Monday, July 22, 2013

Saving Private Watanabe



This is going to be one of those oh-so-rare posts about a World War II game.  Why so rare?  Because World War II bores the heck out of me! You just can't get away from it:  World War II movies, TV shows, books, magazines...the world remains awash in this epic conflict!  I guess that is to be expected seeing how it was a world war that affected millions of souls around the globe, and defined much of the 20th Century's political history. Regardless, the dosage makes the poison, and I have to conclude that the non-stop saturation of all things World War II has fatally poisoned my interest over the years.

Gaming, of course, has over-indulged with WWII like every other medium, so I haven't even been able to find refuge here.  To make matters worse, unlike, say, television or cinema that has attempted to portray this world war in different ways over the years, gaming has largely been stuck in neutral with various games constantly revisiting the same territory over and over again - D-Day, the Ost Front, Market Garden, etc. -  without ever bringing something truly new to the table.  If you ever want to experience gaming deja vu, just pick up the latest WWII title and I guarantee you'll be saying "didn't I play this back in 1999?" before you know it.


So a World War II title really has to do something special to get my attention.  Surprisingly, Tripwire Interactive's Rising Storm expansion for their WWII shooter Red Orchestra 2 is one of those titles.  I say "surprisingly" because I did not take well to RO2.  Even though I absolutely loved the original, Red Orchestra 2 felt less like a full fledged sequel to me than an over-ambitious mod that should have been given the more accurate designation of Red Orchestra 1.5.  Now, to be fair to Tripwire it must be pointed out that they diligently gathered their fan's feedback and released a series of patches that fixed many of the things that were broken upon release, as well as adding in new content.  Still, even a full year post release, the game never did grab me in the way that its predecessor did from the get-go.

Rising Storm on the other hand...well, wow!  THIS is the title that Tripwire should have used to kick off RO2. This expansion does so many things right that I don't know what specifically it is that is proving to be so addictive to this jaded WWII gamer.  Is it the fact that it is a surprisingly polished release when one considers the state RO2 arrived in?  Or is it the fact that RS leaves behind the drab and dreary East Front for the colorfully tropical and sunny Pacific Theater?  Or is it just the fact that this expansion actually covers the Pacific Theater, one of the most tragically overlooked theaters of WWII (past is prologue...just saying).  Then again, it could just be due to the fact that Tripwire came up with some truly clever gameplay mechanics - booby-trapped grenades, banzai charges, and more! -  to help balance the often asymmetrical nature of combat in the Pacific, something that also serves to make the game very refreshing.

While I think that it is a combination of all of those factors that serve to make RS a successful shooter, I ultimately believe it is something more basic that really elevates the game:  it is the intensity of the experience.  Unlike more fanciful shooters like Black Ops 2, or more ahistorical experiences like Battlefield 3, Rising Storm, being a title immersed in the historical reality of World War II, conveys a visceral 'you are there!' experience.  This isn't make-believe war - it is, of course, but you know what I mean! - but something much more grounded in reality.  As such it has an intensity that really makes a person stop and appreciate the awful reality that this expansion is trying to depict.  If you ever wondered what it was like to have to suffer through a Japanese artillery barrage, this is the game for you.  If you ever wondered what it must have felt like to have had to fight to the death for control of some strong point on a forgotten South Pacific island, this is the game for you.  If you ever wondered what it was like to take part in a desperate banzai charge, this is the game for you.  And if you ever wondered what it felt like to have to run, rifle in hand, through a jungle that is crisscrossed with bullets from a desperate night attack on a Guadalcanal airbase, this the game for you:  




Of course, the base Red Orchestra 2 game conveys much of this just as well, but Rising Storm seems to elevate it to a higher level.  I don't know, maybe it is those terrifying USMC flamethrowers, but something is definitely taking the gameplay to a higher level this time around.  I ultimately liked RO2, but I find myself loving RS.  In fact, I am so enjoying Rising Storm that I believe it is one of those all-too-few titles that can be used to fulfill one of the core purpose of this blog: to get "video game-shy but politically active adults to become interested in gaming (it's no longer kid stuff, you know!)".   World War II is a perennially popular topic with most people, so I think Rising Storm could serve as a fantastic icebreaker to get non-gaming adults into the hobby.  It is one thing to watch a TV show about WWII combat and quite another to actually experience it yourself - and there is your sales pitch (you can thank me later).

