Iron Storm: The Final Revelation

I had been wondering how the story would end. On the one hand, it seemed to be building up to a confrontation with Ugenberg. Hero Trounces Boss simply is how most action games go. Even Wolfenstein 3D had you personally duke it out with Hitler, and in a history without Hitler, Ugenberg is his equivalent. Equivalent enough to provoke the question: Without him, is there a war? Wouldn’t ending the war be a denial of the premise of the game, of a war unending? Moreover, in the process of looking for hints, I had learned that the game has a sequel, titled Bet on Soldier. It’s set in 1998. The war is still ongoing.

I had it figured wrong. The ending isn’t where the player enacts his ultimate victory. The ending is where the story amps up its sense of wrongness and confronts us with the futility of all our efforts. Ugenberg is killed by someone else, in a cutscene, precisely to keep the war going: the nukes his scientists were developing threatened to bring the whole thing to a decisive end, and the investors aren’t about to let that happen. It’s a development that reminds me of Metal Gearhow Metal Gear Solid 2 makes the player anticipate confrontations and then denies them satisfaction. Now, the revelatory cutscene is kind of clumsy in delivery, and left me unclear about what was happening in the moment — only after finding Ugenberg’s corpse somewhat later did I work out that the player character had been observing it on a TV monitor. But there’s something undeniably effective about the way it forcefully foregrounds the dreadful truths that we’ve been basically aware of all along but haven’t been paying attention to for the last several hours of gameplay. It’s basically a horror story moment, really, and fits with what I’ve already described as horror-game decor.

The decor in Ugenberg’s actual quarters is notably different, mind you. I had been expecting an opulence that contrasts with the rest of the building — officers’ quarters in previous levels did as much. But I wasn’t expecting the enormous Buddha statue, or the sitar music, or the Escher prints displayed alongside the expected equestrian painting of Napoleon. All again accentuating the sense of wrongness, not just by being out of place, but by suggesting intrusive fragments of a better world, making everything else feel wronger by contrast.

The very end has more of that clumsy unclarity, leaving me unsure about things like “Wait, was that last abnormally tough soldier supposed to be the guy from the cutscene? If so, did I recover the magnetic keys from him or not?” and “What was with that cry of pain after I boarded the helicopter on the roof? Was that supposed to be the player character killing the pilot or the player character getting ironically killed?” But these are now small matters, irrelevant to the big picture. Alternate history is always something of a commentary on the real present, and it’s very easy to see the unending war here as just the slightest exaggeration of the permanent war footing we’ve been on since WWII. I’m a little uneasy about the idea that a shadowy cabal of international financiers is the real villains behind it all, because that line of thought leads all too easily to antisemitism. But taking it as just a caricature of the military-industrial complex, it’s significant that even the boots-on-the-ground soldiers were talking about their portfolios earlier, showing their eager complicity in the system they were born into and take for granted.

Iron Storm. What a weird little game.

Iron Storm: Reichstag

Once in Berlin, you make your way through underground tunnels to the Reichstag building, to steal the final macguffin (the magnetic keys for your stolen sample case) from the quarters of Baron Ugenberg himself, and ideally also assassinate him while you happen to be in the area. Presumably the Reichstag fire never happened in this alternate timeline, but the building is in very poor condition anyway, with the kind of dingy decrepitude you mostly see in horror games. Lots of boarded-up windows and doors to constrain your movement. Outside, it’s surrounded by tanks and barbed wire. Even at the highest levels of government, the neverending war consumes everything.

The building is divided into five floors, with a solitary elevator as your main way of traveling between them. On most floors, the elevator area is quite firmly defended by turrets. A roomful of electrical boxes on the second floor 1The floors are numbered in the traditional European way: floor 1 is the one above the ground floor. lets you turn off the power to any floor (except for floor 3, because its switch handle is broken). This deactivates the turrets on that floor, but also deactivates the elevator doors, forcing you to find a different entry point.

