WWII Online: Blitzkrieg — Redux

by Joe "Impaler" Highman

Article Type: Editorial/Review
Article Date: March 15, 2002

Product Info

Product Name: WWII Online: Blitzkrieg
Category: MMOG
Developer: Cornered Rat Software
Hosted By: Playnet
Publisher: Strategy First
Release Date: June 8, 2001 (Released)
Minimum Spec: PII 400, 128 MB RAM, 16 MB 3D Video
Recommended Spec: PIII 600, 256 MB RAM, 32 MB 3D Video
Files and Links: Click Here

The Utopian Solution

Scottish-born poet Robert Burns wrote, “The best laid plans of mice and men oft go awry.” * Truer words have never been spoken. Apparently, this dictum holds true for Cornered Rats as well.

The premise was an exciting one, familiar by now to all combat simulation enthusiasts; the virtual battlefield…the true integration of simulation, strategy, and tactics. An arena in which virtual aviators can duel or strafe virtual armored spearheads advancing on towns and fortifications held by the steadfast virtual grunts with rifles and manning virtual field artillery batteries. Ah, what a wonderful world it would be if thousands upon thousands of combat simulation fans could blow one another into virtual smithereens! Kumbaya.

Infantry, you are the Crown of the Army.

Cornered Rat Software (CRS) set of in the summer months of 2001 to provide just that. Ambitious? Sure! Complicated? You bet! Never been attempted before in the history of massively multiplayer online gaming? For the most part! Just what the combat sim audience has been looking for? In large part, yes!

Now this is MASSIVE multiplayer!

Cornered Rat took on a vast project in creating the virtual battlefield, and just like any other General officer trying to coordinate the efforts of a combined arms environment, they ran into some heavy obstacles. Creating a successful franchise in one arena is hard enough. For years iMagic’s Warbirds owned the MMOG aerial theater, but the desires of consumers and their monthly fees enticed other studios to develop titles like Air Warrior, Fighter Ace, and Aces High. Infantry titles have been the rage since the dawn of online gaming, starting with Snipes and Doom, and leading through the whole genre right up into Return to Castle Wolfenstein and Medal of Honors of the world, with important landmarks in cooperative play such as Counter-Strike or Rogue Spear, and breakthroughs in multiplayer integrity and tactics with Starsiege Tribes and Team Fortress Classic. Now step back for a moment and try to imagine how complex an undertaking it was to design, author, and publish a title that would combine the best of every possible world and you quickly learn to appreciate the pitfalls that are out there.

Despite these hurdles, many gamers withdrew their hard-earned dollars and then slapped them on retailer counters for the initial release only to be mowed down like the virtual cannon fodder they were. The initial code was horrifically buggy, and that’s putting it politely. Lockups, low FPS, and other glitches marred what otherwise was a promising project. The old adage about bad word of mouth publicity proved true here, and the forums were ablaze with hate mail for the poor folks at CRS. But then again, that was nine months ago. A lot can change in nine months. Just ask your mother!

WWII Online has been rapidly improved and offers frequent updates, performed in small installments over time. These improvements include new and updated vehicles and weapons, updated terrain features, and constant strings of improvements to the code that is so vital to the success of an entirely online environment. The revisions are automatically sent down to the client stations upon logging in anytime following the posting of the updates and the small size of each installment ensures rapid download and a quick return to the action.

PlayNet, the account management system that allows players into the online game for a monthly subscription, began an initiative to draw new interest in the title, as well as to bring back those customers who simply lost interest with the problems faced. Would-be subscribers are invited to download the source code software for free, and then play the full-featured game online for fourteen days. Following the trial, players are invited to purchase the full retail product and then to update the trial account to a regular user account using the CD Key code contained inside the retail box. Upon completion of the update, the player can keep their in-game name and persona rankings.

I'd say its safe to assume that the Axis forces are faring well in this campaign

In Theory…

In theory, there is no difference between theory and practice, yet in practice, there is. This pragmatic truism explains why, in our chosen hobby, so many patches, updates, and fixes are released after the retail release of the product. Some of the more vocal gamers out there will complain to anyone who will listen that the modern entertainment product consumer is little more than a paying beta tester, but these people fail to understand how very vital community involvement is in the development of a successful product line. Sure, nobody likes paying hard earned money for a buggy product, but it’s only a problem so long as active and proactive measures are not taken to remedy the issue. To this end, CRS has done an excellent job. Updates cascade almost weekly, and each seemingly brings a marked improvement to the game play, the virtual environment, or the offline player resources. I can recall five patches being released since the beginning of my free trial some weeks ago. The most recent update as this goes to press introduced two new unit types for both sides: the Stug III infantry support assault gun, sort of an armored self-propelled howitzer, and the Matilda II, a French heavy tank and the largest and most powerful armored behemoth in the game. In addition to the fixes in the general environment, the recent patch 1.55 also allows Allied (British and French) infantrymen to ride on the sides of armored tanks, a task previously unavailable, and an improvement that has served so far to change the entire dynamic and tactics of how the Allies assault towns, fire support bases, and choke points.

Where does an 80-ton tank sleep? Anywhere it wants to!

