Thursday, October 18, 2012

The Tripwire Interactive Forums Gestapo strike again

Nothing like seeing people get temporarily banned, and their posts deleted, for completely innocuous joke posts that don't in any way fulfill the criteria they were infracted for.

TWI are like Bioware Lite. If you have the balls to do anything other than mindlessly fellate the devs, you're on the chopping block. Haven't done anything bannable? No matter! Tripwire's excellently-chosen sycophantic moderators will dream one up and then remove any evidence that proves otherwise.

Don't buy games from these assholes.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Firearms history: is the AK-47 a copy of the StG 44?

Short answer: absolutely not.

This is a fairly contentious issue, but people have allowed their national biases to cloud their judgement. There are generally two things you will hear on the matter: either that the AK is a shitty clone of the StG, or that Mikhail Kalashnikov just happened to come up with the same idea as the Germans at around the same time (the official, and obviously a little embellished, Soviet perspective). Both are incorrect.

Kalashnikov began developing what would become the AK-47 during WWII, after being wounded in battle. He was a tank crewman, and wanted to design a weapon that could be used by tank crews and infantry alike - a truly universal one. Initial designs were for a submachine gun, but it wasn't until the MKb 42 (H) and StG 44 were encountered that the AK took its form as a rifle - almost certainly, he was inspired by its success. This is about as far as the 'copy' theory holds any truth whatsoever. Let's look at why...

Outward Appearance

There is no denial that the two rifles look very similar in profile. They share the same general layout - 30-round magazine ahead of the trigger guard, pistol grip configuration, short sighting radius with raised front and rear sights, gas system tapped from the top of the barrel - but this is about where the similarities end. The AK's mag release is a typical Russian paddle between the mag and trigger guard, versus the left-side push-button on the StG (an upscaled carry-over from the MP 40). The AK's fire selector and safety are the same thing, and take the form of a large dustcover on the right side which serves as a three-position switch. The StG has a push-button fire selector above the trigger and a  switch-type safety above the grip - two separate controls, compared to the AK's one.

The StG's dust cover is the sprung door type later used on most LMGs and the M16 family of rifles, serving no other function than to simply keep dust out of the weapon. The StG's cocking handle is on the left hand side, the AK's on the right. Both reciprocate. The StG is constructed mostly of stamped steel; early AK-47s are milled, with stamped variants only coming into major use later (and of much simplified construction compared to the StG, although it is worth noting that the Soviets did employ some of the German weapons manufacturers involved in the MP 40 and StG 44 for their knowledge of working with stamped steel for firearms construction).

Disassembly

The AK disassembles by pressing a thumblatch attached to the recoil spring guide, which releases the top cover. The gas block is removed by means of a simple latch. The StG's stock is removed by driving out a pin, and it comes free along with the recoil spring. The receiver splits into upper and lower parts on a hinge - similarly to the PPSh-41 and most Western rifles since, including the FN FAL and M16 - and the cocking handle must be removed in order to remove the bolt carrier group. Clearly, the two rifles disassemble in a completely different manner.

Operating Principles

Both rifles fire from a closed bolt, and rely on gas tapped from the barrel to cycle the action. The Soviets had operational piston-type gas systems before the Germans brought them into service - in fact the Germans copied the entire SVT-40 gas system to create the G/K 43 as the annular gas trap (or "bang" system) on the G 41 had proven extremely unsatisfactory, becoming easily clogged, easily damaged, and prone to short strokes (it was also mechanically overcomplicated and costly to produce).

Both rifles are select-fire, but the way in which their FCGs operate is totally different. In fact, the AK has more in common with two American rifles than it does the StG; Kalashnikov was heavily inspired by the Remington Model 8, an early self-loading rifle which featured the same dust cover safey and general receiver layout as the AK. The FCG was based on that of the M1 Garand.

The AK has a rotating bolt, the StG a tilting bolt - the later FN FAL shared this, along with many other features. The SVT-40 also had a titlting bolt, so you could actually argue that its gas system wasn't the only thing the Germans were impressed by.

In short - the operating mechanisms of these two rifles are about as separated as it is possible for two weapons of the same class to be.

The Magazine

Curved magazines are a simple way to increase capacity while decreasing size, and the arrival by almost all parties at the conclusion that 30 rounds is the ideal magazine size is no coincidence. It is a nice, round number which balances the need for firepower with the need for portability.

The Sights

Both rifles use pretty standard sights for their time, there is no question of one copying the other as this was simply the go-to sight layout in the late 1940s (unless you hailed from America, where aperture-based sights have always been more popular).

So really, if you give it some thought, implying the AK was copied from the StG is like saying the M16 was copied from the FAL. It's ridiculous. However, the AK was almost certainly inspired by the StG... as many other weapons have been inspired by the AK. That's how firearms design works, folks; you take something that's good, and you see if you can make it better.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

RO2 got an update (finally); time for me to update my griping!

Tripwire finally got around to releasing the most recent patch for RO2, the one adding the two new game modes, Mamayev Kurgan, and various tweaks to the UI and gameplay.

