War games are pretty popular these days. Ever since EA’s Medal of Honor, war-themed first person shooters have been one of the most consistent themes for video games within the last fifteen years. War games often looked to World War II for inspiration, pulling from real life missions to replicating sequences from popular war films like A Bridge Too Far and Saving Private Ryan. However, when Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare was unleashed upon a surprised audience, the narrative shifted from historic to Tom Clancy-style modern warfare and considering how well the Modern Warfare series had sold, everybody wanted a piece of the action. Modernizing war games also served to implement new game mechanics that you couldn’t get away with in historic shooters and by concentrating on an amorphous enemy such as Middle Eastern terrorists, you could make a story go anywhere you wanted.
Historical war games haven’t disappeared completely, thanks to World at War and Black Ops, but these games pale in comparison to Tripwire’s Red Orchestra 2: Heroes of Stalingrad. While the Call of Duty franchise has been about fast-paced action with simplistic controls, Red Orchestra can be described best as a war simulator because it’s focus on authentic World War II weaponry is second to none. Red Orchestra has an interesting history because it began as a mod for Unreal Tournament 2004 and due to it’s intense realism and tight focus on tactical combat, it found an audience with an avid PC community. I understand why! With Unreal Engine 3 in hand, Tripwire Interactive has produced a war shooter that is, in many ways, second to none.
Based on the German offensive against the Russians during World War II, Red Orchestra 2 is not your typical first person shooter. You’re still pointing a gun at people and completing objectives, but immediately you’ll notice some major differences that separate this from other games. For one, there are no visible cross-hairs to help guide your shots. Firing from the hip is possible, but you’ll never know just how accurate your shots will be. Instead, you’ll spend the majority of combat aiming down your weapon’s iron sights, which must be manually adjusted in order to reach long range targets as well as mentally track how many shots exist in your gun at any given time. Creating a game with this level of realism these days is absolutely insane and ridiculous. And it’s positively inspiring.
I can’t praise Tripwire enough for finally breathing new life into the war genre. For years, we’ve come to expect a great many things with every first person shooter: cross-hairs, auto-aim, mini-maps that show enemy positions, ammo clips that hold 350 rounds of ammunition and perfect aim. Red Orchestra 2 spits in the face of Call of Duty and Battlefield, believing you to have been coddled long enough. This means you’ll almost always use iron sights, using the mouse wheel to adjust your sights in order to compensate for gravity and controlling your breathing. Maintaining a mental check on how much ammo is in your gun is something that takes some getting used to. Nothing is more frustrating - and terrifying - then getting a bead on an enemy only to hear the hollow click of an empty rifle. Make no mistake, this game will break you down and build you back up again.
The single player campaign starts off with you playing on the side of the German army - which no war shooter I’ve played has ever done - and the first few levels function as the in-game tutorial in order to get the feel of how combat and capturing objectives play out. Taking an objective is all a matter of clearing out a building of enemy soldiers until there are no more soldiers and once an objective is secured, you’ll move onto the next. Both sides have a finite number of soldiers available. If killed, either by being shot, blown up or bled to death, you’ll spawn into the body of another member in your unit. Eventually, you’ll be given command of a squad grouped into various fire teams that will need to be intelligently led through the war zone. Directing the squad is done through a radial menu from where you’ll issue orders like defense, rush an objective, fall back and even call in artillery fire. The campaign eventually shifts perspectives and puts you in the boots of a Soviet conscript, defending the Motherland against the German invaders.
Vehicular combat is just as intense and methodical as infantry combat. When put into the belly of steel tanks, you can switch between various positions within the vehicle in order to better examine the battlefield and locate targets. No matter where you sit, your vision is always limited by the small observation windows - no viewing the action from the safety of a third person camera, here. The driver and command positions allow you to pop your head out of the tank and get a look around, but you can (and will, as was my repeated case) be a nice, juicy target for snipers.
Red Orchestra 2’s single player campaign is merely a warm up for the game’s multiplayer component where the single player campaign’s realism and authenticity is transplanted into a theater of war populated by human players. Maps are very large and can accommodate up to sixty four players. Although I was playing in a few games that averaged at least thirty players, I rarely saw any of the opposing players until I was shot. At the start of a match, you’ll pick from a list of soldier classes that are available from the single player campaign. Whether you choose to be a rifleman, engineer or part of the assault team, you’ll want to work together as a team in order to take down the enemy and capture control points. I found multiplayer matches even more daunting than the single player game, as I was no longer fighting bots, but it was a welcome challenge that will take lots of practice and skill in order to be a valuable member of the pack.
Graphically, Red Orchestra isn’t all that impressive. The game looks good in a few spots but on the whole, it’s slightly unremarkable. However, this is one of those cases where the presentation doesn’t have to blow you away. This is the sort of game you don’t play for the visuals, because your attention will be focused on trying not to get shot. The game has familiar World War II scenery, such as bombed out buildings, scorched countryside and dark, earthy color palettes. The gameplay of Red Orchestra is so technical and methodical that you don’t want pretty graphics getting in the way. Stop looking at the high res flower renders and get to some killing, soldier!
I see this title as being pretty divisive because of how complicated and technical it is. Whether or not you will find Red Orchestra fun depends largely on your temperament and willingness to slog through a significant learning curve. If you prefer your shooters to be fast paced killfests that are low on skill and high on reaction time, this game may not be for you. On the other hand, if strategy, patience, tactics and working with a group are in your wheelhouse then you’ll eat this game right up.
Red Orchestra is not going to be for everyone, especially if you’re the type of person who puts Call of Duty or Battlefield high up on a pedestal. The mechanics in Red Orchestra are so complex and requires full attention that the extra work involved may put most people off. And yet, there is an amazing feeling of accomplishment in meeting the game’s challenge after understanding how everything works and being able to function as a skillful team player. Let’s face it, there isn’t a whole lot of skill involved in most multiplayer shooters. It all boils down to who can shoot first. In Red Orchestra, there are so many variables to take into consideration before pulling the trigger, which makes nabbing a kill against another human player infinitely more rewarding than any other shooter on the market.
Librarian by day, Darkstation review editor by night. I've been playing video games since the days of the Commodore 64 and I have no interest in stopping now that I've made it this far.