Sunday, September 25, 2011

Red Orchestra 2: Heroes of Stalingrad Review

Red Orchestra 2: Heroes of Stalingrad, developed and published by Tripwire Interactive.
The Good: Authentic weapons and ballistics emphasize cautious movement, intuitive cover system, useful suppression, range of realism settings, detailed environments and tanks
The Not So Good: Terrible AI, lack of polish, small maps and quick respawn times reduce tactical flexibility and increase stalemates, no accuracy penalty for aiming while standing, limited dynamic building destruction
What say you? This World War II first person shooter sequel retains most of the realism of the original with some tradeoffs to make it more approachable, but it is painful offline and not totally ready to be released: 6/8

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World War II first person shooter. If that doesn’t make you quiver with excitement…well, that’s understandable. The glut of online shooters have moved into modern times, seemingly fed up with the grand wars of history and the untold millions of computer games covering the era. But, there is always room for one more, as Red Orchestra 2: Heroes of Stalingrad hopes to offer an update to the mod-derived hardcore shooter, where realism is chosen above the arcade concessions found in other shooters. Does this sequel deliver the goods for both the realism fanatic and newcomer?

Red Orchestra 2 uses the third version of the Unreal Engine with decent results. Its starts with the character models, which are detailed up close, complete with all of the objects real soldiers come into battle with (hanging grenades, shovels, etc). The soldiers of each side run differently, too, which makes them a bit easier to distinguish at range (Russians always grasp their weapons with both hands). However, there are some instances of clipping into objects and other soldiers that detract from the realism of the title. The gore effects are nice when grenades are in use (limbs go flying), but a bit understated when headshots are involved (no chunks of flesh). The weapons are detailed and seemingly realistic in their designs, and tank rounds glow as they soar through the air. Watching bullets impact a wall is also neat. Smoke is impenetrable, providing excellent cover for advancing troops. The maps are quite detailed, with plenty of objects in reach room and destruction already in place: holes in walls, piles bricks on the ground, trenches. You’ll rarely find an empty room, and this goes a long way into making Red Orchestra 2 feel like it’s taking place in a real location. The game supposedly features destructible buildings, but I’ve only seen tanks occasionally take out small chunks of walls; you can’t, for example, shoot out a wall or use explosives to create a new access point, which is pretty disappointing. Speaking of tanks, the full 3-D interiors are impressive and very immersive. The game’s HUD provides limited information on suppression and stamina, plus a small minimap and useful tactical overlay to get your bearings.

Red Orchestra 2 has solid sound design: you can pinpoint enemy locations (and which weapon they are using) using sound alone. The characters use accented English voice work, which is a bit disappointing in a game that purports authenticity, but at least they have some amusing things to say. In addition, cries during the throws of death are effective, if a bit over-the-top. Red Orchestra 2 advertises dynamic music, and it ends up being less varied than I would have thought: there’s a small piece of music that occurs when objectives are captured and a change in tempo when the countdown clock is low, but overall it’s the same songs over and over again. Still, I found nothing overwhelmingly offensive about the sound design in the game.

Red Orchestra 2: Heroes of Stalingrad features a series of battles over the city of Berlin. No, wait, Stalingrad. The single player game consists of two campaigns, one for the Germans and one for the Russians, that take place around the city of Stalingrad. The missions are unlocked in a specific order, and you must win a battle in order to move on to the next scenario. This includes the tutorials, which, while informative, do not change the on-screen directions if you reconfigure your commands (no, left-control is NOT used for cover anymore). All of the missions have you attacking or defending specific objectives (usually a sub-set of those used in the multiplayer portion of the game), and the unique feature is the ability to take over other allies when you die. However, you do not get a choice as to which soldier you get next, and the game seems to stick you with machine gunners while attacking and the assault class on defense. The scenario is only lost if everyone is eliminated, but reinforcements come every minute or two. So, if you are the last soldier left, you can just camp and wait for the next reinforcement wave, the timer for which is handily displayed on the tactical view. Exciting! The AI is absolutely awful, one of the worst I’ve seen in any recent first person shooter (Brink’s AI is almost scholarly be comparison). Granted, it’s difficult to make a decent AI in a team-based shooter, but things should be better than this. The AI is hopeless as an attacker: they never deploy smoke, charge out in the open, and don’t work together. As a defender they are more competent, but during assaults it’s you against the enemy while the rest of your teammates run around, failing to actually defend the objective. Red Orchestra 2 lets you see the next soldier you will control before you swap bodies, and this is where the shortcomings of the AI become most apparent: soldiers nowhere near the objective, using cover but aiming away from the enemy, being trapped in trenches, running back and forth in the open, and so on. The AI also seems oblivious as to what class they are, with machine gunners running around in the open and submachine gunners laying back behind cover. It’s a comedy of errors, except nobody is laughing. Using commands (once you get promoted) makes things slightly better, but the AI will still ignore your orders and avoid taking objectives until you clear out all the enemies yourself. In short, do not buy Red Orchestra 2: Heroes of Stalingrad for the single player campaign.

