Updated: April 17, 2013
A few months ago, I found out that Red Orchestra 2 was available without charge for three days on Steam, kind of an early pre-holidays season treat, so I promptly downloaded and tested the game. I was interested to see what this game can offer, since Red Orchestra 2 is a sequel to the same-named first version, which happens to be available for Linux, too. That one will merit its own review, maybe, but that's for later.
Anyhow, Red Orchestra 2 is a theme-based game, taking place, yes you guessed it, around the city of Stalingrad in Second World War. You can play as either a German or Russian, although you must complete the Axis campaign first before the second one will become unlocked. But I am getting ahead of myself. On paper, it all sounds interesting. However, is the game any good?
When I tested the game, it wanted to install the Punkbuster anti-cheat thingie, which I did not desire. You can decline the installation of the software, but it will bug you each time you fire up the game. Then, after installing Red Orchestra 2, I discovered that you must undergo a mandatory training as a German soldier, which teaches you about basic actions, like moving, running, crawling, climbing ladders, as well as operating a handful of weapons, including pistol, rifles, machine guns, and more. And here, I hit my first obstacle.
I was unable to complete my training as a sniper for some reason. The instructor would cue my shots, up right, down left and such, but no matter what I did, I never managed to hit the last target. I canceled the training at this point only to discover that I had to redo it all over again, from scratch, and that there was no other way to progress into the real campaign. As you may suspect, I almost gave up at this point. Luckily, I found out that you can use cheats to manually open any which mission you want.
So I launched the first level of the Axis campaign using my hax0r skills and began playing in earnest. But it's definitely not a good start. Imagine some nooblet unaware of the game console and its commands. They might put Red Orchestra away for good.
German campaign and how it all went wrong
You begin your career as an unlucky Wermacht soldier at the outskirts of a village outside Stalingrad, with the task of conquering it. The first scene is quite impressive. You are standing outside a burning, half-ruined town with artillery raining down around you. Looks like Private Ryan, gritty and dirty and not quite pleasant.
Then, after a few minutes of sensory obliteration, you begin getting used to the noise and chaos and learn that they are fully scripted. The background noises and German-accented commentary from your own character and that of your AI friends are designed to create confusion that will immerse you into the action, but if you ignore them, you realize the battle is not that much of a big deal.
True, spotting enemy soldiers among the rubble is not easy, and scoring hits with your primitive Mauser carbine is not simple, but then it's not that difficult either. You will often hear shots hit near you, and your morale meter will temporarily drop, but if you hunker down and wait for the salvo to pass, you will miraculously recover within seconds. The same goes for grazing shots.
Artillery shrapnel can kill you, and you will often bleed from your wounds, only to wake up as the next available unit in your team, fighting on until either every one of you dies or you successfully finish the mission. There are multiple linear checkpoints set throughput the maps, and the combat evolves progressively. The levels are relatively small, so do not expect to venture outside a very narrow action corridor, where scripted triggers kick in to create the miasma of panic, din, flying debris, and pinging ricochets. Combine that with sighs and grunts, and you ducking behind broken walls for cover, and you get some sort of semblance of real fighting. Blind firing is another sweet bonus, but that's just not good enough.
Because, if you pause right there, right then, nothing sinister will happen. The enemy will not flank you, the artillery will keep falling, but if you keep outside the lethal radius zones at certain points in the level, you will be just fine, and you can let the scripted ambiance just drift past you.
Graphics & gameplay
As you can see, a pattern begins to emerge. Completing the game mission is not a big deal. You will merely have to respawn a few times, or at most, repeat the game sequence from the last saved point to the next. This is utterly predictable and somewhat boring. The maps are circular and fairly small. Most of the action takes place in a box less than 100 meters across. Everything outside this mission zone is merely there to give you an illusion of a large world.