My first assumption was that this was going to be a straightforward floor-by-floor ascent, sweeping through each floor to find the stairs to the next. I had, after all, entered through the basement, and had to explore pretty thoroughly to find the stairs up to the ground floor. But instead, it turns out to involve a lot of going up and down. That basement, for example, had a severe problem with electrical leakage into standing water, making portions of it inaccessible until I went up to floor 2 and turned off the electricity. From the newly-accessible part of the basement, I can reach a new part of the ground floor, from which I can get outside and climb a ladder up to a howitzer in a second-story window that lets me take out the tanks preventing me from using a different exterior door. I spend a lot of time running through hallways I’ve already cleared of enemies, now eerily quiet, trying to remember where things are and how to reach them. In fact, I’m spending a lot of time stuck, not really clear on what my next goal is or how the last thing I did helps me reach it.

In short, this chapter plays a lot like an adventure game. Just an adventure game where you sometimes have to shoot people.

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1. The floors are numbered in the traditional European way: floor 1 is the one above the ground floor.

Iron Storm: Sneak Train

Iron Storm level 5 takes place entirely on a train — a huge and fantastical Snowpiercer-style one, which you traverse back to front, making you way through cars devoted to different purposes, like a barracks car and a hospital car and a chapel car. We’re well out of the realm of the real now and barreling towards Berlin.

It’s another stealth level, or semi-stealth, anyway. You have a silenced pistol this time, letting you pick off soldiers unseen, one by one, and take their stuff. There are automated turrets linked to an alarm system, and if you can get through a car without anyone triggering the alarm, that’s great. But there’s also the (frequently unwise) option of just going in guns blazing and turning the alarm off when you can — or even just bolting for the next car, as the alarm systems aren’t linked. I tried to stealth it as much as I could, but wound up in a lot of pitched firefights anyway. I strongly suspect there are tricks I simply missed.

Of course, sometimes you have to climb out of the train and onto the roof, because how can you have a train sequence in a war story where that doesn’t happen, although various things prevent you from just running all the way to the locomotive that way. The exterior nighttime scenery rushing by is pretty nice. Eventually you also have to backtrack a bit, going through cars you’ve already cleared, which, on your return, now have new newly-erected barricades, forcing you to take alternate routes over the roof or through vents or something. This strengthens my impression that there were additional stealth routes I could have taken all along, if I had noticed them.

You ultimate goal here is a special high-security room containing a case with samples from the lab in level 4. So secure is it, I had to hit up a walkthrough. There are these two turrets pointing right at the case, and there’s no cover on the way there, and try as I might, I couldn’t find the off switch. Well, it turns out that, despite the failure of my earlier attempts at destroying turrets (which occurred as early as the trenches), turrets aren’t completely indestructible, just highly damage-resistant. If you can get into its blind spot and pump a few dozen rounds into it, it goes limp. I feel like I might have done some things differently if I had known, but when I think about it, I honestly can’t think of another place where it really would have made a difference.

Iron Storm: Leaving Weapons Behind

In level four, Iron Storm takes you inside a secret underground weapons research complex, a place of white corridors, automated security systems, and men in lab coats speaking German. It’s a little bit Wolfenstein here, but even more Half-Life, albeit kind of in reverse. Remember how in Half-Life at a certain point soldiers arrive to kill everything in the facility, scientists included? That’s kind of what happens here, except you’re the soldier mercilessly slaughtering the scientists. Slaughtering scientists isn’t your mission, exactly — your mission is to blow up the entire facility — but you do it because if you don’t kill them, they can raise the alarm and get actual soldiers involved. And facing soldiers is a bad idea, at least at first, because at the beginning of the level you’re captured and forced to relinquish your weapons.

