"What really makes Red Orchestra unique is the commitment to realism. Characters move at normal speeds, stamina limits your sprinting and jumping, bullets drop over distances, one hit is often enough to kill, bolt-action rifles must be manually reloaded, and cross-hairs are only seen through scopes."
I wish I could say that I was excited about playing another WWII FPS, but after the past few years it feels about as stale as an amnesiac hero. It seems like all I do anymore in FPSís is dive through muddy trenches and crawl around a bombed-out Europe. I can understand if developers want to keep their products marketable by sticking to something that has immediate recognition with gamers, but the genre is suffering from something that I like to call, ďThe Titanic Effect.Ē No matter what characters you focus on, or how you tell the story, the ship still sinks.
To be fair, Red Orchestra manages to avoid some of this effect, but only because it completely disregards storytelling. Whereas games like Call of Duty and Medal of Honor try to rope people in with engaging narratives, Red Orchestra forgoes the solo adventure in favor of 32-player online battles. There is the option of playing with utterly incompetent bots, but these matches are best used to familiarize yourself with the controls and maps. The main menu even refers to them as ďPractice Matches.Ē Those of you playing Battlefield 2 should instantly understand how the matches work. Opposing sides square off, battling to either capture or defend the given objective points before time runs out. When players die, they respawn in a safe location and jump back into the fray.
Before I get into the aspects that distinguish Red Orchestra from the mountain of WWII FPSís, I should go a little further in-depth regarding the game mechanics. Well, maybe that will have to come later as well. It seems that Iím still waiting for the game to load. Red Orchestra has the most egregiously long loading times I have ever witnessed in a game. At one point I literally got up from my computer, made a sandwich, ate, sat down for a little TV, and completely forgot about the game. When I finally remembered, the game was still loading. I have heard that precisely tweaking your PC and game display options can get the load times down to 30 seconds, but if my in-game conversations are any indication, about 5 minutes seems to be the standard. If first impressions are everything, Red Orchestra just wiped its nose and shook my hand.
In some respects, Red Orchestra truly is in a class of its own. To my knowledge, it is the first WWII game that ignores American efforts in favor of the Eastern Front, pitting the Germans against the Russians. Itís an interesting detail, but arbitrary considering the lack of narrative. What really makes Red Orchestra unique is the commitment to realism. Characters move at normal speeds, stamina limits your sprinting and jumping, bullets drop over distances, one hit is often enough to kill, bolt-action rifles must be manually reloaded, and cross-hairs are only seen through scopes. The lack of cross-hairs took some getting used to, but ultimately works rather well. Weapons are fired from the hip, spraying bullets everywhere, unless you choose to look down the sights. This improves accuracy, but severely limits the speed of your movement.
A lot of attention has been paid to the weapons, and in many ways they seem to be the stars of the show. The look, the sound, the movement; you can truly tell how much love and craftsmanship went into them. Itís a difficult thing to explain, but the guns just feel right. Every player begins with a primary weapon, possibly a secondary pistol, and extra equipment like grenades or binoculars. Which weapons you get is dependent upon the role you choose. Squads have a limited amount of roles to be filled out, and each role offers a unique weapon. Luckily, if you donít get the role you wanted, the weapons are fairly evenly matched with benefits and disadvantages. For instance, a standard rifle may not shoot very quickly, but it has great accuracy and a removable bayonet. On the other hand, machine-guns will paint the walls with anyone nearby, but any semblance of accuracy requires lying down, and the barrel occasionally needs replacing due to heat damage. As an added bonus, some of the levels allow players to take control of trucks and tanks. More than just a gimmick, the tanks require a good deal of skill and teamwork to do anything other than become a smoldering roadblock.
With the emphasis on realistic combat, I was mystified by a few logic-defying aspects of Red Orchestra. Apparently, some of the windows and grassy areas can provide bulletproof cover. Furthermore, I find it odd that while a blade of grass can stop a bullet, playersí legs seem to be made of papier mache. Be very afraid of heights, as any fall of two meters or more is quite likely to kill you. Donít try to dive for cover, jump off rooftops, or slide down hillsides. In fact, donít even worry about jumping since you canít get over anything above the knee. What bothers me most though, is the respawn feature. It canít be turned off, and it makes many of the battles extremely one-sided. Remember, players respawn in a ďsafeĒ location, which for the defending player may also be the only objective left. This means that no matter how many enemies the attackers kill, there will constantly be a fresh batch respawning directly inside the objective.
Red Orchestra began life as a mod for Unreal Tournament 2004, and given these origins, I was not surprised to find that the graphics donít quite match up to big-name projects like Call of Duty 2. Most of the models have fairly low polygon counts, but Tripwire managed to overcome this shortcoming with good texturing. I found myself amazed by the smallest details, like the spots of rust forming on handrails and even the treads on tires. Combined with the incredible level design, Red Orchestra offers up some of the most innovative maps seen in a FPS. Unfortunately, most areas of the maps just go to waste since there is no reason for players to be anywhere that is not an objective point.
Like real life, success in battle relies upon steady progressions through maps, strategy, and a lot of teamwork. Lone wolves usually suffer quick and ugly deaths. Since I tend to favor this slower, calculating style of play, I had some solid expectations for Red Orchestra. Itís a shame that the load times, brittle legs, and lack of other game modes make such a negative impact. Red Orchestra is still a decent effort, but it doesnít feel like a complete experience. If you are a diehard fan of WWII shooters, or just need a break from Battlefield 2, Red Orchestra will have enough to offer and you may feel free to add two points to the score. Most other gamers would do better to stay on the docks and wait for the next ship to come by.
Staff review by Brian Rowe (March 30, 2006)
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