...Except by TWI's own words, it is a "content pack". They are touting the fact that this "content pack" is not DLC, but a free update for everyone with the game. Well done, Tripwire, at least you realise that about the only way my opinion of you could drop any further is if you were to charge us for the necessary fixes to the game.

As with all RO2 news, this starts with a bungle. Somehow, TWI thought it would be a good idea to make a 'beta' version that installed over the regular game on Steam. At this time, it meant there were three versions of the game in circulation - Red Orchestra 2 proper, the beta patch, and the original RO2 beta (which had been used as a test platform for the patch before its release). Three separate, totally incompatible versions of a game which had a seriously ailing community. Incredible. For a company that is more concerned about profit now than actually making a worthwhile product, Tripwire seem remarkably close to accidentally driving away all their players by splitting the already-small community into tiny, meaningless fragments.

This situation persisted until the patch dropped in preparation for a free weekend. I still distinctly remember the free weekends in Ostfront, and while they did bring in some legitimately good new players, mostly they were a complete mess of mainstream gamers whining endlessly about everything being too hard. Well, this time they would be happy - 'Action' mode was introduced, which removes freeaim, reduces weapon damage, increases the speed of pretty much everything, and adds a crosshair. Essentially it turns the game into some kind of class-based Call of Duty 2 with artillery. TWI's rationale for making this a thing was that they had 'a huge number of clans contact [them], saying they wished to enter the community but their members were finding the game too inaccessible'. Whether this is true or not is irrelevant either way; looking at the server browser, the action servers are largely empty, most longtime Red Orchestra players either avoiding playing it or actively deriding it. I belong to the latter camp, and any of you who have subjected yourself to my rants would know why - it goes against everything I stand for, trying to cater to everybody at once and making the overall product worse as a result.

So, that's 'Action' out of the way, and we'll see how long it lasts before the servers start going down through lack of use. Let's now move onto 'Classic', TWI's big sugar pill that was supposed to placate the 'hardcore Ostfront fans'. You know, the fans TWI has been making offensive jibes towards ever since the complaints began (around the time that it became clear the MKb was not going to be as rare as TWI suggested). 'Classic' mode's stated purpose is to make the game feel as much like the original as possible, thus pretty much proving that Tripwire don't know why the game was popular - rather than using it as a basis on which to improve, like everyone thought they would with RO2, they are now going straight back to it and dropping many of the things that they did get right with the new game.

'Classic' is not just a homage to the first game. It is, in fact, little more than a direct port of it to the new engine. The weapon loadout for each side, touted by community rep Yoshiro as 'historically accurate', is anything but; what it is is a direct counterpart to Ostfront's loadouts. They opted for the PU-scoped 91/30 sniper - which was entering service around the time of Stalingrad but was not really seen in meaningful numbers until later - over the historically correct PEM on a side mount, which is seen in every photo of snipers from the Don and Stalingrad areas that I have ever seen, including stars such as Zaytsev and Chekhov. While this may seem like a minor goof, it is telling that they chose the rifle featured in Ostfront over the one that actually belongs in the game. It also puts Soviet snipers at a mechanical disadvantage to the Germans, as the PU has slightly less (3.5x vs. 4x) magnification than the PEM and a much smaller field of view, while the German Zeiss ZF 39 is comparable to the PEM in magnification power and the ingame field of view is similar.

More telling still is the decision to include the G 41 with ZF 4 as the German semi-automatic sniper rifle. I have been over this before, but a brief recap - the ZF 4 was not in service until well after Stalingrad ended, was never mounted on the G 41 by the German military, and the mount shown ingame is a swept Kar98k mount introduced in 1944 and used only on a very specific group of those rifles. The setup as shown ingame would simply not work, as the scope is mounted too far forwards - about twice its eye relief distance - meaning the sniper would see approximately 'shit all' through it. Any of you who have used a rifle scope know what I mean. For those who don't, think of the way a magnifying glass will blur things if you are too close or too far from it; now imagine that instead of blurring, it simply blacks out your image. So yeah, good luck actually making that work. Tripwire have so far ignored calls from myself and a couple of others to remove or at least review it, no surprises there. Why was this fairytale weapon included? Because the 4x ZF 4 is the same scope used on the G 43 sniper rifle in Ostfront. Again, they choose something similar to the first game, rather than something which makes sense.

As you cannot detach or affix your bayonet at will in the game - a feature of Ostfront that TWI have excused themselves from adding because 'it is very difficult in the new engine and will take a lot of time and effort' - you are stuck with them permanently fixed to both sides' bolt-action rifles and semiautos. Complaining about this is mostly me being a giant history nerd (the Soviets almost always had bayonets fixed, the Germans were the opposite), but also somewhat disappointed in the removal of player choice. Oh, because that's a thing, by the way - in Classic, you cannot alter your loadout beyond selecting weapon type. While this removes bullshit like the MP 40-II and ensures everyone with a PPSh-41 has the period-correct drum magazine, it also means you can't select the historically correct 91/30 PEM or even take a rifle without a bayonet.

