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Decade Feature: 2002 – Soldiers of Anarchy

November 27th, 2010 by Bruce G · 13 Comments · Feature:Decade

What this is about.

Back in the times when I was reviewing a lot of games, I also participated in a very secret web forum populated by game freelancers. We used to discuss all sorts of freelancer stuff, which mostly consisted of how there were fewer and fewer outlets and why was the pay so bad. Oh yeah, and bad editing. There were a lot of examples of “I wrote this and then they changed it to this! Haha!” And then people would say oh that’s terrible. Anyway. One thing which is kind of mean but which we all did was we would read bad reviews from other people not on the forum and speculate as to how long those people actually played the game in question, if they did so at all. So it was basically like any other game forum, except one with just bitter game reviewers on it.

So at some point I reviewed a game called Soldiers of Anarchy. A little while after the review was published one of the other freelancers totally called me out on it. He basically said, dude, you gave an 8.1 score to this game that has so many problems. He then listed all the problems, kind of like an indictment or something. It was like he was accusing me of all the stuff we used to secretly accuse other people of, like not playing the game and whatnot.

I remember being kind of taken aback by this, like wait a minute, you’re calling me out on my own forum? But it was a fair cop, as Tom Chick would say fifteen times right after he learned a new Britishism, and in retrospect I don’t blame him for being all like “are you sure you played this game before you reviewed it?” And since, yeah, I did, I ended up being glad for the opportunity to think about why something with so many problems ended up being so good. Or at least why I liked it, which is the same as being good.

You people may not remember this, unless you are secretly as old as me, in which case you totally do, but there was a time when games built little worlds made up of some guys and their joint mission and the stuff that happened to them along the way. Most of them were Dungeons & Dragons games, but there were exceptions, like Jagged Alliance, and I guess some other games too. There really weren’t any science fiction games, unless you count Odium, which a lot of people don’t, but I do. X-COM didn’t tell a story in the same way, but I guess that counts, too. Quit making me qualify this. Point is, party-based third-person games were state of the art, until first-person presentation became so polished that it was aesthetically more appealing to place you in an environment as yourself instead of as a sort of mastermind controlling several guys. And that was that. Good night, Baldur’s Gate.

So it’s quite jarring in some ways to jump back into a time capsule like this and see what games were like before they got terrible. You totally fell for that didn’t you? They actually got terrible well before this. Got you again. I tried playing Soldiers of Anarchy for this article, and this is exactly how it went:

I loaded up the game, skipped the tutorial, and found myself starting a cutscene. Haha, cutscenes. It had the usual goofy voiceover about how the world had some apocalypse, yadda yadda, and now these guys were coming out of their underground hideout. Seems to happen a lot. Then I sent my four squad members running down a road. Pretty soon they meet a bear guarding some kind of ammo dump. That triggers another cutscene. I’m supposed to kill the bear. The bear then kills two of my four guys.

Reload. This time I click through the cutscene. I’m gonna get that bear this time. Click through the next cutscene. Keeping all my guys together, I kill the bear. Yay. Turns out he was hoarding some boxes of ammo and guns. I take those and start off across a field. I can see some kind of base in the distance, but before I get there, I get attacked by wolves. Three of my four guys die.

Reload. This time I re-arm after I kill the bear, and distribute two Uzis to my squad before I get to the wolves. This strategy disposes of the wolves without incident. I reach the abandoned base, where a Humvee awaits. I get in the Humvee and drive down a road until I get to a dam. Another cutscene. I’m supposed to blow up the dam, using my demolitions expert character. So I have him get out of the Humvee. He immediately gets eaten by wolves.


Bear. Wolves. Humvee. Dam. This time I have everyone exit the Humvee and kill all the wolves first, then I plant the explosives. Then my guys all stand around and get blown up by the explosives because I left them standing too close.

I could keep doing this, because there were a lot more reloads. I got through the dam and found an NPC who took me to his village, but I got wiped out by a gang guarding it. By this point I was all like, you are an idiot, this game sucks. Who wrote that review again? But the whole time I was doing this, I was also remembering how I used to play games, and what I liked about them, and how this has totally changed.

If you play any World of Warcraft, which I know you do so don’t shake your head like that, you’ve probably wondered about the game mechanics that allow monsters to pace aimlessly around a forest while you go happily around killing their compatriots. There used to be ten Enraged Enchanted Trees walking around here, but you’ve killed six of them, and left their woody corpses lying on woodland display, but the other four trees can’t put two and two together and figure out that maybe they should be on the lookout for someone killing Enraged Enchanted Trees. You’d think, right? But no, they’re totally fine just walking aimlessly through the forest, until you get within 21 yards of them and suddenly then come charging at you because you triggered their activation radius or whatever, even though they were walking away from you and looking somewhere else at the time.

