It is now ten years ago since I played Medal of Honor: Allied Assault. It was the first WW2 shooter I played, leaving a strong impression on my young gamer mind back then. There were three missions I remember to this day. The first is the beginning of the game. You are sitting in a truck somewhere with your comrades. Going to some place, anxiety in the air. Suddenly the truck stops. You listen to the muffled dialog between soldiers of an enemy outpost and your driver. Shots fired. Silence. More silence. Then: GO GO GO! You leave the truck with your squad and advance on a Nazi military base, war happening all around you. But not just any war – World War 2.
The cinematic nature was a natural continuation from what Half-Life had established years earlier, only transported into a WW2 setting. You weren’t some lone warrior as in pretty much every shooter that came before it. You were just another unlucky soldier fighting a war much too large in scale for you to really have an impact on its final outcome. But nevertheless, you fought it, taking down Nazi after Nazi, fulfilling objectives with your team. There was a sense of agency and being part of something bigger that was refreshing.
The second memory was the landing on Omaha Beach in the French Normandy on D-Day. It was ripped straight out of Saving Private Ryan, and the level that this game is most remembered by. It felt like you were there, desperately trying to get to cover behind the hills at the far side of the sandy beach, getting bombarded by artillery and shot at by Nazis. It wasn’t fair, and you’d die countless times right after spawning in the metal boats, not even reaching the beach proper. And even when you got there, you’d often get blown to bits by explosions. It hammered home one point: war is chaos and it isn’t fair.
But it is the third memory that sticks in my mind the most. In a mission called “Sniper’s Last Stand”, you and your squad must make your way through an abandoned and devastated part of a French village. It’s again strongly inspired by a scene in Saving Private Ryan. Basically it’s a sniper mission, as the name implies. You carefully creep around the empty streets, running from bombed out apartments to heaps of rubble all the while getting shot at by German snipers who are just everywhere.
It’s a tough mission as it is, but I had foolishly only used one save game all game, and I was stuck at a spot inside an apartment with low health. 1, 2 shots and I’d die. But I’d made it this far, so I had to suck it up and overcome the challenge. It felt like a baptism of fire, because of my unfortunate save game, I had amplified the difficulty spike. I had to take my scoped Springfield rifle and look around the environment, spotting the positions of enemy snipers. Because the German uniforms were grey, it was incredibly difficult to spot a sniper when hiding in a brush or against a grey brick wall. But bit by bit, quickload after quickload, I took them down, each kill feeling incredibly rewarding. It was the cat and mouse tension of the stand-off, all with an incredible atmosphere (a gloomy and stormy afternoon, thunders and lightning, momentarily illuminating the environment) that left a lasting impression on me.
All this to say that Medal of Honor: Allied Assault masterfully captured what makes WW2 combat fascinating. The wave of pretenders that came after it often were good in their own right, but the focus was redirected towards the spectacle and scripted events, resulting in the Modern Warfare template we have today.
I hadn’t been aware of the Red Orchestra games until I picked them up during a Humble Bundle sale. When you look around the gaming outlets, the common consensus was that Red Orchestra 2 was a punishingly hard multiplayer shooter only for the most enthusiastic of FPS gamers, and yet they would bemoan that too few are playing it.
The thing is this: playing Red Orchestra 2 and Rising Storm (which is what I play) has been the best shooter experience I’ve had in years. And I’m not that good in shooters (I’m just mediocre in Counter-Strike for example). A big realization I’ve come to while learning the ropes of RO2 is that this isn’t a shooter that demands twitch reflexes, or finely-tuned spatial awareness that a CS:GO or Team Fortress 2 demand. What RO2 demands above all is patience. Patience to not give up when things aren’t working out for you, patience to lay down and closely observe a tiny part of the map so that you can stop an enemy or two advancing on that position. It also demands tactical awareness, but on a broader scale. In this respect it is more akin to a Battlefield than a Counter-Strike, with the mechanics built around a objective points system.
The winners and losers of a given match are determined not by kills and assists. It isn’t round-based, so the actual killing in this shooter isn’t the goal. In fact, this mindset is de-emphasized by not showing the deaths count on the scoreboard. Kills are only a means to an end. Your goal is to capture points on the map, or indeed to defend them. When you kill an opponent who is defending the the objective, you will get a lot more points than for a kill elsewhere. Similarly, you will get a points boost when you kill an attacking enemy while being positioned within the object zone you’re tasked to protect. As soon as more attackers are in the objective zone than defenders, a timer ticks down (which is only a few seconds), and if they aren’t stopped, the objective will switch to the enemy. By gaining more and more objective zones, the advancing team’s spawn points will advance too. The maps are laid out in a way that will force the defenders back eventually, given that both teams aren’t extremely uneven in skill.
This realization, that this is a shooter where shooting and killing aren’t the be all and end all is an important one, and really separates competent players from the rest. Of course, that isn’t all there is to it. Map and weapons knowledge and a good old knack for mindgames are important. But it is sad to see how many players on the servers misunderstand the focus of the gameplay. You will frequently see players camping out away from the frontlines, looking to get kills of stray enemies, when their mere presence in an objective zone would actually be a hundred times more useful for the team.
The flow of the battles where up to 64 players can participate is such that it feels like what real WW2 battles must’ve been like. Or at least as far as a video game can presume to succeed. There are real front lines, shifting dynamically by the push and pull of soldiers. Intense battles emerge naturally, and in all the chaos only those who work in teams will succeed, because death is only a bullet away. There isn’t a health bar per se, no crosshairs and enemies and comrades are only distinguishable by their clothing. You must think before you act, to be sure that the man you’re aiming at isn’t of your own team. Every kill feels earned, and the satisfaction is immense when you successfully stall an enemy advance for your men to get to the objective in time.
You will wonder if you can hide among corpses and vegetation to surprise the enemy from an unexpected position, and delight when it comes off. You will sprint away from artillery hitting your position hard and die without glory in the mud. You will peak through a crack in the wall, down onto the street and finally get those bastards, and you will know that they thought they had a safe place. You will die suddenly and violently without knowing where they shot you from. You will curse and be frustrated, but the pendulum swings in the other direction too, and it will be beautiful when you manage to rain down those same feelings on you opponents.
It is in this multiplayer format that the WW2 setting really reaches its potential. When I felt part of something bigger in Medal of Honor, it was but an illusion. I was still the main guy, and without my initiative nothing would move forward. When something dramatic happened, it was likely a scripted sequence. None of that applies with Red Orchestra 2. Thanks to strong game design, Tripwire Interactive succeeded in creating a game that ‘plays’ like war at its core, and doesn’t just look like it.
It can be daunting, but it is very much a case of the more you put into it, the more you’ll get out. The community is great and refreshingly mature. There isn’t any trash talk, and most people are regulars. Because newbs don’t often stick around, there is a real hardy core of players who you can join and expect a reasonably good game with. Red Orchestra 2 doesn’t need more players. It is fine as it is. More of course is always merrier, but it isn’t the dead multiplayer game some people make it out to be. Give it a chance, and you just might find something unique.