To sum up a number of the other steps drunken lurches backwards that Classic takes:

  • Run speed and stamina are now similar to Ostfront levels. Which would be fine... if the maps were still strewn with craters and debris. Too bad they aren't, so crossing from one piece of cover to the next is now suicide. This was done with the intent of stopping people from whining about run-and-gun, twitch-like gameplay, but anyone with sense would surely realise that was the fault of the lack of player momentum and the tiny maps, rather than the sprint speed and stamina the game released with. Thanks to this change, the game is even more static than before, with many people opting to simply sit somewhere and try to pixel-snipe rather than risk being hit while advancing, since it takes forever to get anywhere.
  • Spawn on squad leader is gone. This was great for keeping squads together, maintaining momentum during an attack, and simply avoiding having to sprint half the length of the map to get to the action - which, of course, now takes several times as long because of the sprint changes. Thanks to the removal of SL spawning, attacks slow and falter with alarming regularity as recently-spawned reinforcements trickle back in dribs and drabs and are generally mown down by MGs as they slow-jog to the front.
  • Rather than actually rebalancing other classes or - heaven forbid - allowing class loadouts to be changed by the mapper rather than hard code, TWI opted for removing all assault classes from many maps and replacing them with Elite Assault. That's three MKbs/AVTs per team, since these exceptionally rare, irrelevant, and generally questionable weapons are still included in 'Classic' mode. We're back to square one.
  • Hero classes can no longer spawn in with enemy weapons. While I was against allowing all classes on both teams to do this, as it led to a rather immersion-breaking proliferation of German weapons in the hands of Soviet troops and the DP becoming an endangered species - allowing the German team a PPSh or SVT-40 or two is entirely realistic and a perfectly fair choice for experienced players to have. Most German players seem to still prefer the MP 40, but I personally chose the PPSh every time. Not any longer, it seems.
  • Hero classes have no distinction from others except for their appearance. All the class bonuses are gone, rendering Heroes essentially worthless except for flavour (and even in that regard, they are not particularly useful). Remember TWI's statements about the Hero system, the game's titular feature, their new and interesting twist on the franchise? Yep.
  • The compass from Ostfront makes a return, except (as far as I can tell) there is no way to turn it off. Enjoy having a fairly large and obtrusive compass in the bottom right corner of your screen - oh, it also tells you exactly which grid square you're in on the map, just in case you had any crazy ideas about having to navigate for yourself - which is largely useless. The only maps in the game in which a compass has a single iota of worth are Mamayev and Gumrak. Every other map has a very distinct N/S or E/W distinction, so even if you aren't familiar enough with Stalingrad's geography to know which direction the Volga (and therefore east) is, there is no possible way a functional human being could get directionally confused on them. The compass doesn't have actual bearings marked, just little tickmarks, so it's not even useful for shooting bearings to objectives or targets. It just sits there twiddling around aimlessly.
  • Kill messages default to instant, removing the tension of RO2's delayed ones - a feature that was so popular the Darkest Hour mod team included it in their mod.
There are likely other things I am forgetting, but the list is already far too long, so let's move on. 'Realism', which is all that remains of vanilla RO2, is the final game mode. It's essentially the same except for some tweaks to movement, sway, and other little improvements. Oh, except the minimap seems to default to 'on', appearing when you tap T to open your tactical view. I can't remember if this was the case before as I seldom bother with the tac display, but I don't think it was. Either way, the need for a minimap is questionable at best when the maps are so small and the normal map is easy to use.

So far, 'Classic' seems to have flopped somewhat. Most people are still playing 'Realism' servers, and several of the 'Classic' servers have tweaked their server settings somewhat to try and make it more palatable. It seems to have placated some, but as far as I am concerned, both it and 'Action' should be abolished so TWI can focus on making the default mode what it should be. Of course, this isn't going to happen. If I wanted to play Ostfront, I'd... well, I'd go play Ostfront.

Oh, we finally have officially-supported clientside hit detection. I'd imagine John Gibson had to be dragged kicking and screaming on this one, given his attitude towards Mekhazzio's original mutator. Server owners have an option between the original serverside detection and the new clientside system. I am not sure if the latter is actually an official adoption and release of Mekhazzio's mutator or something done in-house, but I would certainly like to know whether it includes an option for the advanced ballistics behaviour that Mekhazzio put together, which improved weapon function drastically. Knowing Tripwire, probably not.

Various changes were made to the UI, making it easier to read. A welcome improvement, but it still has that really cheesy Hollywood feel to it - stereotypical 'Russian' fonts and heavily stylised icons rather than using the actual Soviet crest and some kind of official Wehrmacht icon (presumably not a Reichsadler, since TWI didn't bother to make a separate, censored version of the game for countries where the Swastika is banned this time). Whatever, at least reading the scoreboard isn't a complete headache now. Weapon kill icons and selection screen pictures were added for those that were missing them, as well as the upgraded variants. Personally, the UI is the one area I would be glad if TWI copied directly from the first game.

Also somewhat tied to the UI is the ability to select weapon level. Notice I said weapon level, not weapon attachments, because they aren't the same thing. You cannot select a level 50 91/30 sniper for the side-mounted PEM, but without the bayonet. You get both upgrades or you get neither, your choice!