The world of Soldiers of Anarchy works more like a normal world where people see other people getting shot and think well maybe I should worry about getting shot too. Characters probably still have hit points, but if you get shot more than a couple times, you’re dead, which is a pretty good real life simulator. Coincidentally, this leads to a lot of reloads.

A long time ago, when it was still way more realistic to play games with pencils and dice than with keyboards and mice, there was a game called Aftermath. It was a post-apocalyptic role-playing game where you ran around and tried not to die of all the things that nobody thinks about now but right after the Armageddon is probably going to be terrible, like paper cuts. Never mind getting stabbed or, in really unfortunate circumstance, shot. Because in this game, having bad things happen to your character in the game had the same consequences as having them happen to you in person.

After playing a lot of Gamma World and Traveller and some other post-apocalyptic polyhedral dice games, Aftermath was a revelation. This was the closest to a real military simulation I had seen, where if your character got shot, he or she was probably going to die, since that is what would happen to you if you were on “The Road”, which Aftermath did a fairly good job of simulating. Instead of Gamma World’s mutant rabbits and outlandish energy weapons, you had a lot more mundane things to think about, like how many bullets you had for your old pistol and whether the guys in that camp by the hill had anything more dangerous than a slingshot. Come to think of it, slingshots were pretty dangerous.

In a lot of ways, Soldiers of Anarchy felt like a game I would make, if I had any ability to make games: I would spend months on making the battles interesting and balanced, and when someone pointed out to me that I needed to spend at least as much time on the awful pathfinding, I’d be like yeah well at least the trucks don’t drive upside down. Each battle is interesting and takes some time to figure out. You do get attached to the characters. There is an ingenious system between battle for rearming and repairing equipment, where each task takes a certain amount of time, and you only have so much time. They may have gotten that from Jagged Alliance, but still.

The thing is, when I played Soldiers of Anarchy, I was right at the point where I was willing to put up with some pathfinding issues and other bugs so I could play an Aftermath-like squad-based game, which worked on a different logic. It was more like a wargame and less like an adventure, despite all the voice-overs and cutscenes and other things I probably skipped back then. If you started a firefight from a disadvantageous position, you were likely to get wiped out. Consequently, you spent a lot of time maneuvering prior to the battle, setting up your firelanes, and making sure that you had the advantage before anyone started shooting. In many ways, that’s probably how it is in real firefights. I wouldn’t know. But I’m guessing.

Eight years later, I’m having a hard time finding that space again. Reloading a game over and over in order to optimize my strategy is something I totally remember doing. I was so tired of desultory slogs through party-based campaigns where you really couldn’t lose that Soldiers of Anarchy was fresh and challenging. For me, that was where gaming was – sort of like setting up my Russian Campaign counters up again and again trying to find the optimal way to break the defense of Western Military District. That probably says more about the state of me in 2002 than about the state of gaming.


13 Comments so far ↓

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  • Scott R. Krol

    Aftermath was a great game, much like many of FGU’s overlooked titles. Interestingly FGU is still around and you can still pick up Aftermath.

    The first edition of Twilight:2000 also tried to create a “realistic” post-holocaust world, and I suppose they managed to do so with all the radiation poisoning and mortal wounding your characters could experience. Too bad in doing so they sucked all the fun out of what a game should be. Not to mention it had massive logic and mechanic issues. “Ok, so we stop for three months to farm enough grain so we can use our Abrahms to travel twenty klicks down the road. And why aren’t we just walking?”

    Second edition apparently played a little looser but the current new edition seems to have put it back into the ‘gritty unfun’ cat.

  • JonathanStrange

    Don’t bunch up! Keep your head down, boot! Some sniper’s liable to be a round right between your ey

  • Sarkus

    Soldiers of Anarchy actually had a decent fan base develop around it. I never got very far in it, to be honest, despite being a Twilight 2000 RPG fan (not the horrible CRPG). The German developers later did a post-apoc RPG that never got relesed in English, but was supposedly pretty decent.

  • JonathanStrange

    It sounds like a fascinatingly flawed game. You have to find some element in a game that makes you forget how sucky some of the other parts are. If that aspect of the game works well, then you’re good to go.

    If not, then at a certain point, I have to put it away. There was this post-apocalyptic tactical game I enjoyed for its artwork mostly. I loved the deserted streets, abandoned vehicles, desperate graffiti messages, empty stores, burnt buildings, and eerie desolate music. The combat though was tedious and repetitive, with an AI that only responded if its troops were being shot at and hit.

    There was no real challenge, no reloading to try a different tactic or strategy. No point for that as just about anything worked if your luck was even halfway decent.

