Game Reviews
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Alliance: The Silent War – Review (PC)

We’ve all seen this scenario before: you follow the development of a promising new title, only to see that promise wasted away when it fails to ever reach retail status. We’ve also all heard the promise of the independent game developer—more specifically, a developer that carries a sort of garage-band mentality. Working out of their homes, or their dorm rooms, or whatever make-shift office they can manage, they slave away on a project without any financial backing. They do this hoping that their efforts will pay off when some large publisher sees the fruits of their labor as a potential hit.

Occasionally this gamble pays off, as it has for the creators of Project Offset, and the young developer finds a new home under the wing of an important figure in the industry. This is the dream of any would-be game developer. But this piece won’t chronicle such a success because, unfortunately, it’s not a dream that is likely to come true. More often than not that dream fizzles and dies, and sometimes the result is the loss of a game that was destined for greatness. Such is the case with Alliance: The Silent War—an ambitious first person shooter that ultimately lost its way.

Alliance’s development likely began as an idea tossed around a Harvard University dorm room. The developer, Windward Mark Interactive, was officially founded in 2003 by five Harvard students. Their mission wasn’t simply to make a great game, but to create a diverse graphics platform that would serve the simulation industry. The resulting technology, known as WindLight, is still in use today as WMI continues to pursue the creation of realistic realtime worlds. As avid gamers themselves, WMI saw the potential of their technology as a powerful game development tool. The marriage of two ideal—realistic simulation and great gaming—paved the way forward for an FPS like no other.

Even on the surface the premise of Alliance was unique. The campaign was to tell a story that spanned three continents and nearly one-hundred years of global warfare. The tale began in Russia, during the first World War, and continued through a variety of real-world conflicts all the way through to the present day. When it was demonstrated at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in 2006, three environments were shown. This included a single-player level in Egypt during The Seven Year War, and glimpses of Cuba and Russia. The level of variety shown in this early demonstration would become apparent in every aspect of Alliance’s design.

With such a vast time line, you might expect that there was no connection between these skirmishes, but WMI had set out to create a complex plot that would have weaved a century’s worth of war into a concise storyline. In the world of Alliance everything was connected by two secret organizations that lurked in the shadows, constantly fighting to become the dominant force in global politics. The player was to be cast into the rolls of various members of the same family, on one side of this war behind all wars. Alliance promised not only a tremendous amount of variety, but a compelling story that would take the player from one end of this global time line to the other.

As if that weren’t enough to pique your interest, things got even more exciting when you dug a little deeper. Built upon their WindLight atmospheric rendering technology, The Alliance Engine aimed to deliver a previously unheard-of level of simulation gameplay to the genre, as well as cutting-edge graphics. Using full-scene universal lighting their engine would bask environments in realistic outdoor light, simulating the behavior of the sun. Their attention to detail and dedication to simulation extended beyond the realm of graphics technology. Perhaps the most exciting aspect of The Alliance Engine was the promise of ballistics simulation that would exceed any other product on the market.

The diversity found in their single-player game, and the advanced simulation technology found in their game engine, both would have rewarded the multi-player portion of the game greatly. Since Alliance was to take place over ninety years of conflict, it also included ninety years of realistic firepower as well. The game was set to include over two hundred (200) real-world firearms, and they would all be accessible in a number of versus and co-op multi-player modes. WMI once called it “The Grand Turismo of guns.”

Players would have been given control over deep customization here via The War Studio, which would have allowed them to create interesting “what if” scenarios. One example pitted a Russian WWI brigade against a modern US Navy Seal team—or alternatively you could chose a more balanced model across the game’s various settings. Within The War Studio players also would be given the ability to view the ballistics characteristics of any of the game’s two hundred weapons. Servers could also be configured to deliver a more arcade-like run-and-gun experience, a hard-core simulation mode, or even something in between.

You might think that such an ambitious game would have attracted some serious attention, especially considering how far into development Alliance was when it was officially “shelved.” Nevertheless, if it was attention that WMI wanted then their gamble was not a complete loss. In June 2007, WMI confirmed that they were officially putting the brakes on Alliance: The Silent War. They had been made an offer by Linden Labs, creators of Second Life Online—and it was an offer that in their own words they “could not refuse.” WMI is currently working with Linden Labs on integrating their WindLight technology into Second Life Online.

The apparent abandonment of Alliance: The Silent War outraged a lot of WMI’s potential fans, however, and it wasn’t uncommon to see the word “sellout” being thrown around on their forums. Given the nature of developing a game from scratch without a publisher to back your efforts or pay the way through, perhaps it’s a little unfair to judge WMI’s decision to move forward with Second Life Online.

WMI has tried to extinguish those flames by pointing out that they care a great deal for Alliance, and would like to continue the project in the future if possible. As unlikely as it may seem that there is any kind of future for Alliance, we can only hope that its ambitious concepts aren’t forgotten. There are a variety of reasons that such progress is can see itself derailed, but ultimately there’s no comfort in such an explanation to an audience hungry for truly progressive games.