The Vietnam War was a polarising conflict. Fought on the marble steps of Washington D.C. as much as in the streets of Saigon, the 20 year-long proxy war was the first and only major defeat in United States’ military history. Though the Americans killed over 15 times more combatants than they lost, the high number of civilian casualties and South Vietnamese military losses ultimately led to the US withdrawing from the conflict, and their allies being annexed.

In the movies, the Vietnam War is a well trodden ground, but it’s a conflict that’s been mostly missing in games. Both the Battlefield and Call of Duty series have dabbled in it once or twice with varying degree of success, and now Antimatter Games and Tripwire Interactive brings the semi-realistic-yet-fun gameplay of the famous Red Orchestra franchise into the Vietnam campaign.

Unfortunately, Rising Storm 2 not only misses the point of what made the Vietnam War unique, but it also misses the point of what makes a game fun.

Military shooters are a hard thing to balance. On one hand, you can go the “realistic” route, and use things like low tolerance to bullet wounds and complex weapon mechanics to make the player feel like a “real” soldier. On the other, you can go the you can go arcade and do what every mainstream game does, imparting the player with a sense of freedom and power and turning every random GI into a bullet sponge, killer of thousands, undying Rambo. RS2 continues the franchise tradition of skirting the line between these two concepts, featuring a very low damage threshold, but possessing the gunplay and mechanics of a slightly improved arcade-shooter.

As a multiplayer FPS, the game is played in servers that can hold up to 64 players, 32 on each team. Matches last 15-45 minutes in the main game modes, and see you either trying to capture points on a map to push the offensive or holding those same points from the attacking army. Upon joining a server, you are given the choice of a team to fight for, and after picking a side, you are shown a list of available roles. Aside from the main “grunt” role armed with assault rifles, every other position is heavily restricted — each map only tolerates a few snipers, grenadiers, or pilots, and they are all distributed in a “first come, first served” basis.

In order to keep the game balanced, the limit on roles and their choice of loadouts ends up turning the game into a drag. Every server with more than 15 players quickly gets every position filled out, meaning this is one multiplayer game where you are discouraged from going to fully populated servers, unless you are happy playing the most basic of roles. If you want to be anything other than an assault rifle wielding grunt, you should stay away from active servers.

However, eschewing busy servers in order to actually play something fun is not an ideal choice. RS2 is a multiplayer-only game, meaning you need others to play with and against in order to get its full potential; the developers completely skipped over the addition of bots, and do not provide a single player mode or training session. Being forced to venture the server browser in hopes of finding the one random server that is exactly everything you would like to see is extremely frustrating, and makes for a less than stellar experience.

Once you find an acceptable match and run to the frontlines, the game starts to come into its own. Beautifully recreated jungles and rice fields fill the levels, palm trees shivering in the wind as the sun shines down on scattered pagodas around the maps. Every level seems designed for medium to long range combat, featuring large open spaces and pathways that allow players to shoot each other from a hundred meters away.

As you get closer to the nonexistent frontlines and come into contact with the enemy, the biggest flaws of a battlefield shooter start to appear. Poking your head out often means death, forcing players to carefully move about and use smoke grenades to rush forward, lest they be sniped in the forehead. Mindless rushing into the open more often than not leads to immediate death, and a certain amount of tactical thinking is required in order to survive for more than a minute.

While this sort of high lethality rate coupled with cautionary approaches is standard for realistic shooters and real-life wartime patrols, Rising Storm 2 becomes extremely frustrating thanks to an unreasonably bad string of design decisions. While Red Orchestra 2 and Rising Storm 1 used map control and spawn points to push players toward each other and fight for an objective, RS2 instead prioritises static positions. While in theory that sounds accurate, it represents a fundamental lack of understanding regarding the Communist Vietnamese tactics — they could move through the jungle in an amazingly efficient manner, being able to appear out of nowhere and ambush US patrols. They did not hold fortified defensive position waiting for opposing soldiers to come to them; they took the fight to the enemy.

RS2, however, is unable to come even close to replicating that, basically throwing a jungle skin on top of RO2 standard territory gameplay and making the North Vietnamese extremely unbalanced. Instead of rapidly flanking troops that would constantly surprise the US soldiers with traps and ambushes, you instead get a nigh-unassailable, effectively technologically equivalent army. The game foolishly places an almost equal number of reinforcements for both factions, and the Vietnamese invariably win its defenses with an extremely low death count. It is more than a perversion of history; it is a frankly unexciting gameplay loop.

