Building on the successful gameplay of Red Orchestra 2 was always going to be something of a challenge. The satisfying and rewarding mixture of large-scale battles and the tense, gritty combat felt suitably different from the recent trend towards identical, generic multiplayer shooters. Seeing Rising Storm at gamescom this week was a real surprise as it significantly alters several key areas of the Red Orchestra formula while staying true to its roots.
Rising Storm is a standalone expansion that will retain links with Red Orchestra 2. While developing their sequel, Tripwire Interactive were keen to involve the mod community and allowed some groups access to the development tools to see what they would produce. Rising Storm's beginnings originate from this process and Tripwire were so impressed with the concept they became involved in bringing the game out as a retail release.
As the community is so important to Red Orchestra 2, producer Tony Gillham emphasised that Rising Storm has been designed to keep both games' fans together: not to split them apart. One of the main ways to do this is to have an integrated server browser between the titles, which is a minor addition but one that helps to prevent them feeling like completely separate entities.
Fundamentally, this expansion will be familiar to veterans of the Red Orchestra format. It's large-scale, realistic and heavily tactical online multiplayer. All the classic game modes will return (such as Countdown, Firefight and Territory) alongside the staple gameplay features such as suppression, ticket spawns and historical accuracy. However, it was instantly clear that this is a different beast from its predecessor. Instead of taking place in the European theatre the action is moved to the Pacific with the American forces fighting for victory against the Japanese.
For the first time in the series both forces have widely differing styles of warfare and equipment which is easily one of the most exciting aspects. The American troops have a wide selection of weaponry, ranging from rifles and sub-machine guns to flamethrowers and trench guns. The Japanese forces are armed very differently with most carrying rifles and very occasionally a sub-machine gun. Clearly balancing these two armies was going to be a real challenge, particularly to make both equally engaging to play.
Thankfully, Tripwire Interactive have ensured that this will be the case with some very clever ideas to help provide the Japanese troops with several aces up their khaki sleeves. Keeping an accurate sense of the nature of the battles was essential for Rising Storm and in creating abilities genuine Japanese tactics were consulted. The first and arguably the simplest skill that this side possesses is that they can plant grenades as hidden mines in the ground. When an unfortunate Yankee steps on one, there is a tell-tale click followed by a swift departure from the battlefield.
In the gameplay that we saw this looks like a brutally efficient tactic. While it is possible for the Americans to spot the top of the grenade protruding from the ground, it is unlikely this will be the case with enemy fire constantly putting pressure on them. One of the more sneaky and cunning tactics was to mine a flank, particularly around choke points, allowing the enemy to think they had found a weak point in their opponents defence. However, when a group of three US soldiers enthusiastically rushed to exploit this perceived flaw, they triggered the grenades and were immediately dispatched.
The developers also discussed a really interesting piece of emergent gameplay they had discovered during Rising Storm's testing. As in the real Pacific conflict, it seems that the Japanese officer's katana swords are very desirable amongst the American players. Quickly the Axis players discovered that laying a grenade trap down and then dropping their melee weapon was an easy way to score kills. US players could rarely resist the lure of a free, impressive melee weapon and invariably were taken down.
It's nice to see the appearance of unusual but accurate historical events reappearing in-game which the developers hadn't planned for.
The Japanese also have another equally dangerous ability: spawn bunkers. To reflect squads of enemy troops hiding behind the American lines while they advance, it is now possible for Japanese players to emerge from randomly selected bunkers. This means that they could potentially appear in vulnerable positions and leave American forces sandwiched between groups of hostiles.
Until the bunkers are dealt with and closed by throwing in satchel charges, enemies can spawn in freely meaning they are a real priority for the US military. However, it is not possible for the Americans to set about demolishing each bunker they come across, as it would be far too costly and time consuming.
Suppression is a key element of gameplay from Red Orchestra 2 and the final Japanese special ability we were shown tied heavily into this. The banzai charge can be used when groups of players band together and rush the enemy. Rising Storm automatically detects when several players select melee weapons and begin moving together and suitably adjusts their animations and voices. This means a terrifying charge can loom out of bunkers or over the tops of hills, complete with mad screaming and raised swords or bayonets.
Understandably a banzai charge is a scary thing to face and causes any nearby US troops to become suppressed, damaging their accuracy and movement. In the gameplay we saw this was very intimidating and, if teams are working together well, it could lead to some satisfyingly epic moments where seemingly hopeless situations turn into victory. It fits nicely in with the psychology of the warfare and captures some of the famous moments of the vicious fighting in the Pacific theatre.
There are plenty more tricks and surprises for the Japanese troops yet to be revealed with Tripwire hinting that there would be more announcements soon.
However, the Americans aren't entirely helpless and there was some impressive footage showcasing their superior firepower. In an excerpt from the infamous Iwo Jima battle, we saw a squad of soldiers assaulting a Japanese bunker, laying down suppressing fire to allow their secret weapon to get into place. Once ready, a flamethrower was deployed spewing burning death into the concrete fortification. Already waiting at the exit were more American soldiers armed with close range trench guns who brutally cut down any survivors.
Taking a flamethrower is not a simple, clear cut choice. While on the one hand these weapons provide lethal area damage that can decimate bunker positions, there are several key drawbacks. The flamethrower's weight means that players move very slowly so it is critical that your team supports you and provides cover to actually get you to the front lines alive. Similarly, once a flamethrower troop is identified they will usually become a priority target for the enemy. Yet the developers feel that the satisfaction of getting yourself into an effective position and letting rip will be an experience that players will really relish.
The game is already looking highly impressive visually, with some beautiful lighting effects and lush, varied scenery. In our time with the game we saw 4 key locations: Iwo Jima, Hanto, Betio and Saipan. Each map was notably different, both aesthetically and in terms of gameplay. Speaking to the developers they assured us that there would be a healthy range of different battles, from the close-range urban fighting of Saipan with its iconic sugar mill to the lush jungle of Hanto. The latter looked particularly tense for the American side with plenty of foliage that may hide a bayonet-happy enemy.
There were also some strong hints towards night battles and even potentially variations in weather, such as storms. Understandably Tripwire was hesitant about how much to give away, but when asked if vehicles were to be included, the reply was a teasing "Not initially upon release...". It is immediately clear that they love and respect the Red Orchestra community and want to deliver something both familiar and different to keep them engaged.
With a brand new area of World War II to explore it seems that Rising Storm will be special. On the one hand there are the Americans with a style of comfortable, well-known gameplay. On the other are the Japanese who will require different skills and tactics to play and it is this side of the title that seems fresh and challenging. Using more guerrilla tactics and playing to the strengths of concealment, stealth and fanaticism were key objectives when designing this side. It seems that Rising Storm will give players two contrasting, but equally satisfying, styles of gameplay and it is this aspect which excites us.
However our one hesitancy lies with how effectively the opposing forces will be balanced. Tripwire has acknowledged that this is a major concern and that they want both sides to be as fun to play. With such a pedigree in ongoing development and support (both Red Orchestra 2 and Killing Floor), it seems likely that this will be a given. Rising Storm has been one of the biggest and most pleasant surprises for us at gamescom this year. We can't wait to be charging forward, katanas in hand for death or glory. We certainly hope that the game can achieve the latter when it is released later this year.