RO2: Far From Heroic

Posted on January 30, 2012

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Oh the feeling of waiting for something for so long and then once it finally arrives……it’s a major disappointment. That pretty much sums up my reaction to the game Red Orchestra 2: Heroes of Stalingrad. After devoting myself to its predecessor for nearly 5 years, I certainly (and rightfully) had my hopes up for a sequel that would be a huge success. Unfortunately the fears that I started developing about 6 months before the release eventually became a reality.

I Swear, RO2 had/has the potential to be a great game if only the developers had/will listen(ed) to their fans!

After waiting close to 4 years for the promised sequel (or “Game 2” as it was referred to then),  when RO2 was finally released in September ’11, I really wasn’t shocked at the negative backlash. The game’s developers Tripwire Interactive revved up a sizable marketing campaign during the immediate months prior to release after having previously announced the title 2 years earlier.  Primarily making use of word of mouth advertising that made their previous two games (Red Orchestra: Ostfront 41-45, Killing Floor) so successful, the pre-order and initial sales were respectable enough to place the game on the Steam top sellers list for a few weeks.

Sadly, the peak player numbers didn’t even come close to what most people expected and sharply declined way too early in its life cycle. Daily peak player numbers hit an all time high around 9300 on day 2 and by day 30 dropped around 2300, a decline of 75%.  Two months post-release, the daily peak had dropped to around 1300, or only 15% of the all time high. After a couple patches, updates and a major Christmas sale which significantly dropped the game’s price, the numbers have still woefully hoverd around 1100.  To put things into perspective, the first Red Orchestra hit a top peak of probably around 3000 in the glory days, experienced a steady decline until it maintained a constant average for years and still daily peaked around 1000 after over 4 years. Killing Floor NEVER dropped below 800, peaked over 10k once and 20k once (sales/free-weekends) and  after 3 years still peaks over 4000. How could a game that, according to TW VP Alan Wilson, sold the most copies of any TW game lose so many players so fast? TW devs liked to blame the release of other mainstream games taking away interest, but I think it was much, MUCH more than that.

I will embarrassingly admit that between December ’06 and July ’11, I wasted away a good portion of my life playing the game ROOST. My Steam profile indicates that I logged about 1140 hours of play time since March ’09 but if you add in the almost 2 years of play during the “golden days”, I’d estimate that I put in a total close to 4000 hours. I also logged another estimated 500 hours combined playing RO’s mods Carpathian Crosses, Mare Nostrum and Darkest Hour. Add to that the hundreds of hours spent co-leading a clan (team) for 4 years and helping to found/administrate a small competition website for a little over 2 years. Then of course, the hundreds of hours spent posting in the game’s official forums (which have now turned a complete cesspool). Yes I admit it….I was addicted.

When it came to RO2, I like many others just couldn’t enjoy playing. The game was marketed as the “spiritual successor to the Red Orchestra”. Unfortunately, it wasn’t even close. Most long time RO veterans will say the same thing about the game: all the garbage on the outside makes it difficult to see the true RO “feeling” buried at the core. The first RO had gameplay that could keep you glued to the computer for hours on end. Many days, I would come home after classes, practices or work and jump right into playing.  Entire days off could result in 5-6 hours of nonstop playing. RO2 still usually has me quitting after 30 minutes of painful frustration.

RO2 plays too much like today’s mainstream fps games Call of Duty and Battlefield. Oddly enough, the reason why I got so hooked into RO was because I saw it as a much improved game from the original BF:1942 which I played quite a bit along with the original COD games. But over the years the mainstream franchises morphed into developing the “run-and-gun”, rush rush rush, level48 super-master-sargeant-major-shooter-guy, arcade style game that I could never enjoy. With RO, we were given something different. Like TW Vice President Alan Wilson said once, “RO makes you feel like you’re in the war instead of in a war movie.”

In the case of ROOST, I totally agree. As a historian and WWII buff, I appreciated the attention to detail in the first game. RO2 has players running around with ridiculously inaccurate loadouts comprised of silencers, scopes, prototype weapons (some which were NEVER used in Stalingrad….mkb42), and way too many “captured” enemy weapons while requiring players to “progress” in order to unlock simple, standard issued items like bayonets for bolt action rifles. Listening to amateurish voice acting of Russian/German accented English is painful. These types of things ultimately ruin the immersion factor that the first RO was so great at simulating.