    Those type of games are the majority.

  • Tom Grant

    I just started playing Fallout 3, and I’m having exactly the suspension of disbelief problem you describe. Shoot the super mutant, and his hapless buddy keeps right on patrolling, because he isn’t within the dozen or so yards that define the “I care what’s happening around me” radius. Never mind that I’m banging away with a very loud assault rifle, or tossing a grenade, which is audible from half a mile away.

    But what really frosts me about Fallout is the easily-pierced illusion that tactics matter. Even when you get a companion that might help you flank someone you’ve pinned down, or lay in ambush while you feign a retreat, you’re really stuck with the same tactics you used over a decade ago in Doom. Shoot, duck behind the wall, reload, pop out, shoot again. Bleh. I know, it’s a first-person shooter, not a third-person strategy game, but it’s reminding me of some of the things in the original Fallout games that I enjoyed, but are missing here. (Fallout 3 has other virtues that the original games didn’t, to be fair.)

  • Tim James

    I just played the demo for this. It feels a lot like the Men of War series, but without the direct control. Maybe more like Ground Control or World at War. The guns on the vehicles have a solid feel that make me want to shoot enemies with them.

    Even the demo mission provides an example of the puzzle gameplay described above. I approached a barricade with 3 vehicles and dispatched the soldiers easily. As I sent them around the barricade, 2 vehicles blew up from some mines. I continued on with the last vehicle. The briefing said to avoid a frontal assault, so I snuck in the side past a patrolling Humvee. The enemies have a short alert radius. But I woke up an armored car and it destroyed my light vehicle. So I reloaded and tried again. That time I took out the armored car but it still got 2 of my vehicles. I couldn’t fight off the reinforcements.

    Do troops carry over between missions, or can you sacrifice them to get a victory?

    I noticed the game allows in-mission saves, which might make the grind easier to handle.

    I’m strangely tempted to play this game. Something felt good about it almost right away.

  • Ben

    It IS pretty good except for the bugs. And yes, you will spend a lot of time outfitting your guys, comparing dropped weapons, searching crates, setting up advantageous positions before a fight, scouting for your arty to drop some shells on the hapless enemy (hrr hrr) instead of blindly advancing into enemy fire just blasting away at anything that moves.

  • Ben

    Oh, and yes, IIRC your men DO get carried over. Force preservation is definitely something you want to look for. Same with the vehicles.

  • asdasdasd

    Fucking burn on Tom Chick

  • cheeba

    That title totally passed me by first time around, sounds interesting though. I’ll have to try and dig it up somewhere.

    Excellent article by the way.

  • MadTinkerer

    You might like the Disgaea games as well as the Disgaea universe games by the same company, Nippon Ichi.

    The Disgaea games are character-focused turn-based tactical combat games that play a bit like a comedic Anime version of Final Fantasy crossed with X Com crossed with bits of mythology from all over the world mixed together. Other tactical RPGs set in the Disgaea universe that don’t have Disgaea in the title tend to be more experimental (like Jeff-Minter-experimental), while the main Disgaea titles are the more accessible “gateway drug” that get new fans into the series. The recently released Z.H.P. is one of the experimental ones, but no less character-focused and no less recommended. However, Disgaea 3 on the PS3 is probably the best one to start with if you haven’t played any of the others.

    Anyway, All of the Disgaea Universe games have a set storyline and particular battles you play through to get through the main plot. These main battles are all “balanced” for a particular difficulty curve. However, beyond the main plot, all of them have completely optional random dungeons and upwards-scaling game mechanics (the final story boss of Disgaea 1 is level 90… which is less than 1% of the actual level cap), so you can play with the characters you’ve bonded with long after the story runs out.

    What makes them particularly relevant to this article is that they also all have a very interesting take on death: everyone can always be resurrected for a bit of cash, in some cases reincarnation is also a major game mechanic. You still need to actually win battles to progress, but anything short of a total party kill can be recovered from. In fact, Z.H.P. goes even further and literally rewards you for dying over and over again (but, really, Z.H.P. is just plain bonkers). So although individual battles may need to be restarted there’s rarely any need to reload. This allows battles to be properly challenging: enemies will gang up on weaker party members and make other “smart” tactical decisions, but the player is expected to outmaneuver the enemies and exploit the heck out of the game mechanics to come out on top.

    So anyway, the series sounds like it might be your thing.

  • World Enough And Time

    […] Bruce’s recent post on Soldiers of Anarchy and my half-formed rant about tutorials are certainly products of our age and experience. It’s not that we are wiser – my list of follies in the past twelve months would be great fodder for Renaissance woodcarvings. It’s more a realization that time is short and games should have gotten better at not making us do what often feels like busy work. […]