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.