Summary: Updated! Our friendly PR staff at Playnet were kind enough to hold a gun to our heads and make us play World War II Online. After about ten minutes, however, it quickly became apparent that the gun was not necessary. Well, it was at one point, when somebody tried to stop Jakub from playing and he had to fire off a few caps in order to emphasize his "no, I'm not going to shower even though I've been playing this 48 hours straight" reply. Go on, read why. You know you want to.
In preparation for this article I was reading my original review of World War II Online. I was surprised to see how little had changed in 3 years. The interface is still atrocious. The graphics, while improved (particularly the trees and textures), still aren't anything to write home about. Fortunately the load times are much better, especially in relation to modern games which do have long load times. Yet despite this surprising lack of technical change, note what I said - I was surprised.
What does that mean, exactly? Many of the original faults are still in the game yet the reviewer is surprised? Well, it just so happens that they don't really matter all that much. Three years ago I uninstalled World War II Online and lamented a good idea gone bad. Now I can barely force myself to write this article for fear of losing Maastricht to a British counter-offensive. (Sadly, this did happen and I'm currently in the process of re-capturing it).
Somewhere along the way, World War II Online got good. The game isn't so much better than it used to be because the graphics got some sprucing up or because of new weapons. It happened in the community. With all due respect to Cornered Rat Software and Playnet, who have kept with the game through thick and thin, developing new features, weapons and a whole new balance to the game - it's the players who make things happen.
Three years ago, the idea of getting a ride on a tank or in a truck, even with the new, excited, friendly community was a joke. In fact, it doesn’t seem like trucks were used all that much during the period of the original review. The situation in the game was very confused; players jumping from city to city, looking for a fight or a tank to spawn in rather than a boring session as infantry.
Now, it seems like everyone, this reviewer included, is in a squad. Those who aren't, are quickly invited in, or at least welcome to tag along and join public squad channels. Squads - at least Axis squads - are part of Kampfgruppes which are in turn a part of a division which belongs to Korps which is a component of an Armee which is under the control of the GHC/OKW. Scary and intimidating as all this sounds, it's all really rather informal. I routinely abandon my theater of operations in favor of fighting the French, just for variety.
However, it would be a sin to dismiss the graphical accomplishments of the game. Pretty might not be the word, but utilitarian certainly is - the game doesn't impress through brilliance but because it works. Infantry can and will find cover all over the places; in bushes, hedges, tree clumps and of course forests. Tanks seek out the cover too, in order to find a hull down position (ie, only the turret is exposed to the enemy), to lie in ambush for a coming enemy column or to avoid attracting the attention of the flyboys.
Even with the performance improvements we've had since originally posting this article, we're still somewhat disappointed at how the game runs when compared to PlanetSide, for example. At 1024x768x32 with maxed graphical settings, we experienced 20-35fps, depending on the location mostly. The original problem we had of sudden, massive slowdowns during combat in large cities and flight, has been remedied.
Sound effects which were praised in the original review are now about standard fare. The sound is still tactically important and the effects are generally up-to-date. There's a reassuring clink when a 50mm AP round is loaded into a Panzer IIIH, and the 88mm FlaK 36 fires its deadly charge with an incredible shrieking whoosh, but other effects seem missing. In tanks it's very hard to hear when you're being fired at, often the first warning is that a crew member is dead, even though you may have received 2 or 3 shots. Near-misses are completely unregistered. A 2lber can land a shot a foot to the tank's right but it's nothing we've heard inside.
Of course, if anything these situations are actually a highlight of how important the sound is to the game. Tanks shut their engines down when not moving in order to improve not only their own stealth, but to increase their situation awareness. Even with the engine just idling, it becomes very difficult to hear enemy tanks sneaking up, never mind infantry.
The game is of course based on the capture of territory. For a city to be captured, infantry need to go into various depots, factories and other control points, find the radio room and hold it for a certain amount of time. The force that owns the city can spawn infantry from a variety of depots and infantry as well as vehicles from the army base. For most units to spawn, a mission has to be posted, otherwise only default units are available. Missions can be posted by anyone of the rank of lieutenant or higher, but priority 1 missions give players the most experience points and are only posted by the highest ranking officers - fortunately those are many by now.
Ranks are gained with experience points. As infantry or a transport, it's easy - just survive ten minutes and return to base. All other land units need to score a kill and then return to base after the 10 minute minimum. Returning to base is vitally important, and accomplished by getting close to a depot, army base, dock or air field - depending on the unit. If the unit isn't returned, the player doesn't gain the experience from the mission and the unit is lost, no longer available in the pool.
Generally, there are too many tanks to use, but they're widely distributed among all the cities. During a big attack or defense, players often find themselves shuttling tanks and sometimes even trucks, infantry and anti-tank guns from nearby towns in order to reinforce. This is a boring and often thankless job, but vitally important to the war effort. It would be nice to have it automated, but this takes away from the squads that are organized and motivated enough to launch such a large-scale attack.
Attacks are usually launched from forward bases. Cities are linked by depots. Vise connects to Maastricht and Liege and several others, thus it has depots for those cities and those cities have depots for Vise. Between an Allied and Axis city that are connected by depots, will be a forward base. This base can only belong to one side at a time, and is closer to the enemy city if the player's side owns it, and closer to the player's city if the enemy owns it. To get the forward base, the enemy's must be blown up with sappers. Once that's done, a forward base for the player's side appears near the enemy city and can be used to launch attacks against that city. A forward base uses resources from the host city's pool, so the ideal situation is to attack from several forward bases at a time. Since there are no forward bases between friendly cities, any reinforcements to the attacked town will require driving those reinforcements from nearby friendly cities - a much longer line of supply.
