Look to the East(ern Front): An Early Look at Tannenberg

Red Orchestra developers have gone on the record saying that fans of Call of Duty have all sorts of complaints about the realistic handling of weapons in their games. Well, good, leave them to their fully automatic, full sprint twitch shooting. We know better. We have Tannenberg.

Some time ago, indie sensation Verdun proved that people will play a World War I FPS, even when it is semi-realistic and unforgiving. Then DICE made their own version in Battlefield 1, “forgetting” to include the French, giving everyone semi-auto rifles and making Mark IVs zoom around faster than they were ever meant to go. Then they developed a Russian front DLC. Meanwhile, Verdun developers are working on an entire game dedicated to the Eastern Front of WWI.

Eastern Front is full of cossacks.

One of the most fascinating mechanics in Verdun was the shifting of the frontlines, inspired by the stories of horrible attacks and terrible counters on the Western Front. One side has the initiative and tries to capture the trench that the enemy team holds. If they take it, spawn points move and former defenders now counter-attack. If they fail, the enemy goes back the offensive to take a further line. There can be a lot of this pushing and counter-pushing in a match, which recreates WWI in miniature. Considering the strict exclusion zones that the game redraws every time the maps shifts, it doesn’t leave much space for stay-behind camper snipers.

In Tannenberg, the situation is more fluid – just like it was on the very mobile Eastern Front. The battlefield is separated into sectors, all of which – save for HQs – start neutral. Soldiers must then rush to hold trenches located roughly in the center of these sectors. Take them over, and you can move to new sectors, like a more regimented version of Battlefield’s checkpoints. However, you can’t try to neutralize or take over sectors that aren’t bordered by one of yours, preventing stealthy shenanigans.

Officers can even draw lines of attack on the map which players will then ignore.

The fight for sectors is a lot more mobile and fluid, as well as chaotic: you can always be subjected to enfilading fire when you’re taking a sector that protrudes into the enemy territory. Luckily, the players can’t enter “locked down” areas, lessening the possibility of sneaking spawn campers (those still exist, though, since spawn trenches are sometimes within sight of each other). Taking over sectors influences the point ticker, and also grant localized bonuses: players can call-in serious artillery (and gas) barrages or recon planes by using phones in said trenches.

Verdun players will notice that those abilities used to belong to officers. Well, at least in the beta, the officers only call in small mortar barrages, and it’s unclear what will happen going forward. And while the game maintains the previous four-class squad mechanic, I have yet to get my hands on a portable machine gun – or a sniper rifle. On the other hand, we have plenty of weird bolt action rifles – if the Czech Army Museum has taught me anything, it’s what WWI had an overwhelming array of bolt action rifles – as well as pistols, grenades and swords. One of the currently available squad types is Russian Cossacks – of course we have swords!

All in all, the squad experience progression system remains largely the same, with the experience of the squad carrying over from match to match. There are only four types of squads available at this time: Germans and Austrians for Central Powers, Russians and Cossacks for Entente. I’m sure we’ll see more of them – as well as more weapons – in the future. However, I think that portable MGs might not be making a return – many classes have mentions of how much MG ammo they carry, which is used on stationary guns placed on the region-center trenches. Currently, most of those MGs have horrible firing arcs. However, some players still manage to rack up a few kills before falling afoul of a sharpshooter or a mortar barrage.

One of the more sensible MG placements in the game.

And let me tell you, the gameplay is still amazing. Currently, the players fight together with bots, so even the lamest of us can get a few kills in. But the fact that each class has a rifle capable to taking down a target in one shot no matter how far they are makes the game surprisingly great. You learn to hug the ground and constantly seek cover. You duck immediately after hearing a round whiz past you. I think the game added more grazing shots – and bots certainly deal less damage than players – so you might feel a little bit more survivable at times. However, the game is still very lethal and very fun.

It’s also surprisingly fast, since most encounters will be solved with one shot (notable exception: pistols). As a player, you’ll learn to react to movement anywhere, even down to the horizon, and you stand a fair chance of hitting someone at all ranges. I don’t know if there are ballistics in the game and the weapons seem to be hitscan, but honestly, I don’t care. The feeling when you score a kill over iron sights by shooting at some suspicious pixels at the edge of your sight is great. When you manage to ventilate some cossack’s head by instinctively firing your rifle from the hip is even better.

Each of the dots in the horizon is a Prussian. Each Prussian is a lesson about not silhouetting yourself.

And the guns themselves contain all sorts of WWI weirdness. Some can’t be reloaded mid-clip (nope, no magazines in this game) and I’m not entirely certain if the lever-operated Winchester can be fired from the ground. They all have their weird variations of iron sights and you’ll be able to observe many varieties of lovingly modelled rounds when they’re loaded into the guns via stripper clips. And the slow rate of fire of bolt action rifles makes officer pistols and swords a lot more important when it comes to storming trenches and buildings.

Speaking of visuals: Eastern Front allows Tannenberg’s developers to create maps that are more than just bombed-out fields in Flanders. You’ll cross bubbling forest streams while on your way to capture a small forest monastery. You’ll call in mortars on the wooden Orthodox church dominating the center of a valley map. You’ll weave in and out of buildings that haven’t been flattened by unceasing bombardment. And the maps come in snowy as well as night varieties! It’s all visually enticing and a great ton of fun.

World War I was such a dreary conflict yet the game is far more colorful than many modern day shooters.

If there’s anything that’s currently missing in the game, it’s friendly fire. I should have gotten a few of our guys killed by stupid artillery call-ins and grenades that I threw around liberally, and shooting your own dude across the map should also be an option. On the other hand, it’s not game breaking nor hard to fix. Now, machine guns are a different issue: they are usually placed in inconvenient spots, they’re hard to aim and they leave the gunner very much exposed to rifles. This is something for the level designers to consider.

Tannenberg is a great follow up/cousin to Verdun – the devs have mentioned that because of the same engine used in both games, any improvements made to one game can be applied to the other. It’s meaningfully different from the previous game, and the changes are thematically appropriate. I can only wait for the full game for more maps, more squad types and, hopefully, an A-H squad where the officers speaks a different language form the troops.

Tanneberg has been in Steam’s Early Access program since November 16th, 2017. It’s due to progress to Version 1.0 sometime in early 2018.


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