I’ve played a great deal of first-person shooters in my gaming experience. Hell, I even started on Wolfenstein 3d when I was young. I’ve had so much experience with the genre that I thought I was pretty solid in terms of skill. I was wrong. I was so very, very wrong, and it took Red Orchestra 2 to teach me a couple of important lessons. Lesson #1: you’re usually never quite as good at something as you fancy yourself to be, and lesson #2: if I were in actual warfare, I would probably be one of the first guys to drop.
FPS games have gone through a wide range of transition since they first came to being. First, it was you against the baddies, or your friends joined in for a cooperative run through the game. Then, deathmatch and tournament-style FPSs like Quake and Unreal Tournament joined the growing list. Soon after, class-based multiplayer stormed the scene with the Team Fortress mod for Half-Life, and it wasn’t long until warfare/conflict-style class-based gameplay hit the scene. On the advent of games like Call of Duty, Battlefield, and the Enemy Territory series, there has been growing interest in FPS games set in a war or conflict that resemble a realistic environment. Nearly every game made that claimed to fulfill this niche has largely failed to deliver a completely realistic feel, although a rare few have gotten some individual aspects right. Until Red Orchestra, I have never been terrified to peek out around a corner to see where the bullets are coming from. Oh, how things change.
The first thing to note is that the single-player campaign is nothing more than an exercise in herding sheep. The AI in the game is incredibly thick, and that almost feels like a compliment. When the player is killed in single-player, he/she then takes the role of another squad member who may be a rifleman, marksman, machine gunner, or assault class, to be brief. Several times I have ordered my squad to a location, set myself up in a position to begin firing, been killed, and subsequently taken the role of one of my idiotic AI teammates who was stuck on the stairs with a friend, apparently doing some kind of dance together. It will be important to spend some time in the single-player in order to get a feel for the game, remap and master the controls, and get an idea of what the maps will be like so multiplayer won’t seem so daunting, and the story snippets from the journals and writings of soldiers who fought in Stalingrad are quite moving as well. However, with as stupid as your AI “teammates” can be at times, it might feel like they’re secretly fighting for the other side, and single-player may get frustrating to finish completely, if that’s what you want to do (yay, achievements!).
If you’ve had your fill of SP, it’s time to move to MP, and you may as well be prepared for this straight away: you are going to die. You will die so much in your initial forays, it will become a routine event, especially with 32-man teams at maximum. The learning curve for this game is a bit higher than most, and this should come as no surprise. The main thing about this game that brings it closer to realism than any other I’ve played is the damage system. In most games of this style, a soldier can take a shot to the chest and still carry on. In Red Orchestra 2, you are more than likely dead. Shot in the face? Dead. Shot in the stomach? Well, you’ll probably still be OK for a bit, but the game will alert you of all the blood coming out of you, and you’ll be prompted to bandage that up . . . or you’re dead. In general, as with actual warfare, if you get shot, there’s a decent chance you won’t make it without some kind of attention, and the game does recognize localized damage. Therefore, being shot in the hand is much less life-threatening than being shot in the lung.
This makes for very nerve-wracking and cautious combat. Players will very quickly get a sense of how fragile they are, and the only players you will see taking off like Rambo into glory and victory are soon-to-be dead guys. Combat is cautious, but being too slow will hand your team a loss as the two most common game modes work against a clock. “Territory” is similar to push maps or capture point modes where the attacking team needs to capture every point, and the defending team is tasked with holding as many objectives as possible. “Countdown” is similar, but instead of a tug-of-war feel where points can be taken back, attack and defense trade sides once the initial attackers set a time to beat with their best performance. There is a third mode as well, “Firefight,” which is basically team deathmatch.
I also enjoy the detail that went into the weapons themselves. I personally own a Mosin-Nagant M91/30, and I can verify the sound of the gunshot is exactly the same, although at about half the decibel level. Firing most of the weapons has a rewarding feel to it, although some of them have crazy recoil and can be otherwise difficult to handle. A lot of the Russian weapons feel relatively inferior to the German counterparts, but each one is worth trying even once to get an idea of what each army was issued in Stalingrad. It is also important to note that attempting to fire a weapon without using iron sights, most notoriously a machine gun, is usually very ineffective, and this will often lead to a lot of marks on the wall, a very alive opponent, and a very dead you.
However, not everything in the game is pure gold. The cover mechanic, which is very appropriate for a game like this, takes priority over other functions of the same key, like bandaging oneself after being shot so as to avoid that whole bleeding to death thing. Also, I wish Tripwire included an option to hold the key binding for iron sights or crouching to engage the respective action instead of forcing players to accept toggling the command. Movement in the game feels clumsy and unwieldy as well, but I feel like this aspect fits well with the game in that it may simulate the weight from the gear each soldier would carry. However, what doesn’t seem at all intentional are the bugs still present in the game. Tripwire seems to be working hard to iron out the creases, and future updates should fix most if not all of these lingering issues. The bugs never rise above a level of minor annoyance, though, and the quality of the game is seldom hampered by gameplay issues whenever they do occur.
As much as I may complain about any bugs or annoyances in gameplay, this is definitely a game I’m planning on playing again as soon as I’m done writing this article. There’s something so alluring about crawling in a prone position across a vast, open, snow-covered expanse with gunfire inches above your head just to catch one enemy looking the wrong way. Every shot landed on an opposing soldier feels like its own great accomplishment, earned through careful concentration and composure or as the result of a frantic firefight when you and your enemy both realize your weapons are empty, and the panicked frenzy to defend yourselves ends in your victory (I have seen this drama at least five times in nearly a week). This title is an interesting take on a realistic, wartime FPS, and it’s certainly loads of fun no matter how much it convinces me to never ever set foot on a battlefield ever.