This game has a hell of a long way to go before I will even consider trusting its developers again, and the way they seem so confident in themselves in the dev diary released with the patch doesn't help. John Gibson himself makes an apology, but entirely misses the point of what he should be apologising for - rather than apologising for misrepresenting the game to prospective buyers to net those preorder dollars, or apologising for TWI's horrible attitude towards their previously fiercely loyal fans, or apologising for taking the game in a direction nobody who actually plays it wants - he was apologising for being overambitious. Not even in the sense that they tried to appeal to too broad an audience, oh heavens no! They simply tried to make the game too good. By dropping features the first game had, right? He then goes on to promote the new game modes as if they are some wondrous device that will solve all the game's problems at a stroke. It is arrogant and rather offensive that he seems to think simply throwing out 'Classic' mode to the hardcore realism fans is a suitable solution to all their many and varied complaints, rather than working on the core game.

Of course, I wouldn't expect any different. Tripwire today is not the same Tripwire that openly mocked the idea of adding crosshairs, unlocks, or gamey HUD mainstays like minimaps to the game.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

The RO2 shitlist

 I was going to use this as my review of RO2 on Steam, but there's a 1,000 character limit; how are you supposed to say anything meaningful about a game with 1,000 characters when it's one as troubled as this? Anyway, since I can't post it there, I'll post it here so I can refer people back to it. Apologies for the shitty formatting, I've cleaned it up a little already.
things that are good:
*gunplay is literally unparalleled and you will never see another game do guns this well
*neato tank interiors and the way tanks 'feel' as they lurch about drunkenly (i.e. like real tanks)
*heroes (the concept, at least, the execution is poor)

things that are dumb (grab some popcorn and a coke):

*vanilla ballistics (hitscan at close range, penetration not properly modelled)
*netcode (serverside hit detection on a game with an international community all divided up by server location, and is bad anyway, ties in with ballistics somewhat - both ballistics and hit detection are fixed by a mutator the devs refuse to support and openly opposed). ro's was just as iffy, but at least it had the excuse of being an otherwise good game.
*historical inaccuracies out the wazoo (minor stuff i could sort of ignore like some maps taking place in the wrong season, wrong markings on weapons, etc. is to be expected, but tripwire literally made shit up that never existed to add more stupid unlocks and then justified it with "PROVE IT WASN'T THERE" which is the worst burden of proof ever)
*unlock system, which could have been actually almost okay if they had made it use historical sidegrades instead of fairytale upgrades
*tank combat is shit since you now can't leave your tank to see over/around obstacles easily, turret control is by mouse which blows and is awful to use, tanks themselves feel rather odd and sometimes die in one shot and at others bounce everything, it's just really inconsistent)
*visuals (the maps range from okay to super nice visually but the weapon textures are absolute trash, the character textures are unimpressive, and in general it feels like twi think current gen dynamic lighting is an excuse for your textures to literally be flat colours - the models are excellent but a good model with a shit texture still looks bad)
*level design (nearly every level consists of wide open streets or plazas or just huge fields with little or no cover, what cover there is tries to shoehorn you into using the inbuilt cover system which is useless at best and actually a detriment to your chances of not being shot at worst). so far the only level which even approaches having decent design is mamayev kurgan, which is still in beta, and still not perfect. twi apparently lost all their good level designers between ro1 and ro2, no konigsplatz here. the maps are unfun meatgrinders or retarded sniperfests where one class dominates all others and the cap order on most of them makes no sense. the fact they had a great custom pavlov's house map in ro1 to work from and yet churned out the shitty stalemate version seen in this game is just mind-blowing
*everything is too fast. you aim too fast, you reload too fast, you move a little too fast but you can stop on a dime, ironsight and shoot someone at the drop of a hat. the game literally feels like every other shooter ever. fluid movement is a godsend after how clunky ro1 was, but jesus christ fluid doesn't necessarily mean fast
*single-player campaign they hyped so much is just playing multiplayer maps with slightly different cap orders and bots. that's it. it's practice mode from ro1 except instead of sprinting around hipspraying, the bots in ro1 spend 90% of their time behind walls popping up and down. you may as well play whack-a-mole, it's the same experience for much cheaper.
*terrible support. i seriously think twi must've lost all their good people between ro1 and ro2. ro1 had regular free updates with several new maps each, occasionally new vehicles, regular bugfixes, and so on. this game has two vehicles and the additional ones that were promised to "follow soon after release" are still nowhere to be seen - not even ANNOUNCED - seven or eight months later. the devs are still busy trying to figure out what actually made people like ro1 (not kidding, they have no idea, they have to keep asking), new vehicles any time this year are unlikely which is pretty poor. oh yeah, and the devs still haven't fixed numerous bugs, some game-breaking, that have been in since beta. in fact they seem to introduce more with each new update which is fucking amazing. while they should be fixing bugs or removing unlocks from the game they are actually busy adding a mode which is literally call of duty 2 to the game, because they want to try rope in casuals and somehow believe that will revive the community. not likely, call of duty is still far better than ro2's casual mode, i doubt anyone but idiotic tripwire fanboys will even play it.
*devs are openly hostile to criticism, including the constructive sort, and will ban you from the forums, delete all your posts, and even CENSOR YOUR USERNAME perpetually if you prove enough of a thorn in their side by daring to point out the many, many flaws in the game or just how poor their attitude is. they're like bioware, except they actually alienated most of their fans, so the few left white-knighting them are either idiots or new kids on the block trying to brown-nose to the devs. oh by the way, while they're off deleting posts which politely but harshly and honestly criticise them as well as posts which outright flame them or their yes-men, said yes-men and devs will verbally abuse people at will and those posts will be lauded. it's like they are channeling goebbels himself, fucking unbelievable.
*game is sparsely populated, even compared to ro1's final few weeks of life, so good luck playing against anything other than bots unless you a) live in the us and are lucky enough to get a slot in the 2.fj server or b) live outside the us, are lucky enough to get a slot in the 2.fj server, and can tolerate playing with an awful ping on bad netcode
*features promised for launch - notably the multiplayer 'campaign' gametype - are still nowhere to be seen
*heroes, which we were told would be visually impressive, are literally dudes with rolled sleeves and unbuttoned collar (summer) or different cold weather gear (winter). every other rank from recruit to veteran is an imacculately-clad soldier with varying levels of brown grunge brush overlayed onto the texture. zero fucking effort. oh yeah, and for some reason, the german heroes are the only germans who get any cold weather gear; they have a parka, regular troops get nothing. not even a fucking greatcoat. remember all the iconic photos of german troops wrapped head to toe in blankets, tattered coats, boxes for shoes, etc.? none of that here! they just wear the standard summer uniform with some half-assed white shit brushed onto it to look like snow.
*the devs actually ruined the one good competitive ladder this game had. i am not fucking kidding. the president of tripwire himself is responsible for there being no serious competitive play in this game. several people were completely excommunicated from the tripwire forums over this.
*while it adds neat features ro1 lacked, like adjustable sights, it takes away just as many. you can't fix or unfix your bayonet at will; it has to be UNLOCKED at level 25 and then cannot be removed (until the devs finally patch in selectable weapon levels, which is a shitty 'fix' at best). yes, a piece of equipment that was standard issue to every soldier is a level 25 unlock for those who don't own the first ro. oh, and the bayonet makes you a million times more effective in close combat, so it's pretty unfair on guys who don't have it yet.

