Like any other year, 2011 is a big one for shooters. Intensely anticipated but not as famous as this year’s “three 3s” is Red Orchestra 2, a sequel that has been at least half a decade in the making. World War II shooters seem to have fallen out of style and AAA-budgeted, squad-based, console-port-friendly titles with marines both modern and future are still the rage right now. But for those who never wanted to go away from older weaponry, Red Orchestra 2: Heroes of Stalingrad fills a niche that has been unsatisified for quite some time.
There has been nothing quite like Red Orchestra 2, though the closest thing is obviously its predecessor. RO2 has fast action, but it’s heavily-dosed with realism. It is mostly control-point oriented: while you can simply kill enough of the enemy team to win, it is uncommon for a team win that way.
Let’s cover the things that make RO2 more realistic, intense, and flexible. First is the cover system, common to third-person games like Mass Effect and Gears of War. Not only can you prone and crouch, you can also take cover in order to blind fire or pop over or to the side of an object. This is done from first person. This may seem awkward, but it is one of the easier elements to get used to. Leaning is still here as well. This system is not used by all players, but the ones who do are much more successful.
All guns have a breathing system, not just sniper rifles. All guns can adjust the distance they are trying to fire. Regular rifles are lot less affected by breathing, and holding your breath can only be done when standing still. Sniper rifles can choose to aim down a regular sight instead. Some wounds will bleed you out: these can be stopped with proper bandaging. Wherever you get hit is shown on screen afterwards, letting you know if your leg will slow you or your arms will affect your aim. Sprinting is also more realistic. It takes longer to catch your breath if you use it all up. However, it carries you a great distance if you use it all. You can run while crouching or standing.
There’s a measure of streamlining that Red Orchestra 2 chose just not to do. All ammo and weapons must be manually picked up, so you can’t just walk over it. The HUD is extremely limited. The ammo in clip is never shown, so you must tap reload to check your ammo, and even then it gives you vague descriptors. If you reload an empty rifle, you jam in all 5 shots at once. If you don’t, it has to be done one at a time.
The single-player campaign is a frustrating affair and a weak point of the game. Much of how to play is best learned using this campaign, but the tutorials come at various spots. There are five of them, and you have to go through the levels to get to them all and the levels are not fun to play in the slightest. It is difficult to get appropriate AI in a game like this, but bot actions are frequently incomprehensible. The soldiers that are too difficult are also stupid, but have excellent detection, aim, and range. It’s a great way to get acquainted with the maps, but it’s a grind. Also, each level has a long, unskippable introduction. It explains that you go through point A-F as if there is a story or some strategy, but really it is the same scene over and over again. Unskippable. The work just to get to the advanced tutorials is ridiculous. Not only is it a slog, it is a slog many will not go through. We’ve been on teams with 30 people that have one of three leader positions filled and the one commander slot sitting empty.
Tanks are awful in every way, and they should have simply been scrapped. While highly realistic with its limited field of vision and with multiple people sitting in the tank at a time, the tank levels are incredibly boring, where a respawn can take minutes. The levels that mix allow for one tank amongst plenty of soldiers. Someone always grabs it and the tanks just plop themselves at a spot and cover one area while shooting at the other tank. This does not provide more options–it restricts them by shrinking areas of the map that the other 60 players on foot can’t get to. There is the engineer and anti-tank class, but they are horribly, horribly weak against tanks.
There aren’t too many maps. All of them are geared for 32 to 64 players, but somehow most of the action takes place in a small portion of the map. There are plenty of sections that are technically live and hot, but in actuality have no people in them. For how much size and care is put into these maps, the variety starts to feel thin.
There are also lots of bugs to work out. Occasionally you get stuck in the walls, but you can usually toggle crouch out. Twice we were stuck completely. The semicolon key, which toggles class selection between spawns, is finicky. The action key is for bandaging, picking up items, and cover. Sometimes we bandage before we take cover. Items on or at walls lead to taking cover instead of grabbing the gun.
The community is vibrant, thankfully, or this game would be dead underwater. Right now there are plenty of servers with 30 to 60 people actually in them, giving you the thrill of traversing a large building or field, knowing that a player of varying skill or weapon could pop up suddenly from any distance, at any height. It’s this realistic thrill that leaves me hoping that Tripwire’s promises to both fix its many bugs and add plenty of content will vastly improve the game. On a console this game would be unforgivable and would not work. But this is a very PC game, friendly to PC gamers and those that have the patience to wait 20 seconds for spawn, spend a half-minute getting to the back of your line, take a painstaking minute to get further up, select a spot, and spend a patient minute for that one sneaky fellow who spent just as much time as you did to get up, only to satisfyingly pick him off without him even knowing who killed him or from what distance or location. Red Orchestra 2 has its frustrations, but it should be given patience for its inevitable patching and for its highly unique offerings in a genre that is so difficult to make new. Rarely will faith in a developer disappoint or satisfy so much.
Pros: Danger feels very real, maps are well-designed
Cons: Horrible single-player campaign and tutorial system, frustrating bugs to adjust to, needs patching