

P4, 2 Ghz

512 MB RAM

GeForce 4

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