i could literally go on for hours, this game was the single biggest gaming-related disappointment i have experienced in my entire time playing games and it almost ruined them totally for me. i was an idiot, i preordered a game from a studio i loved and expected it to be good. turns out tripwire lucked out with ro1 and killing floor and are actually one of the shittiest devs you will find, anywhere. don't buy games from them.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Welp, that's it folks; all hope for Red Orchestra 2 is gone

Tripwire just announced that they are planning to add crosshairs, camera-anchored weapons, and more resilient players into the game. It is unclear how they're implementing this, but from what I gather this new gametype is to replace the default "relaxed realism" gametype - the one where you already had a minimap, pistols for every class, and so on - with RO2's current "realism" level remaining as-is and "Classic" mode (essentially RO1 with better graphics, flaws and all - in many cases a step backwards).

Needless to say, there was a huge backlash, followed by more arrogance and strawman arguments by TWI, along with some pretty intriguing moderation. Posts openly flaming the "0.01%" of the community that railed against the many mistakes made in the game were let be, but any post that could even tangentially be construed as infractable were not only infracted but also deleted. This is nothing new from the developers who delete entire accounts, along with all of their posts, and then censor their usernames for expressing dissent, and try to press slander charges in response to perfectly legitimate criticism. The author of that blog was a longtime supporter of Red Orchestra; I saw him nearly every other game I played. A truly dedicated fan who fell out of favour because he didn't accept Tripwire's new direction of appealing to the masses to make a quick buck, regardless of the knock-on effects. Like, say, your game being a barren, deserted wasteland a mere seven months after its big release.

Speaking of which, who else is wondering just what wisdom Tripwire sees in dividing their already dying community even further with three entirely separate modes of play? These are not simple gameplay differences like CTF versus team deathmatch, these are fundamentally different games.

I've already had a post deleted (as did another goon who made a pretty good argument against a "whiners" post - which, by the way, was not deleted while his was), so I wouldn't be surprised if I soon find myself banned from the forums and totally excommunicated, too. But you know what? I'm not entirely sure I care. My hopes for the game are clearly never going to come to fruition as long as Tripwire is at the helm, the only portion of the community allowed to have a say is the one that agrees with TWI's decisions, and frankly I am appalled at the arrogance displayed by the devs when not so many years ago, it was the now-beloved casual gamers they were mocking and banishing from the forums.

Quite frankly, their next game could give me a blowjob while I play, I still won't be buying it. Congratulations on losing a customer who had, until RO2's release, regarded Tripwire Interactive as their favourite developer by a country mile and intended to buy all their games well into the future.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

My scope's dad could beat your scope's dad up!

Edit 15 Apr - corrected myself. The small screws on the German scopes were locking screws to prevent slipping of the turrets, not fine adjustment controls - so rather than only having coarse adjustment without their use, you cannot actually adjust the scope at all. Back to holds for the winter!

Here's something a bit different.

