For the third day in a row, our outpost was under attack. Some enterprising yanks had discovered they could take opportunistic raiding parties through an undefended snowy field and get within grenade-throwing distance of our forward operating base – a walled-in barracks full of tiny toy soldiers all sitting around grunting that they didn’t have enough rifles, ammo, or best friends to clutch to their breasts as they died in the snow. Someone lowered the iron gate for me and I drove the truck into the compound, during a mercifully quiet and shrapnel-free moment.
“Who wants b-mats!” I shouted, employing the shorthand for ‘basic materials’ I’d learned from wiser, fightier men. “Get your b-mats here!”
Everyone in the compound rushed to the truck.
“Oh YES,” said an engineer, as he unloaded the essentials he needed to build up defences and do his own job. “Buddy, you are the real MVP.”
This all happened in Foxhole [official site], a massively multiplayer online war game that pits two teams of 50-60 people against each other on large persistent maps until one of them owns every small town or outpost. Players build walls, lay out barbed wire, collect scrap and, of course, shoot each other in the torso. But conflict in this faux-WWII can go on for days or weeks between the “Wardens” and “Colonials” - surrogate names for German and US armies. Imagine the hardy, ambitious skeleton of Planetside equipped with the uniform and binoculars of Company of Heroes. It has elements of a real-time strategy to it, but that’s not what it is. You’re not a competent and organised commander of countless soldiers and tanks, you were just one guy with an unloaded rifle, a hammer and a confused look on your face.
Confused because arriving on a map can be a daunting and unguided experience. The first thing new players usually do is grab a gun from the town hall and jog all the way to the frontlines with far more ammo than is prudent. This is bad. It’s the quickest way to experience Foxhole’s simple combat mechanics (aim with the right mouse button, fire with the left, and, for the love of god, press X to go prone) but it’s also the quickest way to walk straight into the line of fire of an enemy machine gun nest. Without first having an understanding of where the lines are actually drawn (something the map won’t explicitly tell you), you can get gunned down quicker than an extra in Saving Private Ryan.
That’s because, while you’ve been gung-ho-ing it across the fields, the real heroes of this war have been at work: the engineers, the truck drivers, the scrap miners. This is less a game about the horrors of war and more the logistics of war. For example, everyone has the ability to build defences right from the start. You find a scrapyard (denoted by a little screw icon on the map) and take your trusty hammer to it. Then you carry all that heavy scrap, slowly tramping with an encumbered inventory, to the nearest manufacturing plant. Here, it is made into those basic materials I was talking about – steel bars in other words. These are necessary for pretty much everything, or at least the most basic items. They can be used to order boxes of rifles or ammo, they can be invested into a vehicle factory to build motorcycles or trucks.
But, for your purposes as a fresh recruit, they can be used to build various pieces of military infrastructure – fences, walls, barbed wire, foxholes, watch towers, sand bags - all the best fortifying nonsense an army could ever want. The foxholes of the name are easy to build and, provided they have a supply tunnel nearby (a special building that connects with each preceding supply tunnel) they will automatically shoot at any enemy in range. By the end of the first real-time day of combat, the roads around your headquarters and captured towns will likely be lined with these tunnels and foxholes. If the engineers are doing their jobs.
And that’s a strange thing. There are no set “classes”. Everyone is just a soldier. But small squads of organised men begin to form almost as soon as the captain’s whistle blows. Discords and chat channels are set up. Teams of “logi” roam the roads, six to a truck, ferrying ‘supplies’ to isolated barracks so that men can spawn there, trios of engineers hammer away at giant gates to keep the enemy from harassing the spawn points at the base of operations. Groups of riflemen cluster together and go off with their hands full of grenades, seeking to blow up unfamiliar trucks and disrupt the supply lines of an adversary who is taking all the same turtling measures as your own army. And, yeah, you do get the odd team-killer or a wildman who thinks stealing your motorcycle is good for the war effort, but I’ve found that the majority of players have learned that communication and teamwork are the route to victory. I often simply approach a group of people who look like they know what they’re doing and saying: “Need an extra man?” I’ve rarely been turned away.
One of these groups - a bunch of fellas from Britain and the US – took me in as part of their engineering crew. They had built an impressively large wall, stretching almost half the width of the map, which protected an important fortress called the “Crow’s Nest”. They lined the wall with watchtowers too. This means any player equipped with a radio can see where the enemy is approaching the fort, just by looking at their map and seeing which watchtower flashes red.
And although this wall was an ugly, twisting, jagged scar across the snowy countryside, I would still call it a work of art. Once, our truck driver pulled up at a town hall in the safe zone, where a lone trooper asked for a lift to the fighting. When our Sergeant (you can “up-vote” players to slowly raise their rank) told the trooper we weren’t going his direction, the man dryly replied: “Goddamn engineers, never doing anything useful.”
“Oh no,” said the Sarge, “we only built all these walls, and laid the barbed wire, and put that rifle in your hand, and--”
“I know I know!” said the trooper, relenting. “You guys are the real heroes.”
