Red Orchestra 2: Rising Storm shows the power of death, and the possibilities of realism
When I first started playing Red Orchestra 2 for the PC I was completely and utterly destroyed. Having never played any of the titles in the RO series, I came into the game's beta blind and unaware of the nonstop shellacking that awaited me. The game has one of the steepest learning curves in modern gaming.
This expansion of the World War II shooter takes place in the Pacific theater of war, with a gameplay system that attempts to be true-to-life by often giving one side a positional advantage or slightly more advanced weaponry. The new content in the expansion sees players fighting in Battlefield-style objective-based games in locales like the island of Iwo Jima or other Pacific sites such as the Battle of Tarawa.
However, what interested me most about the game wasn't its expansion content, but the uniqueness of the Red Orchestra 2 base game. The crowning achievement of the game is its “Realism” mode, which introduces small yet important changes to the usual mechanics of competitive first-person shooters.
On paper, the only real differences are that players have much lower health and friendly fire is much more severe. However, the psychological impact these changes have on players fundamentally alters the game.
Realism and all that comes with it
I first started playing Rising Storm in Realism mode by complete accident, and I was killed immediately after walking out onto the slopes of Iwo Jima. Respawn. Blown up by artillery. Respawn. Torched by a flamethrower, never even saw it coming. Respawn. Blown up by…something, not really sure what.
The next 37 or so respawns were similar variations on that pattern. Once or twice I managed to aim at an enemy and get off a few shots, but more often than not I was killed from nowhere by ghost-like players I never saw.
RO2 sounds like a completely miserable experience, but I was more entertained by this non-stop failure than most modern first-person shooters. The feeling of tension you feel as you creep through the jungles, bullets whizzing past, aware that any second you could be dead is addictive. Instant death has the power to turn RO2 into something akin to a multiplayer horror game.
In gameplay terms, it seems like a small jump to go from one-shot kill to Call of Duty's five or six-shot kill, but the psychological effect it has is massive. In an arcade-style shooter like CoD, you can always be sure that you'll have at least a split second to react, barring headshots. You'll feel the bullets slamming your character and you'll have a chance to dive to the ground or sprint away. In RO2 there's no warning, you just die.
It can be spooky when it happens and you're not expecting it, and even when you're expecting it, RO2 has ways of keeping you terrified of death. I once listened to my avatar howl in horror as he bled to death of a stomach wound, and it was not pleasant. RO2 is billed as the most realistic WW2 game on the market, and they clearly mean it.
It's a game that is very much about the horrors of war. But not just in the way marketing companies so often describe their games. Red Orchestra 2 is about making you feel the experience of being there and knowing that war isn't fair. I didn't feel like a badass war hero when I played this game. I felt like a skinny kid with a crappy rifle up against the Allied army with nothing but a cloth shirt to protect me.
It sounds trite, but the game made me reflect on the experience our grandfathers and great grandfathers, on both sides, endured in the Pacific. Sometimes equipment and training don't save you. Sometimes, you can outsmart your opponent and still find yourself on the wrong side of a random bullet.
And for our CoD players…
Playing the game's “Action” mode after that experience was eye-opening.
Everything felt wrong. Players were no longer slowly moving up the beach cautiously, they were charging ahead with reckless abandon. They weren't communicating. They weren't playing strategically. It's easy to use your body as a kind of radar when you know you won't die with the first bullet wound. Why creep along silently looking for the enemy when you can just watch for the muzzle flash as you take that first shot?
Those simple changes robbed the game of everything that made it special. Everything else was the same, but by trying to appeal to modern shooter fans with a more forgiving alternate mode, Tripwire Interactive had actually created a soulless dummy husk of their own game. You can't simply change the basic parameters of a delicately balanced game, and hope for it to retain the spark that once made it special. Tripwire can't do it to Red Orchestra 2 any more than From Software could introduce an “Action Mode” to Dark Souls to appeal to fans of the Devil May Cry series.
Games like Dark Souls 2 and Metro 2033 have taught us that single-player games can actually be enhanced by introducing a hefty dose of strife and pain to the gameplay experience. Red Orchestra 2 teaches that same lesson in a multiplayer context. You might actually be robbing the players of a special experience by bending to their will.
Red Orchestra 2: Rising Storm is in closed beta, and is due for release at some point in Summer 2013.