On the multiplayer side of things, Red Orchestra 2 has up to sixty-four players fighting it out over several game modes. The first is territory, where two or three objectives are given at a time and must be conquered before moving on to the next set, in order to concentrate the violence. Countdown is similar, but each person is limited to one life per objective: this makes the games more tense, but the short time limit reduces the tactical caution you can exercise. Finally, firefight is a team deathmatch mode that features spawning near friendly units (but not necessarily out of harm’s way) and some large maps not suitable for this kind of unorganized chaos. Each of the modes allow you to adjust the realism setting for the server, turning off the minimap and friendly soldier names for a more authentic experience if you prefer. Playing online can be fun, but not if the server has PunkBuster enabled: this easily doubles everyone’s ping, which results in less-than-smooth gameplay. I’m not sure why the developers opted for this antiquated anti-cheat program when VAC is already used by default, especially when it seems to cause significant performance issues. In addition, the server browser sometimes does not refresh if you quit an online game, it seems to display a random assortment of servers every time, spawning on the squad leader never seems to work, and I've experienced crashes often enough to become annoying. Plus, unlocks are not working. These types of annoying issues would be sorted out if the game has a couple of months more development time before widespread release.

The game’s ten maps each feature a mix of open areas, narrow streets, and multi-story buildings to sneak around. Machine gun nests are semi-randomly spawned before each game, so you never are quite sure where they will appear. The maps in Red Orchestra 2 are much smaller than their original counterparts, which leads to quicker fights but less tactical freedom and smaller engagement ranges. In addition, the short 20-second default spawn times means reinforcements reach the objectives way too quickly, leading to stalemates and tie games on most maps. Finally, being a derivative of a mod itself, Red Orchestra 2 features support for user modifications, so it’s fair to assume custom-made maps will appear quickly after release.

Red Orchestra 2 features a couple of enhancements to the typical first person shooter control scheme. The most noticeable is the new cover system, which I found to work well most of the time. When facing a wall or other object, an on-screen prompt suggests entering first-person cover by pressing a specific button. As you crouch behind an object, you can do several things. Looking down your iron sights will peek above cover (or around a corner if you are in that situation); leaving iron sights or pressing the reload button will duck back down. You can also blind fire your weapon or grenades from behind cover, and moving laterally behind cover is easy to do. It can get a little dicey when walls aren’t exactly the right height or objects are in front of windows, but generally cover works as it should. Other options include the ability to mantle (jump) over low objects; and sprinting while prone will return you to a prone position when you are done running.

Guns. Lots of guns. Well, at least the guns used during the Battle of Stalingrad. They generally fall into several categories based on class: submachine guns for the assault class, bolt-action rifles for the riflemen class, a sniper rifle, a semi-automatic rifle, and a machine gun. You also get grenades, squad leaders get smoke grenades, engineers get explosives, and anti-tank troops get rocket launchers. The game restricts how many people can be in each class at a time, to provide a realistic balance and stick all of the n00bs with bolt-action rifles. Red Orchestra 2 is one of the only games to compel you into playing your class: rifles are useless directly assaulting an objective, while submachine guns are more ineffective at range (but still too effective, in my opinion). This requires people to work together to achieve the next objective (and significantly more experience points are awarded for capturing objectives compared to kills). The game does not provide an on-screen aiming cursor, so you must use the iron sights (just like real life!). In another nod to realism, you must keep track of your ammunition manually, as there is no on-screen indication of how many rounds remain in your clip (though you can hold down the reload button and get an approximate count). Little touches like these make Red Orchestra 2 feel more authentic. You and hold your breath to zoom in a bit more (restricting your peripheral vision), or adjust your sights to the range of your enemy. Iron sights are also present on the sniper rifle, so marksmen can engage enemies that are close by. Machine guns use bipods (automatically deployed when behind cover or prone), and anybody can use cover (windows, low walls) for supposed added stability when firing. However, I have not seen a big difference between aiming accuracy while standing, crouching, prone, or using cover as support as there is no noticeable gun sway in any situation, even after sustained sprinting.

