I have a friend manning a heavy machine gun next to a ticket booth for some vanished fairground, surrounded by tall, bombed-out tenement buildings. The setting sun casts long shadows and creates a thousand potential snipers' perches among the splintered floorboards and crumbling doorways. I'm thirty yards behind him, leaning out from behind a corner and calling the targets for him.

"12 o'clock, moving to your 3! Behind that broken wall."

"I see 'em." The machine gun starts loosing short, rattling bursts. A squad of Soviet riflemen hit the dirt, thinking the shots are coming from in front of them. Burst by burst, he massacres them as they try to crawl to safety. Then a flicker of movement from up high catches my attention.

"Up up up! 12 o'clock, fourth story," I snap.

"Window or doorway?"

"Um--" There is a flicker of movement as a helmet detaches itself from shadow.

"Door!" The sniper is drawing a bead just as we open fire with everything, my MP-44 shaking wildly as we pepper his position. He slumps, dead. We both breathe a sigh of relief.

Red Orchestra 2 is the most intensely cooperative game I have ever played. It is so unforgiving, and each player is so vulnerable, that you don't just need your teammates to watch your back. They need to be your eyes and ears, too.

 Red Orchestra 2

Like its predecessor, RO2 emphasises realism. Even the simplest tasks require skill and experience. No weapon hits where you aim unless you have correctly adjusted the sights. Just getting to the next objective can entail ten minutes of crawling through rubble and hiding in shadows.

As fussy and slow-paced as that might sound, RO2 can be as dramatic and evocative as the early Call of Duty games. Developer Tripwire did not just recreate locations from Stalingrad -- they filled them with menace and foreboding. An icy haze and eerie silence hang over a frost-glazed battlefield, where German troops defend their HQ inside the shadowed husk of the famous Univermag department store. The cold is almost palpable, as is the despair of the German troops who sometimes break the silence to say, "We're never getting out of here. We've stayed too long."

Players can take command of detailed tanks and attempt to dominate the battlefield. However, the vehicles require a fair bit of skill and cooperation to use effectively, and they are usually occupied by players who make a specialty of tank warfare. I was also a little frustrated with how often tanks could just dominate a battle. On the other hand, most servers either focus on tank combat or infantry combat, and rarely both, so it's easy to play with tanks or avoid them as you please.

The character progression system seems largely irrelevant, and it does not do a good job of drawing a connection between character experience and your performance in combat. Nor did my new perks and gear seem to make a big difference on the battlefield. But it's probably for the best that RO2 avoids the problem of "super soldiers" that sometimes crops up with experience-based shooters. Everyone, from the lowliest novice to the most grizzled veteran, is just a rifle round away from death.

RO2 is an acquired taste and brutally punishing to newcomers. But I can't overstate how rewarding it is when I do my job right, and how completely absorbed I get in the action. This is one of those games that will have you holding your breath while you strain to hear an enemy, or hunching down in your chair as rounds whip overhead and cause your character to flinch. Every kill is an accomplishment, and every capture-point defence is an act of heroism. For players with patience who crave a challenge, and who have a few friends who share those qualities, RO2 is an experience like none other. It rewards your investment.

Red Orchestra 2: Heroes of Stalingrad: Specs

  • OS: Windows XP/Vista/7 Processor: Dual Core 2.3 GHz or better Memory: 2 GB Graphics: 256 MB SM 3.0 DX9 Compliant NVIDIA® GeForce 7800 GTX or better ATI® Radeon® HD 2900 GT or better DirectX®: DirectX 9.0c Hard Drive: 8 GB free hard drive space Sound: Windows Supported Sound Card Other: Broadband Internet Connection required
  • OS: Windows XP/Vista/7 Processor: Dual Core 2.3 GHz or better Memory: 2 GB Graphics: 256 MB SM 3.0 DX9 Compliant NVIDIA® GeForce 7800 GTX or better ATI® Radeon® HD 2900 GT or better DirectX®: DirectX 9.0c Hard Drive: 8 GB free hard drive space Sound: Windows Supported Sound Card Other: Broadband Internet Connection required

OUR VERDICT

Punishingly hard to learn, especially for newcomers, but once you've made your peace with that you'll find that Red Orchestra 2 has outstanding atmosphere and realism paired with absorbing and dramatic gameplay.

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