A most interesting thing, sarcastic or not, happened when WWII Online launched. No doubt everyone has heard of the server problems, irate attempts to register and the incomplete nature of the title altogether by now. When I first inquired about this title with my editor, I was surprised no one was dying to review it. To be quite honest, I thought I'd be in an extremely long line to even get a chance to play it, much less write the words I am writing right now. However, fate or fortune has brought this title to the forefront when it was released on June 6th, to commemorate D-day, no doubt. Many people may have thought they could storm the beaches of Omaha on that day, in a persistent realistic simulation of the singularly greatest event in the 20th century. Their dreams, aspirations and hopes, however were dashed when they found out that a seventy meg patch must be applied before playing, that took enough time on broadband that I was mortified about trying this title on an analog modem for review purposes. If we consider that the CD that came with the game was a full 650 megs then the patch replaced up to ten percent of the entire game.
In my experience, it took another full hour or two before I could get the title to launch, perhaps because of my quirky setup. WWII Online is dependent on a service called Playnet, which operates like MSN's The Zone or the recently departed Mplayer service. It refused to work in my Wingate centric network so in the end I had to install a NAT based service just to get into the title. Moreover, I spent time upgrading all my drivers to the latest edition, browsing through the message boards to find out why I couldn't even get into the offline practice mode. Altogether, setup took half of the afternoon and I spent enough time on it that I read through all the associated documentation, including the historical specifications manual for every weapon in this game. From what I gathered from the message forums, I was prepared for control complexity that approaches today's modern sims. Tribes 2 included what could be considered a fairly laughable single player component. Its "campaign" was simply a tutorial in disguise. And while I didn't expect much from WWII Online, the off-line playing mode is simply a way to see if your computer can actually run the game.
The premise of WWII Online is to mirror the map of Europe to scale with a complete set of cities. Players take on sides of Great Britain, France and Germany in the initial Blitzkrieg. Those wanting to play D-Day scenarios, in 1944, will have to wait quite some time until that portion comes out. Curiously, all references to the Nazis (or Soviet Union for that matter, as they are known as Russians) have been removed, including their insignia or flags. Many people have called this title an MMORPG. I thought this was rather incorrect, since you merely choose from one of three types of personae and march into battle. Indeed, the very first screens you watch seem to look like something that comes from a Talonsoft war game than an FPS, MMORPG or sim. There is one fundamental plague that affects WWII Online and that is whether it will be a war game or whether it will be an MMORPG. The crux of this title rests around how much "action" as most people in WWII Online call it, any player will see. When I first joined a title as infantry, I immediately chose an SMG, in fear that I will run out of ammo soon and marched into the battlefield. I saw, as I did in the movie Pearl Harbor, people taking potshots at airplanes. After marching to the city and back, I found out I was in the strategically important point of Namur, defending the Allied city against a German offensive. Someone, not I, asked, "When do I get to kill things?" And he or she was promptly answered with, "I've been on here for two or three hours and I've yet to kill anything." Such was the life, I'm sure of many WWII-era soldiers. Intense firefights would be punctuated with hours of listless silence. I am a proponent of realism but two or three hours of guard duty or getting to the front is simply too much even for me to wait to see a (singular) German soldier, who might by the off chance kill you by lag.
However, in my ingenuity, it only took me forty minutes to get to the front and cross a bridge with two other infantrymen. It came to great frustration for me when one of them was stuck in on the bridge due to software clipping errors. He was immediately strafed by the Luftwaffe while I actually got alongside a tank that was waiting at the mouth of the bridge. The German tank didn't even bother to swing its turret over or retaliate as we shot clip after clip into it. It wasn't until one of its companions notice us, did they decide to put us out of our misery.
With that said, my initial experience of WWII Online was none too positive but I persevered for days devoting many hours to find that magic that I found in WWII as a whole. Sadly, I can't say I have found it. One quintessential problem plaguing WWII Online is its incompleteness. Of the three types of military branches, the naval branch is completely omitted despite the fact that the game box states otherwise. Moreover, the much touted supply routes and rank system are non-existent. As such, there is a complete mob of tanks on both Allied and German sides with infantry existing as only vehicles to capture flags. The rank system, which was originally designed to let veteran players designate certain areas as defense is completely non-existent. The side-effect to this problem is an utter disregard for life. Almost all of the participants in this title choose to appear at the combat front and some charge foolishly into battle. The corollary to this problem is the fact that no one holds guard duty behind the friendly lines. Hence, lightning rushes from trucks (exasperated by the fact that one truck travels the same speed on and off-road and the lack of a model for gas) will capture objectives far behind the front. At which time, uncontrolled spawning of tanks will overrun the victim of this tactic.
