The lights are on
The original Red Orchestra sold over half a million copies on PC – almost exclusively to hardcore competitive shooter players. This full-on sequel packs in the usual improvements, but also sets its sights on drawing more gamers into its vision of WWII infantry combat.Understand one thing about Red Orchestra: With little mainstream or publisher support, developer Tripwire Interactive scratched and clawed its way to a position near the top of the multiplayer shooter heap on the strength of its design chops. The community will defend Red Orchestra to the death for its tight balance and its rewarding of clever, realistic strategies. None of that is likely to change for Heroes of Stalingrad.A host of little things in the simulation stand out that make a lot of genre conventions seem downright silly in comparison. Take ballistic scopes, for example. They're realistically modeled in usable 3D, allowing players to keep at least blurry peripheral vision as they dial in long shots. Snipers can easily move their point of view two inches downward to look down the ironsights of their weapon at closer targets, just like a WWII soldier would have. Realities like bullet drop over long distances are typically ignored by video games, but Tripwire adds in that simple physics model and allows players to adjust their crosshairs for the appropriate range via the mousewheel – again, exactly how a Russian conscript would have in 1940 (minus the mousewheel part, probably).An explicit cover system allows for blind fire and quick peeks through the ironsights with a single button press. I'm generally opposed to explicit cover unless the game is totally designed around it (Rainbow Six: Vegas, Gears of War), but you can just as easily ignore it and use cover with the traditional first-person controls. I do like that blindfiring gives players a new tactical tool, since every single bullet presents a clear and present danger in Red Orchestra.Another tweak to classic Red Orchestra gameplay in Heroes of Stalingrad is in the chain of command. Squad leaders and faction commanders can give orders to players, which show up as UI elements like a glowing circle near a window you're supposed to provide overwatch from. This time, though, following orders plays into the metagame progression, earning you points for doing your job on the team and not just killing the most dudes. The metagame ties into role assignments as well, giving command to more experienced players instead of the often-random draw in the original game. A particularly good performance during a round can give you a significant temporary boost, though, so you're not locked out of command forever just because you're a little behind the progression curve.Tripwire admits that nobody bothers with single-player or versus-bot play in Red Orchestra today simply because they aren't very good. Though the developers didn't have the campaign ready to show here at GamesCom, they assure me that a "ton of work is going into accessibility" and that offline play is a big part of that.I'm usually the first to hate on punishing physics models (bullet drop is for nerds!) and brutally realistic damage simulations (one-shot kills: so not fun), but I'll cop to being impressed by Heroes of Stalingrad's approach. I can handle a mousewheel range adjustment to make sniping truer to real life. I can deal with one- or two-shot kills in a single-life gametype when you get a chance to respawn at checkpoints during an attack/defend match, like in Heroes of Stalingrad's Countdown mode. The first game didn't do much for me as a player – I'm just not that into the super-high risk-reward of combat simulations that skew that far toward realism. Heroes of Stalingrad might pull me in.Red Orchestra: Heroes of Stalingrad is slated for a 2011 PC release. Tripwire wouldn't confirm any console appearances for the game, but urges gamers to "stay tuned." Nothing I saw would prevent this Unreal Engine 3 shooter from working on console, so I wouldn't be at all surprised to hear news on that front sooner than later.