There's a grim danger with multiplayer shooters. The danger is that if they're any good, I'll lose a year's worth of productivity. This is becoming a genuine concern as I played through more rounds of Red Orchestra 2, Tripwire's shiny sequel to the super-bleak World War II shooter. It's a little less brutal and minimal than its parent, of course, because it's a more friendly commercial release. But the horror remains. And it is brilliant.
Right now the game is in the painful birthing throes of a beta. And this is a proper "lots of stuff is broken and we need to fix it" sort of beta, rather than one of those "the game is secretly finished and this is a marketing exercise" sort of beta. The game definitely need a bunch more work, but even the occasional glitches and agonised chat-cries of players who have serious issues can't mask the potential this game has to eat my life.
I don't usually care about atmosphere in multiplayer shooters (and care about it too much in SP shooters), because really what I am interested in is mastering the mechanisms that pitch me and other human beings against each other, but there's no denying Red Orchestra 2 has the "A" quality in creaky, smoky droves. The shattered, desolate maps would be enough, but the grim chatter of the characters "They're out there... somewhere..." and the screams of your stricken comrades makes this chilling, even before you get to the one-shot-maybe-kill-but-perhaps-bleed-to-death combat.
Initial impressions are that it certainly feels like Red Orchestra to me, although I only played a few hours of Ostfront, despite some dramatic differences (particularly in visual loveliness). The main reason for this, I suppose, is the way in which hugging scenery is essential not simply to not being shot, but also steadying your aim. There's a first-person cover system here, but what's far more interesting is how the original mod's steadying of your weapon comes naturally. It is one of those FPS games where what could be quite arbitrary functionality actually feels organic and intuitive. It feels chunky, and dangerous and I was wincing at both killing and being killed. That's a good start, isn't it? Things get better when you look at the options screen, too.
The important bit, though, is the man-shooting. My first couple of encounters with enemies were just fantastic. Stumbling on someone who was reloading and taking them apart with a pistol, and then a series of one-shot kills with my bolt-action rifle as I hunkered in the snow, squad-mates yelling around me. Yeah, basically grinning like a madman at that point.
Things were dampened a bit when I got lost, stumbled the wrong way into enemy territory, got sniped, and then a few moments later killed by artillery from somewhere. Possibly friendly? Yeah, the game is frighteningly bold, but cruel. As it should be. And the server browser works now. I didn't for a while there, and it gave me the fear.
Perhaps the most provocative thing in here, though, is the 32vs32 player battles. If anything is going to get the blood pumping it's that number of people going against each other on these maps. Some of the firefights are terrifying - not least because some bullets will penetrate walls, and when you're under a hail of fire it can all be over very quickly. (Also, the scale of a 64-player game should remind us to be excited about that other 64-player game coming out a little later in the year. A different flavour, certainly, but it feels like the kind of play games have been missing of late.)
I've not had a go in tank yet, but I understand it still needs some work.
There's even going to be a single-player campaign. It might be terrible, but that scarcely matters. This is one of those shooters that has been formed in the wire-tangled, humming womb of the PC community, and its vitality is obvious. It might be displeasing a few fans of the original, and it might be stricken with a few ugly bugs, but right now I've got no worries about the success of this one, and I can't wait to sink more time into it.