You can pick up weapons from killed soldiers, but you are limited (by weight) to how many objects you can carry at once. Being fired upon does two things: first, an indicator shows which direct the bullets came from (for friendly fire, too), and being suppressed by enemy fire makes your vision more blurry and monochromatic. It’s a successful effect: you can still fire, but you can’t see very well. You can also experience suppression if nearby allies get killed, which is neat and quite realistic, I would say. Bullets to the head or torso will result in instant death, which works well for the bolt-action weapons that don’t fire quickly. You can also receive damage to specific body parts (arms and legs) that can be bandaged: this isn’t very realistic (how many people can repair a bleeding leg themselves in three seconds?), but I guess it’s a concession to game must make to let inaccurate shots be less effective. Red Orchestra 2 also delays kill notifications, a nice touch that means you’re not really sure if the enemy is dead initially: better fire a couple more bullets to be sure. Bullet ballistics is seemingly accurate: high-speed rifle rounds can penetrate some walls and objects (wood, namely), so safety is not assured when behind cover.

While Red Orchestra 2 is mostly about the infantry, there are two tanks that are featured on two of the game’s ten maps. Each tank has a 3-D interior complete with crewmembers in their actual locations and working dials (a small thing, but good for immersion). The AI will do a decent job manning the vacant positions in the tank: the AI gunner isn’t so great, but you can order the tank around from either the commander or gunner position, so being the driver is unnecessary unless the tank is full of human players. The tanks in Red Orchestra 2 experience damage to individual systems and crew members: if the gunner is shot, you can scramble over (in real time) from another position and take his post. That’s pretty cool. Tanks also exhibit realistically limited visibility out into the world, and the weapon ballistics seem to be accurate in their difficulty. Finally, the commander can call in fire support onto the map, aerial reconnaissance, or force soldiers to respawn early: pleasing support options that all come with a time delay to prevent spamming.

Red Orchestra 2: Heroes of Stalingrad has a series of features that make it feel more authentic than a majority of first person shooters. The weapons require the use of iron sights, and you can adjust them for different ranges and deploy bipods automatically. However, submachine guns seem to effective at longer ranges, and there is no significant gun sway: go ahead and aim while standing, even after sprinting for large distances. Smaller urban maps means more action, but less flanking as most of the designs feature well-defined choke points and head-on engagements. Additionally, destructible buildings simply are not. The cover system is done well, allowing you to blind-fire your weapon or grenades and peek over walls with ease, assuming the object isn’t irregular or near an obstruction. The suppression system blurs your vision while under fire, making it more difficult to differentiate between friend and foe. One-shot kills (if aimed at an appropriate body part) force careful movement across the terrain, and lead to tense, slow navigation through the heavily damaged maps. The 3-D tactical display and minimap make it easy to find the next objective. Multiplayer is fun with a full sixty-four-player server, while the single player campaign should be avoided by everyone due to the horrific AI that likes to run in circles, avoid objectives, and get killed. The graphics are quite nice, effectively displaying a war-torn region. Tanks are neat as well, with fully detailed interiors. The game does suffer from a lack of polish, from laggy online servers due to (I think) the use of PunkBuster to graphical artifacts to random crashes to other things that add up to a less than smooth launch; I suspect things will improve with further development, but Red Orchestra 2 does feel like it was pushed out too early. Still, Red Orchestra 2 is a good, if somewhat simplified, sequel and a fine entry into the realm of realistic first person shooters.