Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Red Orchestra 2, or how Call of Duty ruins everthing

Most people didn't really care for Red Orchestra: Ostfront.

By most accounts it was clunky, boring, frustrating, and frequented by an alarming number of Nazi apologists. However, that didn't matter to some. For them, it succeeded in occupying a space that few games dared. It was historically accurate and realistic without overstepping its bounds and reaching into simulation territory. Compared to its peers, it took ages to stand back up from prone position, it used iron sights before they were vogue, and carrying more than one gun didn't even make sense. The game stood for something. It was idealistic. You were a soldier on the Eastern front of World War II, nothing more. You didn't get to play the hero character, kicking down doors and mowing down a room full of Nazi's with a gun that was more akin to a bullet hose than piece of wood and metal.

Let's list some of the things that made Red Orchestra unique (and probably hated by most gamers):
  • You got one gun. Most of the time it was a bolt action rifle.
  • Automatic vs semi-automatic vs bolt action played a huge role. Bolt actions had the greatest range while the sub-machine guns kicked like a mule and were pointless to use beyond certain ranges. Semi-autos effectively filled the gap; they lacked the long-range accuracy of the bolt actions and the close-range rate of fire of the SMGs. Weapon choice had a huge impact on playstyle. Rifle users traded pot shots at range while the SMGs wove through cover to try and get in range to mop up behind the lines or dominate the close quarters zones.
  • Guns felt substantial. When you cycled the bolt on a Mosin Nagant, it really felt like you were winding up for your next shot. It clicked satisfyingly into place, and it never seemed like a rhythmic animation cycle as in most games.
  • Aiming: When you brought up your iron sights, your sight picture was what you expected it to be. There was no zoom, no player aids of any kind. The effect of this was to lengthen the battlefield and make aiming at long range a challenge.

  • Gun sway was also important. If you were standing and out of breath from a long sprint your chances of hitting anything past 10 feet were slim to none. Not only was this realistic, it slowed the game down. This is extremely important to why RO felt so special. There was a trade-off between moving quickly to seize an advantageous position versus staying prone in cover and being able to fire more accurately. While you could run through a close quarters environment with an SMG and spray from the hip successfully, the moment you tried to do this anywhere else you would be quickly dispatched by a clever rifleman. This created an inherent system of balance by the fact that the players accepted the natural imbalance of being in an unfavorable situation. Everybody was cool with the fact that SMGs dominated in close quarters battle while the riflemen dominated the long distance battle.
  • The maps were also fantastic. Most were huge, sprawling affairs that were painful to traverse unless you hopped in a troop transport. Usually, infantry were involved in firefights at closer ranges while tanks traded punches overhead from across the map. You really felt like you were involved in a battle.
  • Vehicle combat was also true enough to real life, yet intense in its simplicity.
  • Beyond all these elements of realism, it was fun.

Intensity, I believe, is the pervading idea that is critical to Red Orchestra's success. It is intense because the slow pace of the game, the feeling of vulnerability, and the lack of armament all succeed in placing the player very distinctly in the game world. Feeling like you're part of a world that makes sense, or is at least internally consistent is critical to immersion and that feeling of intensity that all RO players have come to love and expect.

That brings us to Heroes of Stalingrad.

It's a game that was eagerly anticipated for years by a devoted community who kept the original fresh with new maps for years after its initial release. I almost always had to wait in line to get into one of the few popular servers up until RO2 launched, seven years late. What everyone expected and was looking forward to was a game that took the lessons from RO1 and expanded and improved upon them. What we got was a game that tried to be two very different things.

It's clear that Tripwire were at least listening to their community for some part of the development process, as many of Ostfront's lessons were translated into the sequel. The guns still feel like real guns, the new graphics have succeeded in (superficially) increasing immersion as the levels look great, and you still feel quite vulnerable when you're sprinting across an open field towards cover. On the surface, the game does a good job of updating some of the core gameplay features of the original. Once the honeymoon is over, however, some ugly decisions start to become very apparent. Now when you bring up your iron sights, there is a significant zoom; spotting players and shooting them at range is much easier. Recoil is drastically reduced for SMGs. It was always over the top in RO1, but I always felt it helped with balance. I would have been happy with a little less recoil in HOS, but as it currently stands, it's very easy to score kills with SMGs at 100+ yards. Along with the fact that there are now significantly more automatic and semi-automatic due to changes to the role selections, RO2 now feels much less unique, and much less tactical. It has lost the clear distinction between playstyles because with the current map selections, there is really no reason to choose rifleman. With SMGs being much more accurate, and semi-auto rifles being about as accurate as the bolt actions, there is no reason to choose a bolt other than pride. Sure, I'm still able to score very well in matches with a bolt, but I still know that I would be able to be doing just as well or better with another weapon. It feels like they tried to smooth over the differences between the guns so that everybody could feel successful in a greater handful of situations, and in doing so, they have destroyed an important element that makes RO unique.

