It says something about just how over-saturated the WWII shooter genre became when a hiatus of a good five years or more is required for its oft-treaded battlefields to feel fresh. Red Orchestra 2 might not tempt everybody back into the fold with its blend of team-based multiplayer and brutally realistic action, but those that do venture back into the fray may well be pleasantly surprised at just how far the genre has moved on.
For starters, this ain’t no Call of Duty, and those looking for a singleplayer experience should turn their attention immediately elsewhere. Each of the campaign modes is basically an extended tutorial for the multiplayer components, taking form as a series of bot matches on the very same maps that populate the online offering. These shouldn’t be overlooked though, as learning the ropes against AI opposition is essential to understanding even the most basic of online matches. There are territories to grab and objectives to achieve; not to mention squad leaders capable of calling in artillery, spotting mechanisms to explore, rifles to zero, and a limited number of tanks that require multiple personnel to manipulate.
In keeping with the complexity of your operations to take Stalingrad, everything about Red Orchestra 2 has been modelled as painstakingly realistically as possible. Choosing either Axis or Allied forces presents you with a selection of familiar weaponry that requires a new level of practice and patience to learn, with a single shot often felling an enemy in his tracks. If you miss one of their vital organs there might be an opportunity for a medic or a swift self-applied bandage to revive their fortunes, but frequently those that are mortally wounded are simply left to bleed out on the battlefield, helplessly moaning as team-mates pass them by under a hail of bullets.
Even taking the shot that put them there in the first place is a notable achievement in itself. There are no crosshairs in Tripwire’s game, so quickly aiming down iron sites and carefully trailing your target is the only method of success. The battlefields themselves are vast and offer up hundreds of points to exploit the first-person cover system to good effect, with the 64-player battles often raging from one section to the next as teams rally to defend or attack strategic points. Learning to sprint and dive into cover as your team mates lay down fire will get you one part of the way, but keeping your nerve as bullets whiz past your face is quite another thing altogether.
It’s all a bit grim in tone then, and Red Orchestra 2 shows a commendable willingness to keep to its realistic principles even in the face of the usual multiplayer silliness. The audio effects are superb and suitably harrowing at times, with soldiers on both sides making comments to their comrades as they push forward or fall back under fire, and there’s a real menace to the weaponry that flies in the face of every other ‘cinematic’ WWII shooter out there. Bullets hurt in this world, and an ever-present sense of lingering death lends the atmosphere a notable edge. Suppression mechanics blur the screen and afford your enemy a chance to pile on the pressure, whilst reloading costs whatever ammo you just had in the clip. You can hold a button to check, but do you risk the time it takes to do so?
Much like the early Battlefield games then, Red Orchestra 2 ends up being a game of ‘moments’ rather than any over-arching focus on narrative or deep multiplayer experience systems (these exist, but the stat-tracking has had a rocky launch at best). There might be a time that you dive for cover and end up taking a bullet that was destined for your comrade cowering behind the wall, or you’ll panic and blind-fire your pistol as three enemies round a corner by surprise, felling every one of them with a single shot. You’ll probably end up dead a few moments later, but the memory is enough to make it all worthwhile.
It’s good that they exist too because there are more than a few rough technical edges to take you out of Tripwire’s otherwise-excellent atmosphere. Performance is decent enough even on the modest rig that I’m running (after several patches to make it so), but too often you’ll get stuck on terrain or end up dead through no reason of your own. Glitches are gradually being eradicated, but as of the time of writing, community complaints are still loud and consistently clear that more needs to be done.
But for what it’s worth, Red Orchestra 2 is certainly in a more-than playable state right now, and things are getting better by the week. Servers are densely populated and remarkably well-mannered considering the genre, and the focus on realism seems to have pulled in more than a few casual onlookers. Whether or not they’ll end up staying past the first couple of games is quite another thing, but for anybody that does, this is an experience that rewards as much as any other multiplayer shooter out there at the moment. It might not have the meta-mechanics to match the big hitters, but who needs them when every match offers up such its own unique narrative.