Someday in the distant future, a doctoral student in anthropology will write a thesis on the topic of war on the planet Earth based on the only research materials still available: the National Archive of Video Games. His inarguable conclusion will be that the only war ever fought was from 1939 to 1945. It appeared for awhile that there may have been some form of more modern warfare, but in mid-2011 the WWII genre made another reappearance. This revelation will come from the recently released Tripwire FPS, Red Orchestra 2: Heroes of Stalingrad. Just when you thought it was safe to say that the WWII genre had run its course... here comes one more entry into a very crowded market.
Still, even within a crowded market there is usually some niche that has been under-served. In the case of Red Orchestra, Tripwire appears to be taking aim at the ultra-realistic multi-player segment. This becomes readily apparent very early in the single-player campaign mode. It starts out well enough with a fairly standard tutorial wherein the player learns how to operate a handful of standard German army infantry weapons, but at a level of detail somewhat higher than previous games in the genre. For example, the player not only learns how to fire a rifle from a few different stances, but how to adjust the gun sights to compensate for bullet drop over longer distances. The weapons and firing motions are well detailed and the voice narration has an authentic German accent. At this point, things are looking pretty promising.
Unfortunately the player is soon turned loose to fight the Russians for control of Stalingrad. It is at this point it becomes painfully obvious that the single-player mode is intended to be nothing more than a training ground for the multi-player. It’s very much like a Saturday night at Walmart: you’re convinced that you are the only sane person in the place. You comrades in arms bumble around running into walls and each other, and every now and then manage to shoot an enemy. The enemy AI is every bit as stupid, which is the only reason your army isn’t annihilated within the first couple of minutes. That said, the enemy soldiers are pretty good shots - until you learn that the safest thing to do is cower under cover while the simpletons eradicate each other, sudden death in the form of a shot fired from a distant enemy is not uncommon.Things get slightly better when you advance to the point where you earn the ability to direct some squads, but only because you can direct your troops to the appropriate area to wander around aimlessly.
The high realism level comes in with the damage model of your soldier. One hit can easily be enough to kill you, causing you to re-spawn into the next available warm body. More times than not, that re-spawning places you in the body of a soldier that was trapped on what looked like a treadmill as he futilely sprinted at full speed against a wall or other object. Most other re-spawns were into a soldier that was standing at a window staring at the wrong end of the battlefield. Not all injuries are immediately fatal, although I never seemed to be able to gain any benefit from applying one of the two bandages my soldier was carrying. As it turns out, I never much cared. Life is pretty cheap when you can just re-spawn into another body.
I had high hopes that the tank fighting would be better. Certainly the tanks themselves were very nicely modeled, and the ability to transfer stations within the tank to take the place of injured or dead crew members was a nice innovation. Unfortunately, the same challenges with the AI on both sides of the conflict crushed any hope that there would be some challenging fun to be had. It should have come as no surprise that putting a functionally illiterate troop in a tank results only in a functionally illiterate tank commander.
As unsatisfying as the single-player is, the multi-player truly delivers. It is in multi-player, when you are fighting with and against intelligent opponents, that the wonderful attention to realism and detail starts to pay off. It is here that you will discover that taking cover behind the nearest vertical surface is not enough; you have to make sure that you are a little more selective when it comes to selecting cover to make sure that the cover isn’t too tall or too short. If the cover is too tall, you won’t be able to see over it to fire. You can fire in the blind, of course, but that isn’t much of a strategy for survival. The cost of trying to take cover behind something too short should be obvious. Getting under cover and firing your weapon is smoothly accomplished with a single key press to get under cover, followed with the right mouse button to pop up over the cover (or around the corner of a wall) to take aim on the target. When it comes time to break cover, it’s as simple as just walking away. Deploying a machine gun is just as easy, although there were quite a few times when I received a death certificate in the form of the soon-dreaded “cannot deploy here” message.
I generally prefer machine guns over single fire rifles, but I found that it was easier to keep track of how many rounds remained in the single fire rifles. There’s no rounds remaining display on the screen, so keeping track of shots fired a la Dirty Harry was essential. When I tried using a machine gun, I often found myself popping out of cover to pull the trigger only to hear nothing but the single click of the firing pin being driven home into... an empty chamber. Reloads are realistically time consuming, so this was typically a fatal error.
I also tried killing from afar with a sniper rifle and found that to be a gratifyingly realistic endeavor too. Bullet drop is naturally far more pronounced at longer distances, and the view through the scope was uncannily true to life. Sniping was not nearly as easy as it is in other games. Nor, as it turned out, is clearing a building armed with a pistol. I found that the aim of the German P-38 was every bit as spotty as the one I own, and the stopping power also left something to be desired. Between my poor aim and the relatively light impact of the 9mm rounds, emptying an entire magazine into an enemy ended up being my favorite strategy.
Some of the maps are quite large, but the ability for up to 64 players to join in should make it easy to find someone to shoot at. Unfortunately, the available servers were very sparsely populated during the times I was able to join and the play seemed to often degenerate into a death match, but the potential for excellent tactical battles is apparent.
In summary, if you’re looking for a cinematic arcade-like single-player experience in the manner of a Call of Duty game, Red Orchestra 2 is not for you. On the other hand, those looking for a sophisticated, realistic multi-player mode will find this to be a satisfying selection. It’s very challenging, but mostly in a good way. Expect to die a lot because that is the way the real Battle for Stalingrad was; approach Red Orchestra 2 with the right frame of mind and it will satisfyingly deliver an authentic experience.