'The war is over: America won'. So says free-to-play FPS Heroes & Generals when we sign in for some Axis vs Allies action during our recent test of the Beta version, which goes live today. The game isn't simply stating the historically obvious, though - it's referring to the persistent campaign, which is influenced by every skirmish you take part in. Not a new idea, but a decent way to give every session within the game a little more meaning.
"When we started this game four years ago we only had 12 people in the studio, and we had crazy ideas about making the largest game in the world, and that we'd build an engine from scratch and so on," says Peter Fleckenstein, a co-founder of Heroes & Generals' Danish development studio Reto Moto.
"Our biggest learning has been how to make a game that is alive all the time. Instead of having one day where you send a submission to Microsoft or Sony for example, we now have milestones every six weeks or so. So you need to keep it alive, to stay motivated all the time, and you need to be agile enough to make changes when you need to." The game does currently feel a little rough. The ambitiously large FPS maps are well designed, but home to plenty of bugs and some vaguely ugly textures. Even so, it's amazing to think that the game is running in your browser.
There are two play styles in Heroes & Generals, and this is perhaps the most interesting thing about the game. You can choose to play it as a straight WW2 FPS, or you can become a General and manage resources as you would in a strategy game. The two campaigns are inter-linked. Generals supply units for each battle, and the FPS troops fight it out. Not got enough tanks? Blame the incompetent General supplying your war effort.
We choose to side with the German army, and make ourselves an FPS grunt called Hans. Poor old Hans; the bullet sponge. When you first sign up, it's easy to be impressed by the level of customisation. Not only can you choose your load-out, but you can even mod every weapon you own by replacing factory parts with more advanced bits. It's similar to Ghost Recon Future Soldier's Gunsmith mode, and while you probably need to spend a bit of cash to get your weapon up to scratch, it's a great little feature.
"If you're going to spend your money on weapon customisation, for example, you'll definitely have an advantage," admits Fleckenstein. "However, it won't be this super-duper powerful gun that you'll buy - what you can do is adjust your weapon to your own playing style. So, if you prefer to go berserk at close range then you can mod your weapon to make sure you're very good in close. You'll get a faster trigger, and maybe you don't care about the recoil because you're pretty close anyway - every weapon upgrade has an advantage and a disadvantage. If you buy the most expensive bullets, for example, they might hit harder but they will be less precise. The tech tree for upgrades is really deep, and lets you adapt to your own playing style. You won't get auto-aim by spending money."
Hans, however, entered combat with the starter kit - a rifle and a pocket full of hand-grenades, and still managed to rack up his fair share of kills. Weapons are sensibly balanced, and you won't pick off specks in the distance with an MP-40, for example. We can see the value in spending a little money to tailor our load-outs to the way we like to play (on the fringes, popping heads as enemies rush our bases).
Objectives and squad dynamics are a little tougher to understand. The one mode we played is a variation of Battlefield's Conquest - capture areas until you run out of respawns. For some reason, one team is designated 'Defenders', while the other is the 'Attackers'. Given that both sides are trying to capture the same areas, this demarcation seems a little redundant. It's all a bit confusing, and games where you're convinced you're winning can often end in defeat. And vice versa.
According to Fleckenstein, the ebb and flow of each battle is intentional. "Sometimes you can really hate your General or commander because you're this small infantry unit, all alone, and the opponent has tanks rolling up the hill towards you. When you're the squad leader you can make requests and say: "Hey, we really need some reinforcements here", so in an ongoing battle the situation can change many times."
Fleckenstein admits that the game needs a proper command structure, so men on the ground have a much easier process for requesting reinforcements. At the moment, battles are confusing - something not helped by the poor tutorial - and the large maps definitely need a visual polish. Again, that's on the developer's 'to-do' list.
It's obvious that the team at Reto Moto are aware changes need to be made, and apparently they have a game manual that could see Heroes & Generals evolve over the next 20 years. They're half-joking about this, but the potential is definitely there for a great, unique game that blends RTS with FPS during WW2 FTW. Right now, the game isn't quite in the same league as Battlefield 3 or Planetside 2, but it is free and if the team can fulfil their ambitions we'll definitely be re-enlisting.