You also have to get rid of weapons at the end of level 2, when you sneak onto a POW transport and one of your confederates advises you that “the weapons on your back are too obvious” — and sure enough, when I zoomed out to 3rd-person mode to check, I’m visibly carrying a small arsenal back there. I wondered about this at first: If I’m on a prisoner transport, and I’m unarmed, how am I better off than any of the other prisoners? What’s the point of sending me on a secret mission to just throw myself helplessly into the arms of the enemy? But in fact the qualifier “on your back” was important there; I could keep a few less-conspicuous items, like the knife (sabre? machete?) that I had previously mainly used for slashing boxes open to get health pick-ups.

Level 4 doesn’t even let you keep the knife, although you can find a new one before long. However, that is the only weapon you have for most of the level, which means it’s mainly a stealth mission. I suppose it’s theoretically possible to let an alarm go off, kill one of the resulting soldiers, and take his gun, but as they respond to alarms in pairs, it would take an extremely skilled berserker swordsman. Much better to wait until you find an isolated soldier who isn’t aware of your presence.

It’s not at all uncommon for a FPS to take all your weapons away once in a while, as a way of extending gameplay by resetting your collection progress. Daikatana took your weapons away so it could give you a different set. Serious Sam took your weapons away so it can give the same ones back in a different order. But there’s one thing that Iron Storm does that I don’t think I’ve seen anywhere else: It makes you discard your weapons yourself. Dropping weapons has been a part of the game’s mechanics from the beginning, motivated by opportunities to replace them with better weapons, or at least other weapons — you have one “heavy weapon” slot, which can hold either an assault rifle or a rocket launcher, either of which can be situationally superior. But in the end of level 2 and the beginning of level 4, you’re forced to manually drop weapons without replacement. It comes off as a gesture of submission. Like a child sent out to cut the switch that will be used to spank him, you’re not just being disempowered, you’re being required to actively participate in your own disempowerment — a sadistic touch surely designed to make you hate your captors even more.

Iron Storm: Some Boss Fights

Level 3 of Iron Storm throws us into our first urban environment, the German town of Wolfenburg, very old-world place that was probably picturesque before the shelling started. Even though it’s still grey and dismal, it feels good to get out of the trenches for a while. Setting has always been the most important feature of the single-player FPS genre; the shooting just gives us an excuse to run around in a big 3D sculpture and engage with it in novel ways.

Although the game has only 6 levels, they’re on the long side, each effectively being a series of levels stuck together, separated by boss fights. The first real boss fight, back in level 2, involved using a rocket launcher to down a helicopter, which then conveniently crashes in just the right position to plug a gap in a bridge and allow you forward. Wolfenburg has a couple of tanks, the first tanks you see that aren’t broken and abandoned, one in the town plaza and one roaming the streets. To beat either one, you have to first go searching for anti-tank mines — which can only be found on the other side of the plaza where one of the tanks is, making it an encounter similar to the Asylum Demon in Dark Souls, where you have to run away first and come back better-equipped.

Past Wolfenburg, there’s a sequence that I quite liked, largely due to its atmosphere: a sniper fight, in the rain, which interferes with visibility. Distant guard towers are just barely visible as grey shadows against a grey sky. It’s the sort of slow, methodical gameplay that I’m enjoying the most here, and it’s followed by a boss fight that’s the exact opposite: running around on catwalks above a factory floor, dodging rockets. The source of the rockets is one of the few non-mechanical bosses I’ve encountered, the third of three extra-tough brothers from Siberia, seen earlier in propaganda videos and encountered individually. The first one, I don’t even remember fighting. The second found me in the tunnels under Wolfenburg, and was furious at me for killing his brother. The third willingly let me into that factory once I made it to the door, treating me as an honorable adversary. It was a frustratingly tough fight, restarted many times; I was unable to do it in a single session.

But of course I was able to restart it, right? That is the only reason the third brother is dead. He is a vastly superior warrior. He killed me many times, and I only killed him once. That’s the pattern for most of the game outside of boss fights as well.