One thing that irks me is the way any discussion of military equipment almost always degenerates in to a pissing match about which country's piece of equipment is better. These are almost always as poorly-informed as they are annoying to be caught in the middle of, and they get exponentially worse as you approach the critical mass that is WWII German vs Soviet gear.

I've seen this argument play out twice, between the same two people, on two different forums. While I know one has a pretty heavy Soviet bias (as do I in most cases), the other in particular absolutely blew me away with how desperate he was to prove that the Germans were the best in the chosen field (in this example, optical sights and sniper equipment in general). I made it through about three or four pages before promptly losing the will to live and finding something else to read.

The point that the first party was making was basically that the Soviet PU scope was a great piece of kit and pretty much the ideal scope for a Second World War sniper. I cannot, in all honesty, fault him on his logic. I own one. The PU is built like a tank, has comparable magnification to its contemporaries despite being about half the size, and despite its lack of more cutting-edge features of the day like anti-reflection coatings on the lenses or purging of the tube with inert gas to prevent fogging or blurring of the image, it is very clear and vibrant. I can say with absolute confidence that it would be more than suitable for shooting out to ranges of 3-500 metres, with the upper end of its effective range being somewhere around 800 metres. Given that WWII was largely fought in urban centres or terrain that didn't really lend itself to 800 metre shots, and that snipers on both sides rarely did much shooting at ranges beyond half that, I would absolutely say that it is a great piece of equipment and certainly a lot better in that situation than the bigger, more sensitive German scopes, mostly derived from commercial hunting designs.

You see, the German scopes were very advanced and beautifully made, but being beautifully made meant they were costly and difficult to maintain. The fact that Germany took until 1943 to truly standardise a military scope (the ZF4, their answer to the PU which they began encountering earlier the same year) meant that German snipers who had damaged scopes had to face a logistical nightmare to obtain replacement parts. The sheer variety of types used is mind-blowing, and as a result you would want to spend over a year researching the topic before even thinking of purchasing a German sniper rifle to avoid getting hustled. The German optics were superbly clear, but they were large, difficult to adjust with gloves or in cold weather (or even in a hurry in good weather), and not easily replaced. German snipers were known to simply bypass the issue by taking captured Soviet PE and PEM-type scopes (based off of Zeiss designs, and of high quality themselves) and having unit armourers mount them on their Mauser rifles.

You see what I did there? I acknowledged the exceptional workmanship that went into German scopes, even though I consider them the inferior choice for a WWII sniper for the reasons outlined. I didn't blow them off and claim the PU did everything better, because I would be dishonest if I claimed that the PU was a better scope quality-wise than even the ZF4. It wasn't. It was cheap and easy to build, and compared to a German scope, it shows. What it was not, however, is a bad scope. For all the superior quality of the German examples, the PU was certainly clear and crisp enough to be a good medium-power sniper optic. It did not distort the image, the lenses were clear, and the scope itself was durable and simple to use. Like several of the German scopes, the PU could be removed from the rifle for maintenance and then replaced without affecting zero (the guy in question disputed this point, but I suspect he simply doesn't know how to properly mount a PU - the lower elevation screw is staked in place to ensure the scope's usual slight downwards cant is maintained every time, and the upper screw is tightened down, along with the thumbscrew. Eventually the thumbscrew may wander, but with periodic tightening that takes all of two seconds to do, the scope is not going anywhere).

It also had several other advantages which many people would have believed were disadvantages. The simple bullet drop compensator type elevation turret was graduated from 0 to 1,300m and could be turned easily with the fingers, as could the +/- 10 mils windage turret. While neither had feedback and they weren't especially precise, it seems that Soviet snipers largely used holds to correct their fire anyway, somewhat pushing these issues into irrelevance. In my honest opinion, I doubt things were much different for the Germans. Most of the German scopes had very finely calibrated adjustment turrets, some designs requiring special keys to alter them. Most of the common German scopes had very fiddly locking screws for the turrets which you absolutely would not be able to operate efficiently while wearing gloves, or trying to work fast. I would imagine that most German snipers who saw much combat would've been using holds too as a result of this, and as a result the advantage is passed back to the Soviet scope simply by virtue of lacking these (in my mind) redundant features which did little but add expense and labour during production and headaches during maintenance.

The most mind-numbingly ignorant argument, though? It came down to, and I wish I could say this was a joke, "every PU scope I have looked through has been cloudly and/or distorted the image, they are rubbish." Perhaps not in those exact words, but the words used were certainly to that effect. Now forgive me for being the voice of reason, but could it be that this guy simply looked through a lot of examples that had been poorly cared for over the past seventy years? While we're at it, when you're trying to prove which WWII sniper scope conferred the biggest advantage to its end user, why do you care what they look like seventy years after the fact? A PU that has been properly looked after may exhibit at most some very slight fogging or a slight loss of vibrance. Mine has lost a little of its colour, but the image itself is clear and not distorted at all. I have never seen a bad PU in person, though I have seen photos of abused examples, and they look no different to what would have happened if a Carl Zeiss scope had been kicked around without the proper care. These were cheap scopes intended to serve until the military no longer needed them, and they did so with distinction. Let's not introduce irrelevant arguments into the matter. At any rate, later-war German ZF4 scopes were known to vary greatly in quality from 'superb' to 'barely passable by anyone's standards', a result of slackened quality control, material shortages, and Allied bombing.

