It must be stated from the outset that World War II Online is buggy. If you expect a polished product out of the box--and you probably should--then it's definitely not for you. On the other hand, if you're completely dissatisfied with the collaborative experience of playing other massively multiplayer games, and you think nothing of downloading large patches, poring over help files and online resources, and you don't have a habit of throwing your hands up in disgust the first five times your machine crashes, then WWII Online has a lot to offer--seriously.
The premise of the game is straightforward but very ambitious: It lets you fight in a persistent, fully 3D online WWII universe as a tank commander, fighter-bomber pilot, antitank gunner, or simply as an infantry trooper, and you participate in an ongoing campaign where your battlefield achievements directly influence a wider war. It's a stunningly simple concept and quite a compelling one. Unfortunately, the simplest concepts can still be very difficult to implement--WWII Online exists as evidence of that.
WWII Online was launched long before it was ready, and purchasers were faced with downloading a 70MB patch before they could even play the game--if they could get the game to run at all, or if they were lucky enough to be able to connect to a working server. While performance has improved greatly since the days following the game's release (when it was essentially unplayable), there are still more technical problems, performance issues, and missing features than can be enumerated in the limited space of this review. You still need to download all the patches, so if you're on a slow connection, be prepared to wait some time before you can actually get into the game. Once you start playing, many of the problems will become apparent in short order. The 3D graphics are merely passable, the interface is atrocious, the sound is merely a probably realistic-but-dull whine of engines, communication is extremely difficult, and low frame rates are a serious problem. Loading or respawn times can take up to 10 minutes. It's a testament to the impressive concept of the game that even with all of its innumerable problems, WWII Online can still be worthwhile.
WWII Online is not a first-person shooter set in World War II. Cornered Rat made some rather interesting design decisions, all of which focused on highlighting the realistic limitations on men and equipment--a concept that is often fudged in other games for gameplay reasons. Infantry weapons are extremely cumbersome to use (there is a three-stroke sequence to raise, aim, and fire your rifle) and when in a vehicle, you can only perform the task of the vehicle crewman you are portraying. For example, if you want to drive a tank, you have to be sitting in the driver's seat and thus are restricted to looking out the driver's view slit. If you want to look out the top hatch, you'll need to switch to the tank commander's position, but then you won't be able to steer. In some tanks the driver is also the gunner, but if he isn't you'll have to switch between those positions as well. If this sounds cumbersome, it most certainly is. The design intention is to have you man tanks cooperatively. Each tank has different gear-sets (the Panzer IIIF has 10 gears plus neutral and reverse). You have no real heads-up display (except for a persistent compass), and you have to choose between looking at your instruments and looking at the action. All for the sake of realism.
So is WWII Online realistic? Who knows--it's simply crazy. Sometimes you'll spawn, and it will be like the Sitzkrieg, where there's no one around and you'll find yourself just driving down a road hoping to find an enemy to shoot at. Other times, you'll be part of a massive offensive so crowded that you'll be unable to exit the spawn point until the guy in front of you figures out how to move. Once you're moving, there's the issue of finding the battlefield, then getting there, all the while hoping you don't get killed or the game doesn't crash. Several times I spent 15 minutes just getting to the front, only to have the game disconnect me before I could even fire a shot in anger. But the times when I actually got to fight, the experience was exhilarating--perhaps to some extent because the game usually didn't let me get that far.
One technical issue that has ended up radically affecting the game design is scalability. The original intention was to have a single persistent gameworld. Unfortunately, this proved impossible upon release--the game currently has up to seven gameworlds available at one time to reduce the load on the individual worlds. What will happen when the single persistent world is launched? How will the change in player density affect gameplay? Add it to the list of questions the $40 you could spend on the game would try to answer.
As stated earlier, many promised game features (like the persistent-rank scores and kill credits) are simply missing. In some cases, these missing features highlight the eternal problems of realism and its effect on gameplay enjoyment. For example, the game in its current state only lets infantry carry basic weapons like pistols and rifles. No machine guns, no grenades, no mortars, no antitank rifles. This may be unrealistic, but in some ways it's more realistic than the alternative, which would be to let everyone carry a heavy weapons arsenal. The fact is that in a real WWII infantry squad, there was usually only one soldier with a heavy weapon like a light machine gun. Antitank weapons (and satchel charges) were even more rare, especially during the 1940 blitzkrieg era currently being depicted in the game.
Over time, Cornered Rat plans on introducing new features into the game, like the availability of additional weapons. What will happen to the battlefield situation when these changes occur? This isn't just idle speculation: Since the intention is to open up new theaters of war with myriad new units and weapons, the potential for imbalance is enormous. As the game stands now, it seems like half of the participants are driving tanks. This is rather unrealistic, and the developers have suggested that in the future there will be some limitations on tank types so that only players of a certain rank can access the better vehicles. How this will go over with casual players who don't want to have to spend massive amounts of time playing just to earn the right to drive a Panther remains to be seen.
Perhaps the most engaging aspect of WWII Online is how it absolutely forces cooperation. Other massively multiplayer games allow for cooperation, which enhances gameplay but isn't necessarily essential. WWII Online completely demands it. If you spawn as an infantryman, you'll have to find a ride to the battlefield, or you'll find yourself walking. And that's not a trivial matter. If you spawn as an antitank gun, you'll need a tow, or you'll simply be stuck. In light of all this, the potential for team building is enormous--and not just for that one particular engagement, either. In WWII Online, a victory is a tangible contribution to a strategic situation that will persist for many months. Once you achieve a significant rank in one army, you'll probably stick to it, and the participants will become familiar to you. This unifying factor of the strategic element makes all the difference. Unfortunately, so do the technical problems and missing features.
On those rare occasions when the game is cooperating, and you're not in a position to notice some of the bad design and interface choices or the missing features, WWII Online does attain a sort of emotional peak. As an infantryman, watching an enemy aircraft swoop down on a tank while a friendly aircraft gives chase is something that hasn't quite been achieved in a computer game prior to this. You're physically disconnected from the scene, hiding on a hill a good distance away, yet you desperately want "your guys" to stick it to "their guys." Numerous accounts of World War II combat describe infantry watching a dogfight and cheering their pilot's victory or having their morale lifted by a flight of friendly aircraft passing overhead. It's this collective sentiment that WWII Online captures so well. Every enemy unit is a real enemy. Every friendly unit is a friend. There are no computer-controlled characters; it's just us against them. And it keeps going even after you disconnect. It's an atmosphere that hasn't been achieved in any massively multiplayer game to date. If only there weren't so many other problems.
WWII Online is a dangerous mess of a game that can't be recommended to any but the most hard-core game players in its current state. The real concern is that even if the technical issues are resolved, the design issues will remain. Would it be better to limit the number of vehicle types or simply let players spawn in whatever tank they wish? Can a single gameworld support all of the people who want to play and sustain a reasonable strategic situation and flow of play? These and countless other issues pertaining to the game warrant plenty of speculation--but in the end it all remains speculation, because right now there's no way to tell. And unless you're willing to bet $40 (plus an additional $10 per month after a month of free play) that Cornered Rat eventually gets it right some time in the far future, you'd be well advised to think hard before enlisting. The bottom line is, right now, it's not worth it.