As anyone mildly knowledgeable in the conflict knows, that was not the case in real life. The efficient and advanced US military constantly kicked North Vietnam’s ass, losing only a few soldiers while killing dozens of the enemy’s. However, it failed to do any lasting military damage, and the war was ultimately lost due to a lack of proper strategic planning and severely inefficient bombing runs, meaning the USSR-backed North Vietnam had full logistical capabilities and invested patriotic fervour even after years of conflict. Although public opinion wrongly believes more American lives were lost in the Vietnam War than World War II, the truth is the US far outpaced the Vietnamese in individual combat. As Ho Chi Minh himself put it: “You can kill ten of my men for every one I kill of yours… But even at these odds you will lose and I will win.”

Furthermore, the game has that annoying thing about not knowing where the shot came from when you die. RO2 also lent itself to that, but it had a certain consistency as the idea was to push instead of camp; at least when you died, you could pinpoint the f*****. It helped to mitigate the feeling of powerlessness that is an unavoidable part of the package. In RS2, however, this means the already upsetting cycle of spawn-charge-die-repeat is made orders of magnitude worse by how every enemy is stationary and has sights on any of your potential positions. Tactical re-positioning still works to an extent, but when you got a couple of enemies stalking out the CP approach, playing the game quickly becomes an exercise in frustration.

The already significant difficulty curve is compounded by the utter lack of a training or single player mode. Bots, though present in all previous titles, have been removed under the guise that their “experienced players don’t like them”. Bots make empty servers feel alive, and give new players something to sharpen their tools against. “Pro”-players can simply join servers where bots are disabled, pleasing both sides of the crowd. Removing bots adds absolutely nothing to the game, and it just serves to slight the portion of the playerbase that wish to play with them in the first place. Removing bots is a poor solution to a non-existent problem.

The main issue, however, comes from the fact the game no longer feels unique. As the developers drive to cater to a mainstream audience, they wound up what made these titles special in the first place. Along with the “competitive” Skirmish mode, the worst offender of this category, by far, is the change to an individual respawn system as opposed to a group spawn where every dead player respawned together in waves every few seconds. While seemingly minor, it actually has an immeasurable effect on the gameplay loop: the wave spawn in RS1 made every single push a coordinated one, whether you wanted to or not. RS2’s Battlefield/Call of Duty-inspired individual timers means everyone acts like a lone wolf and is thrown to the meat grinder, as teamwork must be an effort and no longer natural. When you got 10 people spawning and pushing, you create a very different atmosphere than “spawn alone, die alone”.

Aside from the devastating effect it has on team cohesion, the spawn wave also slightly affects the usefulness of the Commander role. In charge of intel gathering, artillery strikes, and reinforcement, the unique (and wrongly named) TL position is a 1-player slot designed to operate on a slightly different support capability. While the VC Commander is able to immediately spawn every dead soldier on his exact position via the “Ambush” ability, the Us gets a simple “Rapid Deployment” that spawns soldiers on their respective spawn points. On previous entries, this worked as a temporary surplus of units to a coordinated charge, but given the lack of a wave respawn, the spread of positions on the map, and the focus on camping in RS2, Rapid Deployment is by and large ineffective.

On the same note, there is a severe lack of balance between US and NVA commander abilities. Every single one of the NVA abilities are unstoppable — gamebreaker instaspawn ability, unerring sky-clearing SAM sites, reduced ticket cost and respawn timers, unpreventable scout, and a large, unstoppable barrage. The US has access to four types of air support, and besides the awesome-looking area-denying artillery strike and the underwhelming napalm run, the others can be easily countered. The recon plane flies over the battlefield, while the AC-47 Spooky Gunship circles overhead and delivers devastating fire in a single large area — however, they can be easily shot out of the sky with machine guns, RPGs, or the VC Commander’s SAM site ability, which are all largely available and remarkably simple to use. While asymmetry and gear differences are part of guerilla jungle warfare, the US abilities should have been adjusted appropriately to at least reflect the undeniable and extremely powerful air superiority they possessed.

Said air support is definitely one of the high points of the game. While VC and US artillery barrages are amazing and beautiful, raining explosive and white phosphorus shells around a large area, the aircraft attacks are novel and equally impressive. F4 Phantoms fly in from out of the map with a woosh, crossing the sky at breakneck speeds and plummeting a whole line under napalm fire for all of 10 seconds, and the AC-47 circles above a single point, performing a pylon turn while pummeling the area with concentrated minigun bursts. The visual and sound spectacle is amazing, even though its effectiveness needs tweaking.

