Getting killed in Red Orchestra 2: Heroes of Stalingrad is not like the usual death in a multiplayer first-person shooter. Most games in this genre see you dying heroically with the bodies of enemies all around you. Here, death comes very quietly. Typically, you die without a clue that anything is wrong, taking a single bullet in the head fired by an unseen enemy. This is both the appeal and the frustration developer TripWire Interactive's shooter sequel, as the World War II combat here is so realistic that you have to approach every battle like a real infantryman or you risk dying the quick and brutal death of a real infantryman. A few features have been added to the gameplay to make things a bit easier on raw recruits--most notably a pair of single-player campaigns--but this game remains one of the most authentic and unforgiving shooters on the market. It is sure to thrill serious students of warfare and sure to frustrate run-and-gun players looking for a quick WWII-flavored fix.
You know the old saying that you never hear the bullet with your name on it? That pretty much sums up how combat works in Red Orchestra 2. The core of the game is a relatively typical territorial control mode in which teams of up to 32 players on German and Soviet sides battle over the wasteland terrain around Stalingrade circa 1943. But the battle mechanics are much more brutally realistic than in most shooters. Even though you take on the roles of standard multiplayer shooter troop types like riflemen, assault soldiers, and snipers, there are absolutely no concessions made to make it easier on you. There is no targeting reticle here. When you want to aim your rifle, you need to do it the old-fashioned way: by looking down the barrel and using iron sights.
Furthermore, there are no graphics to denote ammunition. If you want to see what you've got in the clip, you need to manually check it, and even then, you only get a vague idea of how many rounds you have remaining through text like "You have about half of a clip left." Most notably, single shots can and do kill. If you do something completely normal for the average shooter but incredibly suicidal in the real world, like charge through an open field toward an enemy-held ruined church, you will die. Chances are good that you will never hear or see the shot that kills you because it will come from the gun of a hunkered-down, smarter opponent who takes the time to line up shots from behind cover.
This is the blessing and the curse of Red Orchestra 2. There is only one way to play this game: You need to be incredibly patient, work with your teammates, and approach every situation just as real troops would have when fighting for Stalingrad during WWII. All of the limitations of the weapons here make it impossible to snap off quick shots with any sort of accuracy, which means that you have to take time to find a good firing position and then shoot carefully. Rapid firing means wild firing, which just alerts enemies to your position and gets you a bullet in the face. It also increases the chance that you will lose track of the number of shots that you have fired and empty a clip at the wrong time. If you don't shoot smartly, you inevitably run out of ammo at precisely the moment you need it and, again, wind up with a convertible skull.
This might not sound like a great deal of fun, and it isn't at first. Initially, the game seems chaotic and random, with a lot of sudden, unfair deaths inflicted on you by dug-in enemies that kill you without revealing their positions. You never know where they are until after you're dead, which is when the camera helpfully swings out and focuses in on them in their hidey holes. But after you spend some time with the game, you can't help but get hooked on how exacting a challenge it offers. If you get into matches with experienced teammates who work together, you can learn a lot just from letting them take the lead as you watch how they approach maps, clear buildings of enemies, and secure locations. Tension is ratcheted high because you never know when death will call. The pressure of having everything on the line all the time really pushes you forward, encouraging you to keep playing and building up your skills. You never even realize just how tense you are when playing the game until something happens that you don't expect, like an unseen Russian clubbing you over the head with his rifle butt--whereupon you practically jump out of your chair in surprise.
Maps are extremely well done, sticking to the expected realistic WWII battle terrain experienced by the German and Russian troops scrapping it out in and around Stalingrad. The design and architecture complement the style of play demanded here as well. Lots of rubble and blown-out buildings afford the cover necessary to keep breathing and ensure that the battle takes place in such close quarters that you frequently jump out of your skind. So you have at it in shattered city streets, rustic farms, deserted villages, cramped infirmaries, crowded rail yards, and claustrophobic offices.
This isn't the most attractive shooter that you'll play this year, but it runs very smoothly on even midrange machines, and lag is never an issue even when playing on a server packed with 64 players. Nevertheless, it is loaded with a morose sort of war-worn detail that sets a time and place as effectively as any bleeding-edge visuals. Frills like cutscenes are also extremely well done, playing out like old newsreels shown in theaters before movies back in the day. The visual presentation effectively immerses you in the grim struggle. Audio is of a similarly strong quality, although both the martial music and vocals cut out occasionally, forcing a reboot to get out of this unintentional silent-movie mode.
Despite its devotion to authenticity, Red orchestra 2 isn't entirely realistic. Problems are caused by a handful of noteworthy flaws. At times, it can be tough to properly attach yourself to cover. It's a little too easy in the chaos of battle to wind up on the wrong side of some rubble and unwittingly expose yourself to enemy fire. Sometimes you have to get ridiculously close to the cover-providing object to bring up the option of hunkering down. Another more serious issue comes with firing. Bullet drop is supposed to be part of the physics model, but it's hard to see much of an effect, at least over the distances involved in the included maps. Aiming high to compensate for gravity pulling bullets toward the earth seems to mainly result in missing high, so the mechanics appear to be a little off. The most troublesome flawt may be of the technical variety, however: occasional random crashes might take you from Stalingrad to your Windows desktop in a hurry.
The new single-player mode has its share of drawbacks as well. The campaigns are something of a turnoff for newcomers because the bots are dumb. They mindlessly rush enemy locations, run around in circles jumping over the same broken-down fence, and occasionally ignore both orders and enemies. Bad guys are equally stupid, particularly when it comes to ignoring your presence, so there is a bit of a tradeoff here. Still, the two never balance out because you're usually taking the offensive against dug-in enemies and need the assistance of allies to storm these locales. Orders can be given to nudge your buddies in the right direction, at least. Regular reinforcements mean that you can eventually overcome the actions your stupid squadmates perform in the field, although in the absence of smarter squadmates, you can wind up forced into attempting suicidal one-man charges over and over again. As a result, the solo missions are only marginally entertaining and serve more as extended tutorials familiarizing players with the controls and overall flow of combat than proper new modes of play.
How much you get out of Red Orchestra 2: Heroes of Stalingrad really depends on how much time you put into it. This is a demanding, slowly paced game of authentic infantry combat where success depends almost entirely on your patience and willingness to wait out opponents. If you approach it properly, you can't help but be impressed and captivated by the grim majesty of the multiplayer battlefields. But with that said, this game pretty much defines the term "acquired taste." The challenge and sheer intimidation of getting started are almost overwhelming, and the numerous problems with the new single-player mode actually make it more likely, not less likely, that players will quit out of frustration before seeing what the game's all about. This is a realistic WWII shooter that is worth trying, but the unique and unforgiving nature of its squad warfare means that you need to spend a lot of time learning the ropes. If you can make the commitment, go for it; you'll be rewarded with one of the most intense experiences in shooter history. If you can't make the commitment, stick with something more forgiving and avoid the inevitable frustration.