I have been made soft by my time on consoles. I wasn’t ready to admit it until now, but I can feel it in my bones. Like an arthritic old race horse being asked to gallop into a glue factory, I have been left broken by my journey through the Red Orchestra 2 (RO2) multiplayer beta. Each session leaves me gasping and bewildered, much like the soldiers who fought for months in the shattered city of Stalingrad where this game takes place. In that way, I imagine, Tripwire Interactive is meeting one of their design goals.
No matter how many deaths I have in a round, no matter how much I am incapable of landing even the simplest full-auto shots unassisted by auto-aim, I just can’t stop playing this game. And in this way they are clearly meeting another of their design goals.
The meticulous care with which Tripwire re-created this time in history shows that they respect these soldiers and the war they fought, and that means a great deal to me. All the time I’ve spent mowing down “a-rabs” in Modern Warfare 2 and locusts in Gears of War now feels disingenuous and immature compared to these battles. I do not imagine that a platoon of German grenadiers, given the opportunity, would kick back in the barracks with RO2 the way our troops do with MW2. And that’s because multiplayer MW2 doesn’t feel like war, while RO2 very clearly does.
Tripwire has shown creativity in using modern shooter mechanics and clever gameplay modes to enrich the player experience, to elevate it above the common shooter into something almost sentimental. In doing so they are telling the story of a pivotal moment in the history of WWII, not through a ham-fisted single-player campaign but in the structure of the multiplayer maps and the character models themselves. As any good writer will, Tripwire shows this story instead of merely telling it.
Perhaps my favorite mechanic is suppression, brought on by sustained heavy weapons or artillery fire near your position. During one battle the other night, I sprinted toward the Soviet party headquarters in the middle of the map, mantled through a broken window and landed in a dark office. Crouching, I checked left, right, and carefully moved into the next room to clear it. Turning left again I saw movement down a hallway running the length of the building, and heard the tell-tale burp of an MG-34. He had to be the one who wiped out my squad as we crossed the road and I was determined to root him out.
Unfortunately so was our commander. Overhead I could hear the first artillery rounds coming in. Whether they were ours or theirs didn’t matter, because they would kill us both just the same. The rounds landed in the road perhaps 10 yards away. SCREAM, BOOM SCREAM SCREAM BOOM BOOM! Through my headphones all I could hear was a ringing studded by impacts, then the burp of the gunner dulled and ceased altogether as he stopped firing and took cover. I decided to wait, while the German decided to run.
As the shelling intensified, my vision grayed around the edges, stuttered and froze like a slide show. My movements slowed and became jerky. Finally the cowering gunner emerged into the hallway and, having prepared my fatal funnel, I gunned him down. Then another German crossed into the funnel, then another, and another. But I took down only one of these others before the shelling became so intense that I couldn’t accurately aim my weapon any longer. I tucked in the corner, near a child’s desk, fumbling for another magazine for my assault rifle. As the volley receded I realized I had been unable to hear where the Germans were running to and would have to clear the building, carefully, all over again.
Of course other games have modeled the effects of suppression, but what makes it all the more interesting in this game is the way you move through the environment. To find the perfect spot, and then to be rendered immobile with piss-your-pants fear is almost worse than death. The broken landscape does not have clear pathways or logical frontlines. Each is a maze of ruined buildings, each which must be navigated carefully while all the time keeping track of your enemies and their lines of fire. Instead of weapons or kill-streak combos your reward is your position, and getting there is laborious.
To augment their traditional ASWD+lean layout, Tripwire has elected to steal several mechanics from Gears, namely the aforementioned mantling as well as a unique cover mechanic. In Gears and other modern third-person shooters, your mantles are a graceful pirouette through the magical, invulnerable forcefield of animations. Not so in RO2. As soon as you put your foot on a waist-high sandbag you become the biggest and most awkward target on the map as you catapult yourself to the other side with all the elegance of a dishwasher falling down a staircase. To mantle before your enemy is to commit suicide.
Likewise in Gears, slapping a button pulls you into the warm embrace of cover. Done right, a good COG can rollerskate across the terrain, from bump to bump, and take only a few glancing blows from enemies no matter their distance from them. No dice in RO2 as very few places allow for cover. When horizontal objects do allow for cover, you don't knuckle-drag your lancer surreptitiously at your feet. Rather, your bolt-action rifle is propped up in the air, ready to lower and fire but also giving away your position. You must cover, fire, and move — or the next time you pop up your head, you’ll lose it. God forbid you cover against a vertical object and exit cover to the left, because your perpetually right-handed avatar will have to expose his entire body to take his shot, a fact that is nearly impossible to discover, as this is a first-person rather than a third-person game.
In RO2, entering cover is a keystroke. Aiming is a keystroke. Firing is a keystroke. Releasing from cover is another keystroke. What took one or two buttons in Gears takes nearly a half dozen in RO2. I feel like I’m playing chopsticks on a grand piano. There are literally not enough buttons on my new Nostromo to effectively play this game. I have been completely, inevitably forced onto my keyboard.
Understand though that this is why I’m falling in love with this game. It does not make things easy on the player, it does not pander to them with simple solutions. RO2 demands that you take it seriously, and when you do, you can be rewarded.
One thing that I’ve been taking seriously is the history behind the game. Back during the Close Combat series I took up a healthy interest in the Eastern front in order to make sense of their awkward campaign map system. Here in RO2, map after map tugged at the edges of my memory in annoying ways. I cracked a book the other night and there, in black and white, is the final proof that Tripwire has really gone another step up in realism. The square dedicated to the fallen of the Bolshevik Revolution, the grain elevator, the machine shop, the industrial district … all of the landmarks of the Battle of Stalingrad are accurately detailed and here for me to “play” in. This is not a contrived map, like Gears’ underground cavern filled with paint-ball barriers or MW2’s impossible intersection of a plane crash, a mountain cave, and a poppy field. Tripwire wants this game to evoke and even celebrate its history, and they’ve gone to great lengths to do so.
There are warts on this game, and I'm downloading the final version right now to find out if they were taken care of. Local clients tend to lose connection with the servers as you are spawning back in. The user interface between spawns is wonky to say the least, but improvements came quickly during the beta. For under $40, I’m willing to give them the benefit of the doubt. This is a game I’ll happily lay my money out for, perhaps even instead of Battlefield 3. But I’m still buying Gears 3. I need to feel good at a game, to feel a mastery over it, and that’s not something I think I may every have with RO2. And that, I am sure, is yet another one of Tripwire’s design goals achieved.