Some issues, however, like low frame rate, especially when heavy activity occurs in close proximity, can’t really be addressed wholesale in a simple patch. Rates bounce from as low as 3 fps all the way up to 23. I found that frame rates increase the longer one spends online, so the first few minutes after spawning a unit type bring the poorest performance. This performance lull during activity is most frustrating during flight. Few things bring an epithet to the tongue of a seasoned combat flight sim pilot more than having an otherwise uneventful ingress to a target only to experience a frame rate decrease during the final attack and “unlocking” to find oneself augured nicely into the hillside. The problem is so pronounced that I found the aviation branch hardly worth pursuing, much to my chagrin.

Clearly, not all virtual aviators have this problem, as there are those who barnstorm and strafe with the greatest of ease, so I may be a victim of machine specs, but I would have suspected that a Pentium III 733, 256MB PC133 RAM and a GeForce2 32MB AGP card, all attached to a cable modem should perform adequately in nearly all respects. Sadly, this is not the case.

Few things as beautiful as a burning Blenheim Bomber, unless you are the Blen pilot!

We Stand Alone Together

You might find yourself asking an obvious question: “Why would anyone be interested in subjecting themselves to the frustration of paying full-retail price for a product that is patched weekly, then pay a monthly charge just to play online, and then suffer the indignity of poor performance, lackluster graphics and sound, and a limited campaign?”

I have to be quite honest. I felt the same way, and very often during my 14-day free trial, I was tempted to uninstall the game and move on with life. But just like that sore on the roof of your mouth that would heal if only you could quit messing with it with your tongue, the game grabs hold of you. No, it’s not the best vehicle sim out there, nor is it going to win any awards for a flight simulation nor as a first-person shooter.

Snipe this!

The difference is the people. The fan base is large and enthusiastic, and one is hard-pressed to find any lulls in the action nearly 24 hours a day. Veteran players on both sides are eager to help new players along, and help they should because this game presents a steep learning curve.

As a new player, I found myself looking for the most active players I could and then simply tagging along, but unlike other titles where the cliques were firmly and unapproachably static, active teams and units enthusiastically welcome you into their assaults and defenses. Sure, it helps to have good communications skills, be a good sport, and in general be a team player.

The lovely village of Mettet, recently under new management

It was towards the end of my trial that I found myself alone atop a lonely hill overlooking the tiny riverside town of Montherme, France. I patrolled the battlements with my Kar98 rifle in hand, scouting the town and the hills for any movement that would betray the approach of any enemy force. Radio chatter made it clear that French forces were massing in my direction, and the unwelcome presence of allied aircraft overhead confirmed the imminent confrontation. Soon, a lone player spawned in, equipped with a Panzer III medium tank, and he set up an overwatch position to my West. Almost immediately, the radio net filled with traffic as an entire mechanized infantry brigade formed around him. Within moments, I stood in the midst of the PanzerGrenadier Division Grossdeutschland of the German High Command, some forty strong at that moment armed with an assortment of armored, infantry, and artillery units.

The life of the rifleman... hurry up and wait!

What impressed me most was their professionalism. Yes, this is just a game, and yes, they were players just like me. However, they conducted themselves with the discipline and bearing of the soldiers they represented, sending and receiving orders and moving quickly and decisively to ensure victory. The field commander graciously accepted my offer to help and assigned me to assist in the defense of the local bunker. There I sat, manning my virtual post against what proved to be a determined and fearsome assault by French heavy tanks with truckloads of infantry support.

The next morning, my trial expired, and I closed another chapter on my gaming life; for all of about 4 hours. That afternoon, during my lunch break, I drove to the local retail conglomerate and paid my price. The community and the genuine quality of the people I met and with whom I had associated reminded me of the reason why I like online gaming. I never played the Dooms and Quakes of the world for lack of a community and a team effort. That aspect of the game was infectious to me, and to hear long-time veterans of the game tell it, completely addictive. Grossdeutschland Brigade Commander Tex64 explained the phenomenon to me during a brief interview. "Nowhere do you have the dedication, camaraderie, etc,... it's unmatched," he began, "CRS provided the vehicle but the community is what makes this thing unique."

We play combat simulation games for the thrill of the contest and for the camaraderie of our fellow players. We gather together in forums, fan sites, and chats to discuss the games in great lengths, and many players come together in conventions and meetings world-wide. In an era where computer simulation can mimic real life, the brotherhood and dedication of fellow teammates hasn’t been passed over. Why does a player find himself staying up until 3:00am on a night where he has to be at work the next morning at 8:00? Well, because there was another big push for that stupid hill in virtual Belgium somewhere, and his buddies needed his help.

Close range, vulnerable radiator grill, and 37mm Armor piercing shells = One Charred Char!

An Odd sentiment

Long story short (I know…too late!), this title isn’t for everyone. It still suffers from many of the same inadequacies mentioned in Helmer’s first review from Summer 2001, and some of the problems do seem insurmountable. And yes, there are times when even a staunch fan of the game slams the mouse down on its pad in frustration at the lag and frame rate drop. But, like all classics and all things of merit, the title transcends these shortcomings and keeps the players coming back for more. Many have left, yet many more flock to the game. It earned my money.

My recommendation? If you are a past player of the game, reinstall it, drop the money down for one more month, and give this ugly duckling another chance. If you are a first time player, try the free trial, but be warned! This game is NOT for lone wolves! Find a group of players and work together. Communicate with the other players if you need help, and more importantly, offer your own help to the success of local operations. Eventually, you will find yourself captured by the quality of the people all around you.

Graduation Day

Shakespeare said it best in Henry V… ”We few, we happy few, we band of brothers; / For he today that sheds his blood with me / Shall be my brother….”

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