For my second post in the series of historical game reviews I’m going for something completely different. Red Orchestra 2: Heroes of Stalingrad is a realistic multiplayer first-person shooter. It is the sequel to Red Orchestra: Ostfront 41-45 and was released in 2011 by Tripwire Interactive.
This game is fairly unknown in the mainstream gaming audience. It received favourable reviews on release, but 4 years on it is now almost entirely played and kept active by a relatively small but dedicated group of players who stick by the game for its unique blend of tactical realism, immersive design and familiar core gameplay mechanics similar to more regular shooters. This great combination results in the game being an unmatched masterpiece of its genre. While there are games that are better simulators, more visually impressive games, and even more well made gameplay experiences, none can compete with Red Orchestra’s approach that has resulted in a simple yet meaningful and visceral historical experience. A testament to the value of this interactive medium and the advantages it has over others in historical depiction and more.
This game is fairly minimal in its raw historical content. As the name ‘Heroes of Stalingrad’ implies, the whole game takes place during the Battle of Stalingrad (23 August 1942 – 2 February 1943). There are the two sides, the Axis and the Allies consisting of the Wehrmacht and the Red Army. Each location that the multiplayer matches are played in are all part of the overall map of Stalingrad and its surrounding areas and outskirts. For each of these locations there is a story for the game, which corresponds to a real live equivalent in the conflict, but the real outcomes can obviously be meddled with if the wrong side wins. The history of each location, as well as other details such as information on each weapon featured in the game can be found here: link
History Conveyed Through Gameplay
When playing the game there are a lot of smaller details that really enrich the experience. To begin with, this game has some of the best weapons I have ever seen, on many levels. The different guns are all modeled incredibly well and all seem to handle and sound different and distinctive. The way the character uses each gun is realistic in an interesting way, and sometimes you need to do things like brace your weapon against a wall or window to shoot more steady. You need to think about the differences between the power, speed and reloads of each weapon, and you may find yourself preferring a favourite for small details like it’s weight and how it effects your movement, or the way the sights work. On top of these details, the combined smoke, noise and recoil of all the weapons can feel quite overwhelming at first, especially when compared to more popular games where the weapons might as well be BB guns in comparison.
That brings me onto the second point. As you use each weapon, and fight more battles, your character will improve their skills and equipment. This is a very subtle mechanic, not like other games where you may level up to be twice as good at everything, but it still makes a real difference when your soldier goes from being a bit slow on the reload and lining up the sights of his gun, then being very shaky and breathing heavily and staggering at nearby explosions, to eventually becoming a battle hardened veteran who can smoothly operate his weapon, reload and aim quickly, and flinch less, allowing you to overall make better shots with quicker reaction time. You also upgrade your equipment from standard issue to finely tuned weapons that are more accurate and slightly easier to use, as well as unlocking larger magazines, bayonets, and scopes if appropriate for the weapon of the period.
Other small details that add to the game also come in the form of realistic historical depictions that can serve a double purpose as game mechanics, something that I believe other historical games should strive to do better. For example, in a realistic shooter you aren’t going to have big markers over your teammate’s heads, so you usually need to recognize them by their uniform to avoid friendly fire, but this isn’t always possible and accidents do happen. One thing that helps with this is looking at the way your target moves, are they sprinting with their rifle held by their side in one hand, or in front of them with two? If the former, then he’s a Wehrmacht soldier, trained to run that way, open fire comrade!
Another detail is that when you improve your character, you can also eventually unlock the ‘enemy weapon’ meaning at the highest rifleman level, you can choose to use the other team’s rifle, and the same for other classes of soldier. How this plays out is that each team will end up wanting to use the better weapons from the other team. This can also be done by looting in the middle of the game, but that isn’t always as practical. For example, the Russian machine gunners usually go for the german MG-34, or even better the MG-42 machineguns, and the Germans usually go for the Russian PPSH-41 submachine gun. It was actually fairly common for the Germans on the eastern front in the war to prefer the Russian PPSH, and many were captured and re-issued under different names, or even re-chambered to use German ammunition. The fact that this is in essence the same thing that occurs in the game points to the excellent job the game does of recreating the effectiveness of each real weapon.
As I said before, the game is fairly minimal in its historical content, at least when you look at it from the outside. Once you start playing however, is when the true potential of the game shines through. The somewhat limited breadth of the historical content allows the game to focus on some key aspects. Where another WWII game might be single player and have the player visit various fronts of the war across different stages of the war, this game has you stuck in the battle of Stalingrad. The fact that the game is only made for online multiplayer somehow adds to the experience, rather than making it feel more like a game, it makes things more tense and unexpected, and the overarching campaign that each match is part of can feel never-ending. A real slog to victory, or a struggle on the brink of defeat as you defend your very last territory on the map . There’s a real sense of teamwork and a proper chain of command in a good game, and when that falls apart and players ignore the commander and squad leaders the battlefield can become a real slaughtering ground.
When you get down to the small details, such as the well animated characters, the fantastic voice acting of realistic rallying calls, cries of pain, and even gurgling death, or the deafening sound of gunshots and artillery, the experience is incredibly immersive, and completely intimidating. At times like this the game can be compared to the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan, with bullets cracking overhead, comrades running beside you one second and vaporized by a mortar shell the next, and no knowing what will happen. Will you make it to wherever you’re desperately sprinting to, or will you be caught by a stray round? where are you even going? does it matter? The game can get so intense at points that you might start thinking of disobeying the commander and saving your own skin, and you may end up in the exact sort of situations you see in these war films, or even what you may imagine happening in war, but in this case, you are in control of what you do. You are this one soldier, and the rest of the soldiers on this battlefield are just like you and could make any amount of unpredictable decisions or snap judgments that can end in perhaps infinite circumstances.
In conclusion, I must say that this is one of the best games to depict The Second World War. Even though it does not cover the whole war, or include a great deal of historical fact in detail, the type of experience it can give you gives insight into the history from a different perspective and is really very well done. The game plays to the strengths of the medium and delivers an interesting, challenging and thought-provoking experience that I believe can’t be matched by any film or book.
As a side note, if you are interested in this game, there is also the game Rising Storm which comes as part of Red Orchestra 2, and although it lacks some of the polish that this game has, it is almost the exact same type of experience but in the setting of the Pacific in WWII.