As for the gameplay, the overall speed is just too fast. Players have almost no inertia and can pull off seemingly inhuman moves like sprinting, stopping on a dime and doing a 180 for a pop shot. Many weapons lack having any recoil or sway whatsoever. The majority of the new features like the lockdown timer, suppression system, bandaging, “advanced” wound and “bleedout” system, and recon plane were okay ideas that were just poorly implemented. These issues in addition to many map designs discourage teamplay. The tanks, though stunningly beautiful, are completely broken. AI machine-gunner crewman are borderline aimbots.  Cannon recoil is grossly excessive. The damage models have exploitable spots and even though they were an improvement from the “ping-pong” tanks of ROOST, the system just doesn’t seem to be consistent. I would have rather taken 6 tanks without the fully modeled interiors if that would have resulted in a more enjoyable experience

Coupled with the many game design flaws are the performance issues. Most severs  are overloaded with players to the point where latency is unbearable. A chronic issue with hit-detection has been the biggest gamebreaker for me. Countless bugs that were seemingly overlooked during testing stand out as yet another annoyance. Though TW has been trying to push out bug and performance fixes, many are still there. It took almost 2 months for the bug where you could not melee a prone enemy to be fixed. The majority of these things should have never been left unfixed when it came time to release, which itself was 2 weeks late from the originally planned date.

That’s not to say that RO2 didn’t improve upon the first game. Player movement and gun-handling are much smoother. Animations seem to be much more fluid. Most of the maps are beautiful in terms of lighting and details. The graphics are a VAST improvement compared to the dated engine used in ROOST. Some new features like mantling, adjustable iron-sights, iron-sight/scope switching capability, artillery spotting, and pivoting mg bi-pods to name a few, were really great additions. I’m probably forgetting a bunch but it’s much easier to remember more of the bad things compared to the good because they stick out so much more.

Ultimately what really hurt this game is the feeling of TW selling out on their fanbase which boosted them into their position of success. A simple community inspired suggestion like naming the game “RO2: HOS” instead of just “RO:HOS” was considered stupid to TW, that is until a PC Gamer writer suggested it over a year later and convinced them to change it. When people started seeing bad signs that RO was going to be made to appeal more towards the mainstream audience, they got really worried and offered constructive criticism. Time and time again, when people voiced their concerns, TW developers fed them the same line of “trust us! have we ever let you down before?” promises. I personally was fortunate enough to grab an interview with Alan Wilson and John Gibson at PAX in 2010 where they seemingly convinced me that things would be “okay”. I believed them and went back posting a report on the forums to reassure the many skeptics not to worry.

Fast forward a few months and the purges began. Some of us foresaw the impending doom. We tried our best to help address potential problems and have them worked on. We cared so much about the game that we did all we could to try to get change before the game released but all to no avail. I myself was permanently banned from the forums and the 3,500+ posts I had contributed to the community over the past 3 years were censored after my profile and activity was set to “invisible”. The true story behind my ban, according to a TW source was that:

“everyone on the staff was told to try to find some way to get rid of you, because you were directly harming our product to the extent that we were in discussions with a lawyer to charge you with slander”.

More long-time, loyal RO supporters were bashed on the forums for being too “negative” and a few more souls joined the ranks of the excommunicated. Sadly, the most dedicated community members were (and still are) the ones met with so much animosity.

During the beta testing (which I was not invited to…obviously), many stand-up community members made last ditch efforts to help TW. Most of the time the testers’ feedback was typically just ignored. Once the game released in such a bad condition, people held on with hopes that TW would hear their pleas to fix what needed fixing. Four months later, TW has finally announced that they will try to release a “RO Classic” mode that will have the more “realistic” feel similar to the first game. Sadly, this idea was suggested and fought for by people, myself being one of the most outspoken, more than a month before the release but was summarily shot down by President John “Ramm-Jaeger” Gibson who called all the shots. The dynamics of the development team reminded me so much of the characters on the Discovery Channel show “Gold Rush”….you can read my article about that for the comparisons.

Ultimately Tripwire Interactive took something that they did very, VERY well and tried to make it into something that it wasn’t. Countless poor design decisions made in attempts to attract a mostly unattractable crowd of “arcade” fps gamers while giving the loyal RO fans the middle finger not only hurt the reputation of the game but also that of the developers. A company once famous for their positive community interaction and costumer support degenerated into the egotistical, money-grabbing “villains” they used to despise. Adding insult to injury was that even after the game had a flop of a first couple weeks, players were still trying to help give critical feedback to TW and were chastised as being dissenters and whiners. Those dedicated enough to go to the game’s forums and post their concerns were labeled the unimportant “.01%”.

Despite everything that’s unfolded up to this point, many people (myself included) still have a small sense of hope that TW will pull off a miracle and fix up the game to the point where it does justice to the RO legacy. Entire, once diehard groups of “ROOSTERS” idle away with no game to keep them occupied as they are still unmotivated to play the sequel that they waited years for. Right now, the game still looks like a complete bust….but it’s a bust that has potential. If TW can realize the potential the game has to draw back in all the players who were looking for a true “spiritual successor to RO”, then perhaps this game will rebound.

Honestly, not gaming as much has given me more time to work on more important things. But there’s still those moments in the day when I would really like to load up a game of Red Orchestra and have some mindless fun. If that day ever comes, you’ll most likely be seeing less of me blogging and more of me shooting Germans and Russians in the virtual battlefields of Stalingrad….

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