He said this like he was repeating a line his mother had taught him. You guys are the real heroes, shoulders deflating, eyes in the back of his head. He knew he was being petulant, and that we were the backbone of the army. He didn’t even argue the point, just stood around sulking as we drove away, waiting for another truck to come by and take him to his inevitable death.
Later, Crow’s Nest started to get hit. The chat filled up with people saying the place was under heavy and constant attack by raiding parties. It’s a hard place to attack, even without our Great Wall. The town hall you need to capture to control the area is atop a small hill, from which you can see the surrounding area clearly and get an easy shot on anyone coming up the hill. We arrived – two trucks full of “combat engineers” - and piled out onto the hill, which we quickly surrounded with chainlink fences and sandbags. I got out a pair of binoculars and looked down at the roads and ruined townhouses to our southwest.
“There’s five guys coming now,” I called out to the men stationed in pillboxes and foxholes on top of the hill. Within minutes they were cut down.
“Three more to the west,” I said.
Pot shots came flying by. It’s difficult to get used to the top-down view when the bullets start flying. It’s a hugely limited space, and you rarely feel like you can see everything you ought to be able to see. Instinctively, you want to zoom out and look around. Every RTS has programmed you to scan further than your immediate area, and being shot at by unseen forces is a pain. At least, it is when you’re the one without the binoculars. These handy boyos let me scan further into the distance than I usually could. I can't fire at the same time, however, and I can still only see enemies or friendlies that are in my line of sight. If players go behind a building or a wall or even over a small mound, they will dissolve into nothing, like powder in the wind. You can still see the geography of the landscape, but where the hell is that machine gunner?
For now, we had the advantage. A hill-top. A ton of men. A pair of bi-nocks. Earlier in the war my engineer squad had used a howitzer to level an entire base of enemies using the same high-ground tactic. On the other hand, I’ve also seen the effects of mortar fire from the victim’s side. In an earlier battle, three of our machine gunners once refused to listen to their commanding officer when he told them to “spread out, for fuck sake” and were summarily disintegrated by a single shell. I stopped firing bullets from my bunker after I saw that.
“What did I tell you?” said the officer, sighing as I exited the bunker and snuck away from that fight. It’s okay, I came back later with my truck full of b-mats.
But let’s go back to the Crow’s Nest. The attack had cooled off, but our Sarge was annoyed. The enemy was getting through our hideous, wonderful wall and nobody knew where. We got in our trucks, now missing a good number of men who remained at the hilltop, and did a perimeter check. I still had three or four full clips of ammo. I wasn’t worried. We found the hole, or rather, we found three holes. It was only the last one that gave us trouble.
Enemy troops turned up as soon as our boys started hammering to plug up the gap. Three, four, five men. Six… seven… oh no… I lay prone on the rubble of a nearby ruin, peering through my binoculars, and called out the location of any rifleman that came too close. We used the ruin and the rest of our own wall as a chokepoint as the Sarge ordered us to keep the enemy back. But they kept coming. And then we ran out of basic materials. The lone man building the fresh section of the wall suddenly jumped in one of our trucks and drove off.
“What do we do now?”
“Well, I guess we wait until he comes back.”
It was probably only fifteen minutes before the hero returned with his truck full of stuff. Blood and backpacks had since piled up in the gap – remnants of vanished corpses that you can loot if you get close enough. I hadn’t moved from my spot and was completely out of ammo. I had even impotently fired off all my pistol clips into the darkness, trying to approximate some sort of firing angle based on the random tracer rounds that flew over our heads from off-screen. Quite a lot of us had died. The Sarge, a Captain and I clung on with whatever unaffiliated troops came by from Crow’s Nest to help out. Finally, the wall-builder said he was done.
“Okay,” he said, “come through!”
He had built a giant iron gate behind us, and we stood up and ran through, closing it behind us. The wall was whole again. The next day, our Sargeant would say we saved the whole eastern sector of the map from being slowly dismantled and overrun. Very few people would learn about our stand at the Crow’s Nest and our frantic Plugging of the Gap. But I think, inside, our corps of engineers were stupidly proud of what we’d achieved. This is, I think, Foxhole’s appeal. It takes communication, learning and teamwork to get anything of significance done, but at the same time individual truck drivers can feel like they have saved the day, just by arriving at the right moment. It reminds me of the warring and fleet operations of EVE Online, and while it certainly isn’t straightforward, compared to that sci-fi deathtrap it still takes only a fraction of the time to learn how to play.
It isn’t for everyone. It requires a lot of chatter and roaming the countryside alone is likely to get you barbecued on sight. Likewise, it’s hard to jump straight into a battle, like you can in Planetside, just to feel the rush of combat. There is more to learn before you reach that point, but there’s also much more to appreciate about the conflict, even as a simple ammo delivery boy. Even something as simple as giving someone a ride makes you feel like you're part of a greater, more effective machine.
The battle for Crow’s Nest is over now, and new fights on that server have likely begun and finished since, but the combat engineers of our squad will remember our Great Wall and know that it saved lives and kept the enemy forces at bay. Somewhere there’s probably a sullen trooper walking down a lonely and boring road, wishing he had come with us after all.