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Review: Red Orchestra 2: Heroes of Stalingrad
by Chris Hawke

Red Orchestra 2: Heroes of Stalingrad has the best pistols of any game I've ever played. And for me, that's a big thing. When you're stuck with a bolt-action rifle, and a swarm of Nazis are bearing down, you need a Plan B. Usually, in games, pistols are next to useless; peashooters that dribble pellets of soft cheese at your enemies. They're weak, boring and might as well not be there. But in Red Orchestra 2? Sidearms are king.

Whipping out a Luger P08 never felt so good, nor contained so much sexual innuendo. You bring the iron sights up to your eyes, able to see the whole battlefield at a glance; as you slowly tread around a corner, some feckless Russian storms right into your line of fire. You plug three sharp, curt, quick bullets into his stomach. But one would have been enough. He slumps to the floor, draped in a fitting shade of red.

And that's just the pistol.

Red Orchestra 2 is the fully-fledged sequel to Tripwire's Unreal Engine 2.5-powered Red Orchestra: Ostfront 41-45, which came out in 2006. With the limited resources it had, the game was wildly ambitious, pitting 64 plays in the most authentic Second World War action around. Despite the shoddy graphics and clumsy UI, it was a powerfully realistic, immersive experience, but only for those PC gamers willing to put in a great deal of time. This time round, Tripwire have taken unprecedented care with Heroes of Stalingrad. And it shows.

The graphics are nothing short of stunning. Textures are as crisp as they are hauntingly brutal, character models so close to the uncanny valley that they almost fall in, and it boasts all the extra trimmings, like light shafts and excellent bloom and blur effects. I'm happy to go on record and say that the sun-kissed Grain Elevator map is more beautiful than anything Modern Warfare 3 will be able to muster, and it at times borders on Battlefield 3 levels of beauty. Static screenshots simply don't do it justice. When in motion, Red Orchestra 2 is something else; words cannot describe in enough detail. It'll push your PC a bit, so be willing to drop down if you get a choppy framerate, but even on the more conservative settings, you'll be in awe.

Of course, the graphics mean nothing. Why? Because there is no game so thrilling passionate about putting you in the boots of a solider. 'Immersive' and 'realistic' are words I'm bound to throw around a great deal, but they have never carried more gravitas than with Red Orchestra 2. There is no HUD to speak of - a tiny mini-map to help you find you way is all that will occasionally lure your attention away, and even that can be switched off in certain servers. When you shoot a player, there is no hit marker; you have to hold your breath for a few seconds, watch to see if they're dead, and - if you're lucky - a message will pop up only a few moments later to give you confirmation of a kill. This is such a small detail, but one that has a huge effect; you have to take care with your shots, and the extra delay gives rise to exhilarating seconds of watching, waiting for any movement. There is no red 'Shoot Me!' text over enemies, as it's up to you to discern between the grey-brown uniforms of the Nazis and the brown-grey coats of the Soviets. This is not a game that holds you by the hand; you're out on your own, and it's up to you to win or lose. It's a hugely liberating feeling, if a tad daunting, but with a bit a perseverance and a few team-kills, you'll get used to it.

This creativity and uniqueness stretches even into the game modes and maps you'll be playing. Each map I've played have all been well-crafted, from the close quarters of Barracks, to the epic war of attrition in Red October Factory. There are natural choke points, deadly sniper holes and, in the larger maps, wide open plains in which you'll cower at the might of opposition storming your positions. There's a choice of three modes, but the mode that's all the rage, Territory, has the Nazis and Allies competing to capture as many of the five or so 'control points' as possible. Every twenty seconds, dead players respawn, which gives the impression of enemy reinforcements. It really does make a difference - instead of players constantly drip-feeding in, you can experience game-altering surges of Soviets in a sudden swell of success, and there's nothing more terrifying than twenty Nazis streaming past your sniper nest.

Each class only has a limited number of people in them; only two marksmen are allowed, only six Assault Riflemen, only six squad leaders, and so on until the remaining few have to plump for a bog-standard rifle. It speaks volumes about where Red Orchestra 2's true passions lie: not in getting you the pink MP40 you've always wanted and letting you raising hell, but rather focussing on teamwork and tactical play. If you find yourself with a machine gun, you have to take it upon yourself to find a good hiding spot and mow enemies down, whilst as a sniper you'll have to hold back and pick people off at distance. Amazingly, it works; people really do adapt to their roles, and on a good server with good players it all fits together so perfectly.

The game also has a single-player campaign, but since I sprang straight in to the multiplayer element of the game, it gives you a good idea as to where Tripwire's attention was focussed. The campaign is split into 'Axis' and 'Allies', yet - whilst having a commander in the Reich rouse you to Lebensraum is a surprisingly fresh and novel experience - Tripwire hardly pull any heartstrings or shock you with twists and turns. In fact, it could be argued that the single player is totally devoid of emotion. You learn the ropes easily, but then you're thrown into all the multiplayer maps successively, with objectives for you and your AI buddies to storm towards. There are cutscenes which tie these objectives together with some very appreciated editing and war footage, but there's little to no story to speak of, and no emotional connection with the characters. Some might be disappointed with this, and whilst it certainly means you should look towards other games for your plot-heavy single-player, Red Orchestra 2 knows that it's more fun when shared. The AI is just about capable, and there's a very neat little feature where you can respawn directly into another class upon death. It means you can hone skills for multiplayer, while also giving you a different feel to the gameplay; one minute you're rushing ahead as an elite rifleman, while other times you'll hang back with a sniper rifle. Certainly, when you and a friend take on the computer in co-op, it provides a playground of sorts to test skills and create strategies. Single-player simply acts as respite between online bouts; a quicker-to-complete, more simple experience that allows you some alone time.

The game is not without fault. Occasionally, you'll spawn without a weapon in your hand, or character animation will freeze during a reload animation, rendering you useless. These are but waves in a small ocean of clipping issues, broken physics, and being-able-to-see-through-walls-if-you-look-at-them-at-the-right-angle. There was a very real chance that these could be horrible smears on otherwise polished and shining game, but honestly, you'll forgive and forget quickly. There's just too much to like for those small things to get in the way.

There's so much to love in Red Orchestra 2. Weapons are not fixed to the centreof the screen, and are fully 3D models which exist and react organically within the world: you can take cover, push your rifle to the edges of a window frame and easily pepper an enemy location, all whilst the camera remains static. Not only is it massively advantageous in gameplay, it also looks incredibly cinematic. On every weapon, you can adjust the sights to help hit targets at distance, whilst on sniper rifles, you can switch between a scope and iron sights, making it a viable close-quaters option too. Nowhere else can you stumble across two players discussing the historical authenticities of a PPSh-41. Red Orchestra 2 is simply one of a kind.

Battlfield 3 will bring us shooting. Beautiful shooting on an epic scale, yes, but shooting none the less. Modern Warfare 3 will bring us chaos on a disc. Both those titles are distinctly different, yet still go through the same old routines. But Red Orchestra 2 is unexpected; it's unpredictable and totally unique, taking a refreshingly mature approach to game design. If you're getting tired of the same old FPSs, Tripwire's latest is a masterpiece and nothing less. And whilst everybody places their bets on Battlefield 3 to trump Call of Duty, spare a thought for Red Orchestra 2. It just might surprise you.

9/10 [?]

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- Chris Hawke

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