At the end of the day, I would have to argue that the PU was easily the better choice. Think about the situation; it's total war, a war of extermination, and you have a lot of snipers to equip. It should be a no-brainer, and to the very practically-minded Soviets, it was precisely that. The Germans, with no widespread 'sniper movement' to feed, continued on for quite some time before realising that the immediate future of military optics was in cheap, simple scopes that did what they were asked. No more, no less. On the other hand, for target shooting or hunting, I would not hesitate to recommend the German scopes, whose quality was absolutely unsurpassed by any other nation during the war.

Hensoldt Dialytan 4x scope, often seen mounted on Kar98k rifles. Note the tiny locking screw for the elevation wheel... now imagine it's -20 and the snow is falling sideways. Not ideal for the Eastern Front, I would say.

Looking through the Dialytan, it becomes immediately apparent that this is an excellent scope, rivalling many modern examples. The image is excellent.

Soviet PU scope, 3.5x magnification. This is my scope, built in 1944 at the Progress works (which was a microscope factory, originally, tooled up with help from Zeiss). Brutally simple and extremely hardy. The scope is deceptively heavy for its size, considering the tube and mount are built of thick machined steel. Turrets are easily adjusted with gloved hands.

A look through my PU. This scope had its lenses replace postwar, but other than the antireflective coating it is otherwise identical to its original form. Obviously the coating helps keep the image clear in bright sunlight, but I think a lot of people give it far too much stock. The dark globes apparently floating in the sky are dust specks I failed to clean up, but you can still see that despite lacking the superb glass and engineering of the German scopes... it's really not that much worse, and absolutely a serviceable mid-range sniper scope.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Red Orchestra 2 - she loves me, she loves me not

Oh, Tripwire.

I was going to make a bunch of posts between last August and now. I have about five or six drafts kicking around and a bunch of half-formed thoughts still lingering at the back of my mind, or scribbled down on various sheets of paper that litter my desk (and much of my floor). In the end, though, there's really only one game that I feel strongly enough to write about. Not because the others weren't good, or I didn't think some features revolutionary and others counterproductive, but because Red Orchestra 2: Heroes of Stalingrad is a perfect example of everything that is wrong with the gaming industry, and everything that is right about it, at the same time.

As anyone who knows me even vaguely will know, I am a diehard Red Orchestra fan. From the day I got the game in late 2006 - on the suggestion of a good friend and curiosity stirred by various Steam ads - I fell in love with it. I've never been good at most shooters, as I spent my childhood playing combat flight sims and then RTS games. They're too fast for me, or demand too much fine motor control too suddenly. They're also... well, kind of bland, honestly. You can only play so many rounds of Counter-Strike, Half-Life 2 Deathmatch (grav gun volleyball excepted), or even the early Battlefield games before it all starts to feel like one big blob of sameness. Now before anyone sends me death threats for implying that HL2 and Battlefield were samey dross, I'm not saying that - what I'm saying is that the core mechanics were always the same. Moonwalk around with WASD, put crosshair over bad guy, shoot mans. Half your bullets will miss unless you have a sniper rifle and hit detection and damage output are done by hitscan calculations on a giant invisible refrigerator box your enemy is encapsulated within. If you hit them enough times and luck is on your side, they fall over. No matter how many revolutionary or genre-defining features games have introduced, nearly every shooter on the market has fallen into that same category.

Then I discovered Red Orchestra: Ostfront 41-45. Developed by modders-turned-studio Tripwire Interactive, the game was an improved retail version of a mod they had used to win the Make Something Unreal competition. In terms of gameplay, I understand it was similar to the later versions of the mod (which I have sadly never played) but featured considerable polishing. The game was still a fairly recent release when I bought it, and it immediately proved to be a different beast to Day of Defeat: Source, Medal of Honour: Pacific Assault, and Call of Duty, which had been the only WWII shooters I had really logged any play time with up to that point. There was no crosshair; my weapon would move around the screen and deviate from centre, and the bullets would go where the muzzle was pointing, not where the camera was looking. The only method of aiming reliably was to use ironsights or a scope. Hitboxes were no longer gigantic boxes, but so detailed that I began to make a habit of shooting enemy snipers' rifles out of their hands to annoy them. Players couldn't heal and their health didn't regenerate, and they couldn't take many shots before they went down, either. The gameplay was slow compared to the games I had come from, and yet far more tense and astronomically more rewarding. There was a definite sense of your actions having consequences - if you tried to race across a street being covered by a machine gun, you couldn't take a couple of hits and then change your mind halfway. You were dead. It was also a game (probably one of the first) where teamwork wasn't just a suggestion - it was a necessity.