As you can see from my description, each problem seems to be linked to another and together, they seem to breed even more problems for WWII Online. There is no doubt that the developers of this system aim for realism. The interesting three-stroke combination to aim and fire for infantry is a motion for that. The extremely restricted field of vision for French tank commanders is another. But I fail to see why people would want to pull an eight hour guard duty shift behind the lines without any incentive for promotion through rank or any chance in seeing "action". Yes, people were paid to hold the supply lines in WWII but here, people are, in contrast, actually paying to do this.
In essence, WWII Online demands absolute co-operation between people. People commandeering lumbering AT gun hulks will definitely require transport that is driven by another human player. Infantry also benefit from being motorized as walking around, despite its realistic modeling, takes too long just to get from one side of the city to another. But, this would assume that someone will have to devote their paying money to be in servitude to others. Such a role, for example, appeals to me but I'm not sure it will appeal to many others. WWII Online extends the idea introduced in Tribes even more. Here, you can assign multiple human players into tanks or airplanes. But the incentive to this is very little and is again, linked to the inherent flaws I talked about before. Why should people spawn in a tank with someone who may turn out to be totally incompetent or disagreeable to deal with if you can have your own? For example, in a four person tank, WWII Online lets you switch between each station. Perhaps disabling this feature and forcing people to man a tank with humans would be better.
It is said that the developers of Starcraft and AOE2 finished their titles much in advance. The biggest tasks and arguably the longest were devoted to the intricacy of balancing units in those titles. WWII Online's strict adherence to pseudo-realism allows no such thing. As I said before, the tank interiors seem to be modeled with a love for realism. At the same time, the over-exaggeration of torque when taxiing in planes seems to be a developer's nuance rather than actual realism. Furthermore, tanks can out battle infantry any day, especially since infantry are not even issued machine guns, explosives or infantry-antitank weapons. Historically, of course, these weapons were not in heavy proliferation during the Blitzkrieg but this raises the question of whether realism is actually fun.
In my first experience, it would be much better if I caught attention of the German tank and radioed the target to a unit that could actually make an effect. For a title that demands absolute co-operation between players, the tools to enable this are woefully inadequate. You are allowed to communicate with people but you can hardly determine what people are commandeering without scanning for their name on the horizon and trying to make out what they are using. Moreover, your on-screen automap fails to pinpoint all the friendly forces near you, making it extremely hard to co-ordinate any formations. The absence of a co-ordinate system to positively locate something or someone is equally stifling. As a subset to this problem, ground units are unable to communicate with people looking at the war map outside of the title. So it becomes near impossible to convince people to come to your sector to assist you unless you task someone to exit the game. The aircraft automap is as encompassing as the individual soldier and in the absence of directional waypoints, the only way to navigate Europe is to print a real downloaded map. Ground and air units also cannot communicate to each other making radio for air strikes completely useless. There is however, a provision for establishing channels using numbers. Attempts have been made by the players themselves to make this useful. For example, they have assigned various cities to specific numbers. One person inquisitively asks, "What happens when we have more cities than numbers?" I have yet an answer to that question and neither do the developers it seems.
To their credit, the developers seem to be active in trying to resolve problems. They regularly participate in the forums and I have actually seen one in the game once. However, the problems are only surmounting as the days pass. Tests are undergoing now for one homogenous war but still, the best ticket seems to be on the different shards at the moment. It is best that professional players join a squad of some sort because without it, it becomes nothing more than a chaotic deathmatch battle between two sides. I have seen attempts by certain players, in infantry or armor otherwise, to try to command a situation within a certain sector. But, as no chain of command exists, an order to retreat the city is obeyed only by those like me, who would equally be ready to tow an AT gun to battle. Often times, I see players saying, "I'm going to see how many krauts I can take with me" and ruin whatever tactical surprise their side may have. Surely, some provision must be provided to tightly integrate the combatants, especially on the infantry level. I recently played Operation Flashpoint and the integration in that title is tight. Such an approach in WWII Online would go a long way in creating some form of depth. The current situation is suffering from an EQ malaise where everyone is bent on just killing anything.
Technically, WWII Online is a mixed bag. Whether it is plane, vehicle or infantry, you will be using variations of the same interface. Graphical performance by the way of frames per second seems to err on the low side unless you have an incredible video card. Load times just to get into the war map are atrocious. And you will experience another load time after you pick a theater to battle in but are considerably shortened with more memory (in the range of 256-512 megs of memory, that is). Despite all this, the graphical prowess of this title is a bit lacking. Some of the buildings are textured but are restricted from infantry to hide in. Some of the buildings seem only to be shaded with one solid color. Higher buildings like church towers only have two traversable levels and much of the land is devoid of any low brush vegetation. Surely, some trees dot the land and clump into forests but infantry will have trouble getting any sort of cover in the mostly devoid green plains that much of this title is comprised of. Death results in vehicles and infantry disappearing from the landscape. I understand this is partly to make the game faster but I think much of the atmosphere is made sterile by the fact that even simple death animations do not exist. Much of the horror of WWII rested on the decaying dead bodies, charred remnants of tanks and corpses of downed aircraft. In the audio department, the sound you will hear most is probably the engine of tanks. One of the features I was looking forward to was the Stuka dive siren, which is noticeably absent despite the fact that you can turn the siren on or off. Sounds are presented in 3D, which has negligible overhead on the computer. But I found some sounds were more noticeable than others. The chattering of an SMG is almost inaudible but the shooting of a rifle can be heard from one side of the town to the next even with many tanks present.