Speaking about experiencing WWII combat,  games like RO2/RS also put the lie to the notion often repeated in the mainstream media that games, particularly shooters, makes kids think that war is fun.  Uh, no.  I believe most "kids" who play shooters probably have a far more realistic expectation of the horrors of war, of the notion that your every step on the battlefield could be your last, than those who have never experienced the virtual battlefield.  Rising Storm is no slouch in this regard.  Even though the graphics might not live up to Battlefield 3 standards, it does an admirable job of bringing the brutalities of war fully to life, complete with bodies flung by artillery, and soldiers being burned alive by flamethrowers.  To play a shooter like Rising Storm is to get an education in why war is anything but Hollywood action hero fun. 

Now, not everything is perfect with Rising Storm.  Unfortunately, it does suffer from some minor flaws that carryover from Red Orchestra 2:

  1. I still find myself getting hung up on bits of terrain much too often.  There is nothing so frustrating as getting shot in the face because a small rock managed to fix you in place!
  2. Likewise, the cover mechanic - whereby with a click of a button you can take cover and shoot around corners or over windowsills - is still finicky, to say the least. Sometimes it won't let you take cover, and other times it won't let you leave cover!  Again, a lot of unnecessary deaths result.
  3. Did I mention the finicky "go prone" mechanic?  Like the cover mechanic, it is unreliable.  Sometimes you hit the dirt right on cue, other times you get an inexplicable "you cannot prone here" message over and over again.  But move a single millimeter to the left and right, and you are fine.  Of course, by the time you find that magical prone spot you are usually dead from a bullet through the head.  Again, lots of needless deaths result.  Very frustrating.
  4. The most useless gameplay mechanic in the world:  friendly fire.  This is something I just don't get.  I mean, a game mechanic is supposed to be something that encourages a certain type of behavior, right?  What behavior does friendly fire encourage?  Griefing?  Flame wars?  Friendly fire is the only game mechanic I am aware of that is, by nature, designed NOT to be used.  Well, if a player is to ideally never engage in friendly fire, why even incorporate it to begin with?!?  Yes, yes, the grogs are eager to tell you have they  love it because it is "very realistic", but they then spend the rest of the game bitching about being shot in the back by "newbs".  You can't make this up.  A lot of servers require you to apologize for friendly fire, but I think server admins need to start apologizing to the players when an incident of friendly fire occurs on their server because they chose to activate this 'feature'....
  5. I also would like to see better kill notifications when you zap a enemy.  Again, grogs like to say that it is more realistic to not know for sure whether or not you actually hit the guy you were aiming at, but seeing how the kills are being tracked on the top right of the screen anyway, why not just engage in some good ol' fashioned Pavlovian positive feedback with a more noticeable kill notice?

So those are the complaints, but RO2/RS does one thing so well that it absolutely erases all of them from my mind after a few in-game minutes.  Know what that is? Its excellent map design, particularly when it comes to urban maps.   Unlike the maps found in other shooters, be it Call of Duty or Battlefield 3, RO2/RS' maps truly feel..."lived in", for lack of a better phrase.  That is, I've always felt that the locales found in other shooters more closely resembled a Hollywood set than an actual town, village, or city block.  In those games everything often feels overly organized and artificial, like they were built for the precise purpose of hosting a battle (which, of course, they were).  Buildings in particular feel hollow (pun intended), like they were constructed but never inhabited.  Red Orchesta 2 / Rising Storm, on the other hand, feels much more humanly organic.  Everything isn't so neat and tidy; streets and structures feel placed by purpose rather than with the idea of someday being fit for a gunfight.  What is more, buildings are all believably large, both inside and out (no two room apartment buildings here!), and are covered with the detritus of life, be it furniture, graffiti or scattered papers.  In other words, the maps of RO2/RS are not the Potemkin villages found in other games.  I am sure this is due to the fact that being a WWII shooter, RO2/RS tries to recreate real world locations with tremendous detail.  In this regard they succeed admirably, and could school shooter studios with much bigger budgets.  I actually find myself wanting to fight to the death for control of the mill, or even RO2's apartment complexes, because I believe they are real, and hence believe they belong to US and not THEM!

Long short:  I can whole-heartedly recommend Rising Storm.  This is a title that more than makes up for Tripwire's RO2 faux pas.  Even better, it is a title that, in the final analysis, is an excellent tribute to the incredible bravery of the men who fought in World War II's most forgotten theater of war.  Here's hoping that other game devs will get over their Normandy and Stalingrad fixations and start exploring the unique battlefields of the Pacific.  What is more, here's hoping that Tripwire will build upon the success of Rising Storm and further enhance and expand their standout World War II shooter experience with expansions that dare to tread where few others have gone before (Norway?  Greece? North Africa?).  World War II was a big war; it deserves a big game. 

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