Given the Vietnamese penchant to spawn in tunnels and on their ridiculously overpowered ambush ability, the game doesn’t render itself to the same sort of area denial or cluster kill of RO2. While that does happens, it is significantly rarer, and recon flights often show multiple individual units spread around instead of the concentrated push of normal warfare. That does create the unintended effect of providing good opportunity for establishing Landing Zones, giving some much needed use to the new and extremely cool playable helicopters.

Many of the game’s design decisions end up being underplayed or downright detrimental. Tunnels, which are famously a very effective tactic used by the Vietcong, are reduced to little more than geographical details on maps. The only real use of them comes from a placeable spawn point available to VC Squad Leaders called a “Spawn Tunnel”. Further signifying the immense lack of balance between both sides, Vietnamese SL’s can just place a tunnel and join the battle, respawning on their own tunnels, while US SL’s must stay alive so their troops can spawn on them. This means US Squad Leaders must hunker down and not engage in firefights as much as often, lest they be shot and their squad be forced spawn further back. In effect, on a full 32 players team, this effectively means the US either has 6-8 less soldiers taking risks and shooting enemies, or full squads having to run for half a minute until they can reach the frontlines. It is terrible game balance, and it drains the fun right out of what should be a game.

Making matters worse is the fact that unlike all other positions, Squad Leaders can’t be kicked out of their roles. Every player is auto assigned a squad on spawn, and the first player to join a squad is made SL, regardless of their skill or wish to do so. As a result, every single match has at least half of its squad leaders failing to fulfill their duties. Aside from the hugely important spawn mechanics, the Commander uses artillery markers placed by himself or Squad Leaders to call in air support in specific positions. With 3/4ths of SL’s not using their binoculars and smoke grenades or placing marks of any kind, a team can quickly be dragged down with no way to course correct, further intensifying the extremely unsavory experience that is playing Rising Storm 2.

Technically, the game works mostly fine, though it is plagued by several bugs. My very first match, I was stuck with invisible weapons that wouldn’t shoot, and I had to restart in order to properly play it. Sound effects don’t play accurately over distances, adjustable weapon sights do not reflect actual game distances, and the hit registration is extremely flawed at the moment of review, leading to situations where emptying a magazine into someone’s torso at point blank range wields no effect. Graphics are quite good, with the explosions, weapon models, and atmospheric effects looking quite sharp (though Unreal Engine 3 is starting to show its years, especially when it comes to draw distance). Sound is a mixed bag, with some effects like artillery barrages, the F4 flyby, and the Spooky miniguns sounding absolutely amazing. Voice acting, however, is bad, being limited in lines and unexceptional in delivery.

While it has been released, Tripwire’s latest published title feels extremely Early Access. It markets itself as an “authentic” shooter, yet its mechanics fly in the face of accuracy. Napalm burns for all of 10 seconds over a 30 foot wide area, the Viet Cong possess magical SAM sites that shoot aircraft out of the sky by the dozens, and RPGs act as explosive balls of fire and take down choppers regardless of where they hit, armour penetration be damned. It all feels extremely lacking and “dumbed down” in what once was an interesting and unique franchise.

Even worse, minor improvements one could expect are non-existent. Commander abilities, while a defining factor for the series, need to be seriously reworked and updated. It is a gigantic step that each specific artillery have their own cooldown instead of a global one like in RS1, but everything else remains the same. A serious revamp is needed, especially when it comes to coordination and intel; maps markers are useless, showing a bunch of arrow icons moving instead of indicating who or the very least what role is where. The TL’s map should at the very least indicate Squad Leaders positions, since communicating precisely with a squad is preposterously obscure as there is no way to know whom among those dots is a specific squad or team member. In an ideal world, in-game communication would render that redundant, but since the vast majority of players are unaware of their roles’ unique abilities, the end result is a significant game of frustration on the part of the Commander. Showing player names or at the very least where the SL’s are would severely increase fun and utility factor even when bad players are in the team or squad leaders are not doing their jobs properly.

Rising Storm 2 is a contrasting game. It deals with one of the most drastically asymmetric conflicts in history, yet it feels like an even ground with severely overpowered abilities. It bills itself as authentic, yet it throws realism out the window. And it tries to distinguish itself from its predecessors, but it doesn’t change anything meaningful. What it does change, it somehow makes it worse, and the end result is that every single dubious design decision of RS2 manages to drain the fun right out of it somehow.