Johnny May Not Come Marching Home Again
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First let me say that I am a huge World War II fan. I play tabletop games based on the war, have a subscription to World War II magazine and have a father who fought in the war. I also purchase about every realtime strategy game that comes out for that genre, in addition to the never-real-but-always-fun first person shooters. When I heard about WWII Online, with a persistent world, a constantly changing frontline and thousands of players fighting the war, I was in heaven.
At E3 this year I made it a point to check out the game, and even wore my WWII Online dog tags around the show floor. (What a cool giveaway.)
Anyway, I've been playing the game for several weeks now and feel comfortable enough to write a review. Without a doubt, WWII Online: Blitzkrieg is the most fun multiplayer game I have ever played. But even so, there are quite a few problems with the game that I feel compelled to point out, because these are negative issues that might make gameplay less than fun for some players. So, onward to the highlights.
The game is set during the German Blitzkrieg campaign in 1939 and 1940. There is a good variety of equipment, all period specific and highly accurate, that can be played on both sides. From a German Panzerkampfwagen III to a British Spitfire to the French Char Leger Modele 1935-R, you will find many vehicles to drive or pilot here.
You don't really have a character like most online games. Mostly you just hop into whatever vehicle you choose, or pick up a rifle, or jump into an airplane and spawn in the game world. [Eventually the game is supposed to be more character specific.] You can choose where you want to appear along the front lines, as long as there is a friendly base nearby. If that friendly base gets captured and put in enemy hands, then you can't start there and have to choose a nearby town or an intact forward base as your origin. Either way, since Europe is modeled in 1/2 scale, if you are forced to spawn away from the battle, then you can expect a long trek to where the action is taking place.
I tested the game on a T1 line and also on a 56k modem. While the T1 obviously gave better performance, I had few problems on the 56k. Once or twice in the past few weeks of heavy play on the 56k, I was what I consider to be "lag killed" where I was waiting for my gun site to load while another player shot at me. But for the most part, the developers have done an amazing job of making the game work at standard modem speeds. Its much better than I have seen in any other online game thus far.
Probably the best feature in the game is the camaraderie that almost instantly develops between players. Friendly fire is currently turned off, so there are no accidental kills. At first I thought this was a bad thing, but it prevents "spies" from spawning in rear areas and going wild shooting up the place. That type of problem can ruin a game. Anyway, without friendly fire you basically have the Allies and the Axis as teams. It's in your best interest to help your team mates, because the more help you have when the shells start lobbing in your direction, the better.
You simply can't play without good teamwork, and most people realize this. Some people spawn as trucks or half-tracks and spend entire battles zooming around the countryside helping infantry get to the frontlines quickly. Some heavy artillery pieces, like the German 8,8cm Flugabwehrkanone 36 (known by the more deadly nickname, the 88) can't even move on its own power, and has to rely on someone else for a tow to the front. Mostly folks are more than happy to pull this behemoth to the frontline since it is currently the most powerful cannon in the game.
Tanks can even stop and let infantry pile on top. This is helpful because while the tank driver can only see out a narrow slit up front, the onboard infantry can scan all around and watch for ambushes. And the infantry don't have to hoof it all the way to the front. So there is a lot of teamwork. If a base of yours is under attack, teamwork is the only way you are going to survive, so pay attention the radio chatter and backup your buddies that are in trouble. I've saved a lot of people, and been saved quite a bit myself.
The ground war is a lot of fun, and I find that playing a tank driver is the most fun position on the battlefield. Many will argue with me on that, but that is just my opinion. All positions are fun. I tried infantry and they can do cool things like hide in buildings and enter forests that are barriers to tanks. But currently the infantry have no way of destroying tanks other than getting close enough to shoot into the view port. And that is a suicidal move 99 percent of the time. When grenades get working and anti-tank infantry guns (other than the AT cannons which require you to spawn as one) come online, then the game will be more balanced and tanks wont rule the day so much.
If you prefer, you can try to fly an airplane. There is a large variety of airplanes in the game and flying one is very much like a full flight sim. The only difference is that there are units on the ground and in the air (real people) to shoot at and who shoot back at you. You have to use a joystick to fly a plane. You can't map the commands to keyboard for a plane. And even if you could, the enemy pilots with joysticks would eat you alive.
Another aspect I like about the game is that you don't have to gain power to be a successful player. In Ultima Online I spent weeks fighting rabbits before I was powerful enough to even venture out of the town. Here, a Panzer III is a Panzer III whether or not you have played the game for months or not. A skillful player will be able to drive and shoot it better, and be able to use it tactically in better ways. But out of the gate, both are equal. You can also multicrew large vehicles like tanks, where one person does the driving and the other shoots. This gives you precious seconds on the battlefield and helps new players learn the ropes with experienced vets helping out.
Ok, on to the negative things. For the most part these are mostly annoyances, but they need to be shown so folks know what to expect.
Despite the many advantages to the game, it really feels like it was released too early. The first time you log on you are treated to over 70M of patches. On a 56k modem that is about a two to four hour download. You also have to have 128bit encryption on your browser or you can't connect to the servers. This may mean having to upgrade your browser. Also, a lot of the features listed on the box and in the promotional materials are not in the game.
There currently is not one persistent world. There are several worlds and each one has a different frontline. Each is a different war, so gains you make one night on one server won't have anything to do with the landscape on another. The developers are currently experimenting with a single server, but it is not perfect quite yet.
Also, you don't seem to be able to gain rank or to tell what the ranks of other players are. You are supposed to get points when you complete a mission, and if you get enough points you go up in rank. But if you get killed, you lose all your points, though not your current rank. However, this does not happen. And even if it did, there is no way to tell when a mission is considered over. Say you accept a mission to defend a town. You sit there for 20 minutes defending it and survive an assault. The mission does not end, so you wait around for something else to happen. Eventually you will be killed. So how do you complete a defensive mission?
Another problem is that you can't rearm your vehicles, or even your rifles in the case of infantry. When you are out of ammo, you just leave the game and respawn as something else. There should be a way to rearm yourself or even repair damage back at your base. It's silly that a perfectly good tank would be abandoned on the battlefield because it is out of ammo. There should be a method to get more.
Also, there is no naval combat. The game looks like you could do some naval combat and there is even a button on the main map for it, but there are no ships yet. Word is that ships will be in a forthcoming patch.
Finally, in the "what were they thinking" column, there is a very silly nighttime in the game. Now nighttime did occur in WWII of course, but you have no flashlights, headlights or any other way to see - not even moonlight or town lights. Basically, the screen goes completely black for about 20 minutes. You cant do anything during that time other than sit there or stumble around blindly. If you had a flashlight or a headlight or something it might prove to be very cool, with troops sneaking around trying to gain position. But as it stands, the nighttime is pretty worthless.
The game designers have acknowledged that there are gameplay issues like the ones described. As a response they have frozen the clock on the free 30 day trial period. If you get the game, you don't have to start paying the $10 monthly fee until the issues are fixed. So for now, it's a free, free-for-all.
World War II online earns 4 and 1/2 GiN Gems for being the most fun I have ever played online, especially because of the camaraderie between fighting men and women working toward the same goals. This will definitely be a competitor for the Game of the Year. Once the gameplay issues are fixed, I will re-review this title, and hopefully be able to award a perfect score. Until then, smoke em' if you got em' and keep your heads down. Look for a British tanker named Breeden if you want to say hello out on the front lines.
John Breeden II is the Chief Editor of GiN. While a forward thinking man he admits to a fondness for older video games. You should have seen him at Videotopia. John can be contacted at : firstname.lastname@example.org.