Commentary from your soldier character, narrated in archetypal German accent is quite annoying and cliche. For one thing, if someone is speaking in their native tongue, it should sound native rather than like a bad 80s villain. In that sense, the players should either speak in Russian or German, but definitely not in broken English. And it also gets quite repetitive. For the first ten minutes, you will mistake noise for quality. But just like Saving Private Ryan, one of the more overrated war films around, once past the initial shock of the opening scene, you will settle into some rather placid semi-drama. Emotional engagement: none.
Enemy soldiers and your friendly AI will run about the map, and again, until your analytical mind kicks in, the would-be randomness of their runs, poses and gestures may appear almost human in nature, but you will soon spot the patterns and it will all become boring. Just like Call of Duty, the campaign mistakes activity for efficiency. The fact a lot is happening does not make it wise or interesting. Additional screen details, like the objective pointers, morale meter and cues to duck and cover spoil it further. Well, at least the story is honest. Call of Duty was in-your-face Hollywood excitement vibrator, while Heroes of Stalingrad tries to be sort of serious, to some degree.
The graphics is quite decent. Not your perfect real-life thingie, but then it does not have to be. It's done rather well, and overall, feels fine. I found the depiction of the rural areas around Stalingrad done with solid detail. Explosions look realistic. Soldiers are also styled properly, and sometimes, it is quite hard to tell friend and foe apart, just as it should be.
The game was buggy for me. Most of the time, skipping intro movie sequences is impossible, but it sometimes works if you hit the Escape button. However, more often than not, this would crash the game. The training session was also immensely annoying, and in my experience, probably constitutes as a bug, too. The fact you cannot skip it and move onwards is a major obstacle.
Red Orchestra 2: Heroes of Stalingrad played well, but in about two hours, I had at least four or five crashes, some of the waypoints were not saved, and each time I restarted the campaign, I was forced to watch the movie scene, narrated in the same annoying German accent directly from the Book of Stereotypes 101.
Free trial ends
After three days, the free-to-play offering ended. Which meant I could no longer trial the game, and I had to choose between buying or skipping. Well, I am not one to quickly shell cash for games, unless they really and truly compel me, which definitely is not the situation here. So I gave it a pass.
I did not play that much, just three missions in the German campaign. I have no idea how well it progresses later on, or whether the Russian side of the story is any better, accents notwithstanding. However, I do believe the short period of net gameplay did give me enough insight into what the game is all about, especially when I think back to Call of Duty, and what kind of thrill it gave in its first minutes as opposed to the later stages. Not much growth there, I'm afraid.
I cannot say I'm impressed with the game. It has some interesting points - a unique setting with its dual themed campaign, the fact you don't get ammo counters, the quality of graphics, the nitty gritty attempt at realism. Oh, speaking of realism, once you've played a real shooter like OFP or ArmA II, you're doomed. You will never be able to play your typical teenager-oriented game ever again. The differences are stupendous. Huge. Amazing. And this is the big problem with Heroes of Stalingrad.
Like Call of Duty, Red Orchestra 2 features a predictable, fully scripted, linear gameplay with very small maps, tons of checkpoints, easy and repetitive gameplay, and no emotional engagement. There's just no challenge in running around and shooting. Yes, holding a carbine feels different than M4 or AK-47, but other than that, you feel like you're watching a bad movie. The physics is silly, there's virtually no inertia or resistance to your movements, the battles are repetitive, bland, childish even. Honestly, I have nothing against the developers and their hard work, but they should seriously label this as an arcade for younger audience.
I might be a somber and bitter old git, but recently, I find it virtually impossible to come across a first person shooter that does not become instantly boring. I've recently tried Crysys, and it was even worse than this. But we will talk about that separately. Red Orchestra 2: Heroes of Stalingrad is an interesting attempt that fails to satisfy the hardcore realist in me. For those looking for casual, meaningless fun, this is a very decent choice. For anyone seeking emotional engagement and serious challenge, this game does not deliver.
Grades: Game story 4/10, graphics 10/10, realism 1/10, fun 5/10. That's all.