Now, this whole complex process is somehow, miraculously, organized by a corps of the willing players. Many World War II Online players just join in on attacks or in defense to score a few frags before dying. It's nice to gain rank, but not necessary. However, nobody likes dying, and in World War II Online, there's no such thing as a successful lone wolf. There isn't constant action across the entire front but there's no such thing as an empty city. If it is, by some chance, empty, and the player captures a control point, rest assured that the enemy will spawn in to recover it. Wars are fought 24/7. Thus, the best chance for survival is co-operation and communication. Once you start doing that, you almost inevitably end up at least working with a squad and usually an invitation follows shortly thereafter.
War is described as hours of boredom interrupted by minutes of sheer terror. While this isn't completely true in WW2O's case, the game does reflect the reality somewhat. Defense requires patience and vigilance. Spot the enemy before he spots you; the defender has the advantage in this case since he's already in position. A moving unit is a much easier mark. The defender, then, sets up and waits for his foe to come forward. The attacker always tries to sneak into position to recon his foe, find where the enemy is and hopefully flank him. If the recon is poor, an unexpected defender can spoil the surprise. Nothing ruins an attack like a couple of anti-tank and anti-air guns opening up before the attackers are ready to return fire.
Each side faces unique strategic and tactical challenges. Germany starts off the war rather poorly equipped and in a poor strategic position. Its factories are within easy range of enemy bombers, its tanks are poorly armed and even more poorly armored. The French aren't a popular choice among players so they're routinely outnumbered, and their aircraft are outmoded. The British have players, equipment, factories far from the enemy, and seem to generally hold their own against the Germans. However, given the dominance of their tanks and their equal capability in the air, it seems like Britain should be better. Until the research of the Pz III H, no German tank is capable of standing toe-to-toe with a Matilda II or French Char B1 bis, yet the German side seems to have developed better organizational abilities due to these early challenges. Though I've played less of Allied than Axis of late, it seems as though the Axis attitude is an expectation of winning, while the Allies appear content simply holding their own.
A neat feature of the game is multi-crewing. Any vehicle that has more than one position can have a player per position. This is rarely taken advantage of except in the case of tail gunners on some aircraft, but occasionally you'll spot the multi-crewed tank, usually with two players - switching between gunner, commander and driver as necessary.
There is incredible skill involved in playing any position. A player has to use his judgment to find good attack or defensive positions, to know when to fall back or press the attack. Action requires constant situational awareness since a single hit, well delivered, can take out almost any unit in the game. It's possible to get 50 kills in one sortie or die before you even leave the army base. Success depends so much on communication and co-operation, squads and the high commands are the most natural development in the game.
Being part of a squad can result in doing the more boring jobs like taxiing infantry to the front in a truck or towing guns into position, but it also creates feelings rarely encountered in a game. Belonging. Purpose. Value. There's this sense of determination to win when an attack is launched, whichever side you're on. The idea of losing a city is more repugnant than being taxi boy. A squad helps increase the chances you'll have a ride to the front or be able to ask for air cover or organize a strike against a forward base. The only comparison for World War II Online is PlanetSide. The latter looks better, runs better and has a nicer interface, but WW2O has World War II units and real locations, and the teams are better organized at that.
Other problems seem hard-coded into the game. Many tanks, particularly the German ones, are crewed with an excess of crewmembers. There is of course the driver and gunner, but also commander, loader and radio op/machine gunner. However, if one of these crewmen dies, another can't take his place. The commander and radio op in particular are expendable especially during a battle situation and it only seems natural that they'd take over the gunner or driver duties if either of the latter two was killed.
However, the game's biggest fault is that while the developers go to great effort to support the existing player base, they don't make new players very welcome. There isn't a single, simple comprehensive manual on the game available at the official site. Oh sure, there's a manual, but it doesn't describe the actual gameplay very well. You'll learn how to play infantry, aircraft and tanks, but not how the war is fought. The training sessions on the training server simply elaborate on the tactical aspects of the game - how to sap a tank, how to snipe, not the details of capturing cities or how spawning and missions work.
There are chat commands to learn, acronyms to figure out and of course all the subtle tactics that differentiate a newbie from a veteran. For example, anyone jumping in from Battlefield 1942 is going to be surprised at the incredibly fragile units. There's a long period of adjustment to that alone, never mind how to capture objectives and keeping in close communication with your comrades.
To succeed in a sortie requires much forethought and just as much patience. When driving one of the early German tanks, it takes a lot of discipline and courage to sit quietly, hold fire, and wait for the right angle on a Matilda, hoping you won't be spotted. None of this is taught, unfortunately. Even with my previous experience and knowledge of roughly how the game was played, it took days before I could drive my Pz III F back, in one piece, after a successful sortie. I didn't survive as infantry as part of an assault on a defended forward base for another week after that.
While success has come easier, it never is easy. The human, PvP element is always there. Players are good and bad, organized and not. A player may be able to camp a forward base in his tank with impunity, or he may be facing an organized squad which will call in air support or spawn simultaneously to give him too many targets. There are those who will respect the wishes of a squad that has painstakingly driven in tanks from neighboring cities and reserved them in town… and those who see those tanks as a limitless supply for fun. There are some truly remarkable pilots, tankers, infantrymen and ship captains, racking up insane kill/death ratios while achieving objectives and returning to base. This isn't EverQuest or Asheron's Call, there are no stats other than those you create yourself, and the only experience that matters is what you learn during a battle.
So no, it's not pretty, and certainly not easy to learn, but definitely a great game with an amazing community. Any title that hooks me as hard as Call of Duty did is worth a look. Now if only Playnet offered a free trial week…
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