These are not the only examples of making Red Orchestra easier, or more friendly to newer gamers. Your stamina level now has comparatively little impact on your aiming ability, and firing while standing up is now significantly easier. It also takes less time to bring up your iron sights. I don't know if they just decided that waiting to catch your breath before trying to take your shot was frustrating for newer players, but all these changes combined have vastly increased the speed at which combat takes place in RO. One of the reasons I loved the original was because I was not the best twitch gamer, and if I came around a corner slowly and ran into someone sprinting towards me, I was going to have the upper-hand in quickly aiming and shooting them before they could come to a stop and shoulder their weapon. There is almost no penalty now for doing this; SMGs can now sprint through buildings, pause momentarily to blast enemies, and then quickly move on. This systematic removal of penalties and trade-offs makes the game feel suspiciously more like the modern, smoothed-over, highly-polished, and shallow shooters like Call of Duty. And we haven't even gotten to the "unlock" system yet.

I could dedicate a whole new post to this epidemic of "progression" that is taking over gaming (and I probably will), but I'm more concerned right now with how it has corrupted my beloved Red Orchestra. Ostfront was a game the prided itself on its historical accuracy. The guns were accurately modeled and realistically distributed. Most troops had bolt action rifles, and the more complex and expensive-to-manufacture SMGs, MGs, and anti-tank weapons were few and far between (a team of 50 typically had 4-6 SMGs total, depending on the map, with at least half the team being bolt actions. In RO2, less than a third have rifles). Heroes of Stalingrad has now suffered the indignity of having an unlock and progression system shoehorned into it. Now you have to unlock your bayonet if you're a rifleman (who didn't pre-order the game), get reduced recoil if you level up your MP41, and unlock what should have been exceptionally rare or experimental weaponry. For a historical game, this is utter garbage. I cannot think of a game less-suited for this level of transparent manipulation and pandering. RO doesn't need new and exciting weaponry to unlock to keep it interesting. It never needed it in the past and it sure as heck doesn't need it now.

It won't be long now until everyone has unlocked everything and the game is even faster and easier for everybody. Before long it will be just that much closer to Call of Duty. I can see exactly how and why this has happened. Gaming has become more popular, and has attracted a wider audience who are not interested in playing good, interesting, or original games. No, they are merely interested in a cinematic experience and having minor, meaningless goals to work towards. The kind of people that love Call of Duty games, basically. Tripwire tried to double-dip. They tried to make their game attractive to these new gamers, while retaining their fans who loved the unique, tense gameplay of their original creation. In the end, they succeeded in merely watering down the ideas that made the original so successful, losing the support and trust of a huge part of their fans, and further botching the launch by annoying people with a non-functioning stat tracking system. And for all that, the game is still maintaining shockingly low numbers of players at peak times. Significantly fewer still than Killing Floor, their last game, now several years old. So they've alienated their biggest, most dedicated fans and still managed to fail to attract the shitty CoD fanbase, who were never going to play the game anyway with such upcoming titles as Battlefield 3 and MW3. I guess they thought selling out would be worth it for the extra pre-orders from people who wanted a game to hold them over until the next big thing. It remains to be seen how well this will work out for them in the future.

However, I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy Heroes of Stalingrad. I still feel that it's the best first-person shooter since its predecessor, and it has retained enough of that feeling of intensity that I love playing it. I can't help but feel that it could just be so much better if it were closer to Ostfront. I loathe seeing the influence that Call of Duty has had on the development of the game, but at the same time, I am confident that it won't be long before servers will be able to tweak the game to be closer to its roots. I'm just bitter that it's now fallen on the community to rescue the game from the developers, and that I can no longer count Tripwire among the few developers who are committed to strong game design first and mass appeal second.

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