There are too many bugs or necessary improvements to go over to make WWII Online a great game. There are problems with falling out of the 3D world, flags in certain cities that cannot be captured or the intermittent night times that are pitch dark without provisions for light on tanks or flares for soldiers. I won't spend anymore time to go over it but needless to say, a lot of the problems are inter-related and do not seem to be solved with only one answer. To answer my earlier dilemma, WWII Online became much less of a war game and more of an MMORPG because I had to impersonate a role, literally, in WWII. That role, depending on how you look, became increasingly less attractive especially when no one gets commendations (even with the future rank system built in) for ferrying troops or AT guns. Cities and forward bases now exist only as "spawn areas", as WWII Online players call them. Troops out of ammo, tanks without drivers or what not are simply discarded, disappear and respawn again. There are no provisions to refuel (since there is no fuel in this title), reload (since there are no such facilities) or repair (again, no such facilities). Many of the proposed features of this title, like planning out missions, are ignored by most. The uncontrollable spawning creates adverse effects for gameplay as well.
Without a doubt, if you are a diehard WWII fan, you will stick with this title. It is currently suspended in its free mode and I'm not sure if the developers will ever be able to achieve its original objectives even within a year. Let us all recall that UO was not firmly established until almost two years after its inception in 1997. Luckily, WWII Online doesn't seem to have too much lag. I have played on an analog modem as well but there are no movement-related lag effects like in the original Quake. Rather, you will have lag when firing on enemy troops. In one instance, I fired a dozen rounds into a German soldier before he/she vanished although he was firing at the same rate at me. No doubt, this phenomenon was caused by whoever got their packet to the server quickest. If you do end up championing this title, you will definitely have to devote time to it.
No amount of criticism however, will deter some people. Indeed, WWII Online's promise is potentially groundbreaking. It tries to transcend almost all genres to give a cohesive gaming experience. Considering Funcom's shaky start with Anarchy Online, many cannot blame WWII Online. It tries to do something no one has done before. WWII Online has had its share of mistakes as well. Refusing to do a mass public beta test is at the heart of most people's criticism. Yet, there was a slight glimpse of the magic promised for me. In a battle over the obscure town of Mons, I spawned in the midst of a German incursion with German tanks lined up against the Allied factories and barracks, decimating infantry and armor alike. It is the equivalent, I essayed, of "camping" in the WWII era. Those few that made it out, fought a vicious and chaotic urban battle amongst charred out buildings. Luftwaffe planes would dive down to no more than 10 feet off the ground to strafe what was left of the Allied defense. And there was just enough co-operation among the infantry for us to lay down cover fire while taking out snipers in a church overseeing the barracks. Finally, after two or three hours, we were able to establish some nominal control of the city. Such a battle, involving only human players, is an experience unequivocal to all that have come before it. But unfortunately, they are also too far and few in between. The little time I had to pause in that desperate defense, I thought to myself how absurd the battle had become as we were fighting, to paraphrase a recent WWII film, over nothing more than a heap of ruins, but it did not deter the combatants involved from devoting hours to such a venture. Later, I had logged off for a brief pause, content that the Allied forces had driven most of the Germans to the outskirts of the city. When I returned that evening, Mons had fallen and for my part, I was deeply moved.
This review would have come out much sooner if I had not been stubborn enough to wait until the next patch which promises so much that they had to up the version number and push it back a few weeks. Prognosticators of MMO games have always said upon a title's release: "Wait six months to a year before coming back for the full game". As it turns out, their foreshadowing may be true for those who pay for a title and, to quote a recent reader response I read, expect to be served. I'm not quite sure whether even a full year will resolve some of WWII Online's problems. It needs to make some fundamental decisions, for example, regarding realism. There is a commercialized computer store that I have frequented called CompuCentre here in Canada. It is like a Canadian version of Electronic Boutique. It organizes its games according to a top ten structure much like the movie box office list. I have to wonder, how many clueless people came in to look at WWII Online on the top ten list and bought it, simply because it was a top ten. Certainly,
this seems to have attracted a steady stream of Rollercoaster Tycoons and The Sims. And what of the Pacific WWII theaters? Or the European battle beyond Blitzkrieg? Or the promised urban combat in Paris or Stalingrad? Or even the naval component? There are more questions than answers right now and it looks like there will be even more questions to come. Whether there will be answers is up to the developers. It appears the ball is in their court now and I'm not sure how long the general public will stake out for the full experience.