It wasn't just this that made RO appealing to me. I've always been mesmerised by WWII history, and this was the first game to really explore the Eastern front in any considerable depth (since CoD did little more than reinforce make-believe Hollywood stereotypes). Maps were based on real engagements, and in some cases they almost perfectly replicated locations that existed or even still exist today. Weapons and vehicles handled as close to their real-life counterparts as possible in the Unreal 2.5 engine (well, except the recoil-o-matic submachine guns). Uniforms were based on the real things. Visuals were gritty, but not overly dramatic.

Red Orchestra was not a game that would appeal to a vast majority of gamers. Free weekend promotions from Steam would see an influx of players from mainstream shooters, and while some would stay, the majority had little or nothing positive to say about the game. Tripwire realised they had a niche market, however, and continued to support the game and its community without sacrificing the things that made it great in the name of a larger profit. They continued this tradition of excellent support with Killing Floor afterwards, although that game enjoyed a much larger playerbase, likely because gamers can't say no to a zombie game.

With all that said, you can imagine how excited I was when Tripwire finally announced that "our next project" was indeed a sequel as many had expected. Initial screenshots and gameplay videos confirmed my suspicions it would blow everything else out of the water, including the preceding game - Tripwire had taken all the things that made RO great, and improved upon them. They'd also listened to the community's suggestions over time, incorporating sight adjustment, functional ironsights on sniper rifles, improved weapon deployment, and a drastically improved tank element. They'd also added a whole bunch of new gamemodes. Everything looked set to astonish.

Except it didn't. Well, not the way I had hoped.

You see, somewhere along the line, the decision was made that the game should appeal to a wider audience. You may recognise this as the scourge that is currently plaguing the gaming industry (and even many mod teams); instead of picking a solid audience and sticking to it, developers are trying to make their games all things to all men and the result is seldom a good one. I've said it on here before: you can't do everything and do it well. You can do it mediocre, and make your game a bland experience for everybody rather than an excellent one for a specific audience. RO found its niche and catered to it exclusively, and was dearly loved for it. Its successor seems to have gone astray somewhere along the line.

RO2 is much, much faster paced. You move faster, you bring up your sights faster, you reload faster, and automatics rule the day. Long gone are the times of bolt-action rifles making up the overwhelming majority of a team's arsenal; in any given RO2 match, you're lucky if a third of your team is using them. Exceptionally rare, experimental weapons - which may not have (and in some cases almost certainly did not) seen action anywhere near Stalingrad - shift the balance even more, with the MKb.42 (H) giving the Germans a decisive upper hand reminiscient of the StG.44 in RO. The difference here is that the Soviets have no real answer to it until players unlock the drum magazine for the PPSh, and even then the MKb's versatility is unmatched.

Yep, you read that right, folks. There's an unlock system. This is quite different from the titular 'Heroes' system, which was by no means a bad idea; this is purely weapon-based, and it unlocks improvements for some weapons, cosmetic changes for others, and nothing for some. As well as improving the way your character handles the given weapon (which is just fine by me), you will magically upgrade it as time goes on. This could have worked if it hadn't been cobbled together in such an arbitrary way. Already good weapons like the MKb and MG34 - both of which totally outmatch their direct counterparts - can be extensively upgraded, while the DP-28 remains in its normal state regardless. Players must unlock the drum magazine for the PPSh-41, despite the 35-round stick magazines the weapon starts with only becoming widespread in the year following the battle the entire game is centred on. They must also unlock select-fire for the weapon... despite the fact that this feature was standard on it until its deletion in a 1944 revision of the design. Similarly, Soviet snipers start with the PU scope for their M91/30, and must work towards the side-mounted PEM. The PEM was almost ubiquitous until 1943, when it began to be replaced by the PU. I'd like to remind you that the Battle of Stalingrad began in August 1942 and ended in February of 1943.

I could write a small book about the sheer mess of bugs that the game has been since the early-access beta, and how very few have been fixed despite constant patching, but I won't. I'm here to talk about game design, not technical details.

As you can hopefully glean from the above, the game has a lot of historical inaccuracies; it also has maps accurate to the last brick (not exaggerating) and uniforms that are absolutely on the money. Despite the changes to weapon balancing, the weapons themselves are the best I have ever seen in a game and I seriously doubt they will ever be surpassed - they are as close as you will get to shooting an actual firearm in any game. At times, I can feel the gameplay that made RO my one true gaming love struggling to shine through. That's the most infuriating thing about this game; under the mountains of slutty makeup and MKb.42s, there is the true heir to RO's throne as the reigning monarch of tactical realism in games, and everything we could ever have asked for. The problem is getting to it under the aforementioned, and Tripwire's attitude so far has not been promising. The game's sales figures were excellent - it far outsold Ostfront and at one point was well ahead of Modern Warfare 3 in number of preorders on Steam - but only a few weeks from release, the servers are barren wastelands and many, many people have been left with a sour taste in their mouths. Is the game doomed? I really hope not. The core gameplay and mechanics are far superior to anything, and I don't just mean in its class - not even Battlefield 3 can scratch the surface, and the latter comes off as gamey and shallow in comparison. All the game needs is some love and for Tripwire to go back and undo the haphazard and ill-advised design changes they kept quiet until release, and give us the game we expected - the game that wants to get out.

This, people, is why you do not ever try and leave your niche once you've found it. Please remember this lesson.