Iron Storm: Lore

Now, I wouldn’t call Iron Storm lore-heavy. What lore it has mainly seems like a way to add an off-kilter tone to its tense and bleak vibe: This is World War I, but it isn’t quite right. It’s 1964. There are wrecks of WWI-era tanks, with the big lozenge-shaped treads the height of the entire body, but there are also helicopters. The armies of the world are in some way financed by a stock market; soldiers can be overheard discussing their portfolios, and every propaganda video about developments in the war includes a mention of the impact those developments have had on futures prices.

By 1964, the war has simplified into two sides: the United States of Western Europe and the Russo-Mongolian Empire. This is a world where the Bolshevik revolution was defeated, mainly through the efforts of one Baron Ugenberg, whose banners you can see at enemy camps. (Possibly this was the point of divergence.) Enemies mutter and bark in either Russian or German — the intro tells us that Germany is split down the middle between the two sides, just like in our timeline in 1964, but every German I’ve met has been a bad guy. Perhaps the idea of a split Germany was added to mollify German players. It’s worth noting that the game was developed by a French studio.

I’m mainly going to hang this on the same peg as Command & Conquer: Red Alert: it wants to use historical stylings to evoke certain feelings, but it wants to avoid the complications of actual fairly-recent history. And so it simplifies, turning the most complex of wars into an easily-digestible good-guys-vs-bad-guys story (and, to an extent, shifts the bad-guy status from Germany to Russia, but not as hard as Red Alert did). But it wouldn’t really feel like World War I without a sense of moral unease about the whole thing. And so it adds that back in fictional form with financial speculation on solders’ lives.

Iron Storm

Still in the mood to get some twenty-year-old first-person shooters off the Stack, I pull up Iron Storm (Wanadoo, 2002). 1It is possible that my choice here was influenced by the title’s similarity to the name of the studio that developed the last game I blogged here. I picked this out of the bargain bin back in the day because the premise sounded interesting: it’s set in an alternate history where World War I dragged on for fifty years. “Alternate history sci-fi? That sounds cool!” I said, failing to realize how little it would mean in the context of a shooter, that the premise is just an excuse to play soldiers without an obligation to history. I had basically tricked myself into buying Call of Duty without even the pretense of realism. And then I found it excessively difficult to survive the very beginning — it throws you in at the deep end, asking you to pick off some snipers that you can’t even tell what direction they’re killing you from for the first half-dozen tries or so. So I shelved it, and am only getting back to it now. At some point I seem to have picked up the Steam version in a bundle, so I’m playing that instead of installing from disc.

It’s not quite the FPS I remembered — it’s a hybrid that lets you switch freely between first-person and third-person perspective, and defaults to third-person. The designers probably expected that you’d stay in third-person most of the time, but I find myself preferring first, because there’s fewer things on the screen to keep track of that way: instead of your character and an aiming reticle, it’s just the reticle. As befits a game set in a war, there are NPCs on your side, creating some slight sense of comradery as you engage the enemy together, but you leave them behind before long: you’re a solitary commando on a special mission behind enemy lines. The environment is heavily based around trenches — trench networks that branch off to places irrelevant to your mission, that you can easily believe go on for miles and miles, surrounded by nothing but ash and ruins.

Having played through the first level and some ways into the second (out of a mere 6, apparently), I’d say the overall feel is mainly characterized by tension. You can be killed so easily, and the enemies are prepared. They don’t have to run around dodging your attacks when they’re already in a secure machine gun nest with good cover. Sure, sometimes they do just mindlessly run into your fire anyway, but I’ve also had the experience of seeing a soldier escape around a bend and just wait there, aiming at where he knows I’ll be, because I need to keep going forward and all he needs to do is keep me from doing that. In an excellent bit of genre-appropriate interaction design, you can crouch and even crawl on your belly to take better advantage of cover. The ending of level 1 had me crawling around an open area, badly wounded, hearing the impact of bullets on earth around me, unable to return fire effectively because the sun was behind them.

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1. It is possible that my choice here was influenced by the title’s similarity to the name of the studio that developed the last game I blogged here.