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Red Orchestra 2: Heroes of Stalingrad

World War 2 shooters, for whatever reason, became incredibly passé a few years ago. While it was certainly a milked setting, quite a few classics were born out of Saving Private Ryan lust – and then they pretty much vanished. Red Orchestra 2 is both exciting as a return to a – for many – beloved setting, and as a more in-depth shooter amidst a year full of high-profile cinematic games. It’s positioned as a modernized but equally complex sequel to the cult PC classic Red Orchestra, taking place during the Axis invasion of Stalingrad.

At a glance, the game seems entirely approachable – it features team games of the kill-all-the-other-guys and the capture-all-the-objectives variety, as well as a Counter-Strike-esque one life per round gametype. The structure will be familiar to anyone who has played a PC shooter in the last ten years; however, the devil is in the details, and getting a grip on Red Orchestra 2 can be challenging thanks to a steep learning curve. It takes advantage of the platform, with a complex control system that gives players access to maneuvers like leaning, taking cover, going prone, bolting rifles (for the bold), and even adjusting the angle of fire while aiming. It’s a lot to take in, compounded by the swift death that awaits players who stick their head out for more than a second.

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This difficulty curve is not a negative thing by any means. In a game full of players who understand the mechanics, matches are incredibly exhilarating. Everybody can play a vital role, whether it’s the grunt riflemen who are equipped with measly bolt-action mid-range weapons, or the machine gunners who can set up their weapons behind cover and provide suppressive fire. On most servers, the amount of different types of soldiers are limited – having a skilled player in the marksman position is key, for example. Getting shot once is usually a ticket to death, unless you happen to get hit in a nonvital area which can be bandaged (another mechanic that takes some practice, since it eats away valuable time). Otherwise, expect to drop dead or black out after a few seconds. Getting shot at can be equally harrowing, since the game uses a morale meter that depletes during close air strikes or weapon fire. Low morale means a blurry screen, which hinders the already difficult aiming system. In a good match, that makes for incredibly tense play.

The maps complement this style of play for the most part. There are a couple of wide-open maps that can feel a little unbalanced, favoring whichever team starts with higher ground or more cover, but these are in the minority. Most maps provide a variety of tight indoor spaces and wide-open angles of approach, which favor different kinds of soldiers. More often than not, an assault class with a fully automatic gun will waste riflemen in close quarters; outside, riflemen who are quick on the draw will make short work of players with less accurate weapons. There are tanks, too, which are terrifying to run into, and can be countered by the equally intimidating anti-tank rifleman.

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Like most of the weapons in the game, the tanks are a testament to the level of passion the developers clearly have for WWII history. The interiors are incredibly detailed, and the sounds they make feel authentic. This level of care extends to every gun, uniform, and map. It may be brown and grey, but that doesn’t feel wrong here – this is one of the more faithful and respectful forms of “serious WWII game”. The only thing that sticks out like a sore thumb is the soundtrack, which is supposed to flare up during moments of heroism or despair. Unfortunately, it can sound kind of cheap, consisting of (what sounds like, at least) MIDI instruments instead of a full-blown orchestra. This is probably a side effect of the game simply not being a high-budget production, but it’s one of those things that probably shouldn’t have been attempted without the means to create an appropriately rich score. Luckily, the excellent ambient sounds, voice acting, and gunfire make up for this.

There are other areas that the game shows its lack of polish, though. Red Orchestra 2 runs on the Unreal 3 engine, and sports all of the signs of a less-than-expert (to be fair, who are the true UE3 experts, other than Epic and perhaps Netherrealm?) job of utilizing it: rough edges (even with full anti-aliasing), strange texture loading issues, and wobbly at best performance, even on decked-out gaming PCs. It looks serviceable, but it doesn’t take advantage of what strong PCs can really do these days, nor does it seem to have traded good looks for smooth performance on a variety of computers. As of this writing, performance patches have been released and more are forthcoming, but the issues don’t seem to have been ironed out.

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This lack of polish extends to the gameplay too, unfortunately. Red Orchestra 2 boasts a leveling system that rewards players with better spawn weapons, as well as serving as a gauge of who on the team deserves roles like Marksman or Squad Leader. So far, this system is entirely broken. Some players haven’t leveled up at all, and some players have statistics on their page that are entirely wrong. After working myself up to about level 20, one match propelled me to level 51. Outside of the ranking system, it’s entirely too possible to get stuck on geometry with the cover system, and sometimes character models will contort themselves into hilarious positions, particularly when using a mounted turret. It’s a real shame to see a game that otherwise thrives on the little details be crippled by these silly little problems.

Still, these are little problems, and the game itself shines often enough to prevent them from turning Red Orchestra 2 into a disaster. The weapons, maps and overall feel of the game make it worth checking out, especially for folks jaded by the recent crop of run-and-gun shooters that have gotten so popular. It’s just a shame that it had to launch with so many annoying issues. For people who appreciate WWII history and attention to detail, Red Orchestra 2 is probably a dream come true. For people who just want a balanced and polished tactical shooter, it might be worth waiting for some of the bugs to get ironed out. Either way, it’s an admirable game that probably deserves an audience of dedicated players.

Note:

After this review was written, a large patch intended to fix the statistics issues and other problems went live. As of now, statistics and achievements have been fixed; however, performance is still varied and the other glitches still pop up.

7 out of 10

The author of this fine article

is an Associate Editor at Thunderbolt, having joined in October 2006.

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