The Eastern Front of World War 1 is an ideal historical setting for an online tactical first person shooter. Unlike the static and relatively unmoving trench warfare on the Western Front, there was far more troop movement to the east. Vast distances had to be crossed by both forces, resulting in a conflict where the victor was often decided by decisive tactical manoeuvring, and it is this strategic element, of utilising tactics to out manoeuvre your enemy, that forms the gameplay foundations of Tannenberg.
Tannenberg is the follow up to the earlier Verdun, and the similarities are clear to see. Both games share a bleak colour palette, each hampered by antiquated visuals and elevated by killer sound design. They also both take tremendous risks with their gameplay choices, attempting to offer a more historically ‘authentic’ experience than their genre rivals. Neither game is a fast-paced action fest, instead providing a slow and methodical combat experience, but whilst Verdun became bogged down in repetitive trench warfare, Tannenberg goes in the opposite direction. This is a game that attempts to bring movement and momentum to the Verdun formula, whilst also retaining the attempts at realism. Sadly, the end result isn’t entirely successful.
There’s three game modes on offer. A standard deathmatch and a team based variant are joined by the far more interesting Manoeuvre mode. Here two teams of twenty (or thirty-two on PC) are pitted against one another, each force vying for the control over one of the nine impressively large maps. They’ll achieve victory by capturing different zones that provide boosts to stats, access to artillery fire or bonus points. Once you’ve got them, you’ll need to hold them against counter attacks, whittle down the opposing sides resource meter and win the battle. For particularly daring teams, you can attempt to control the zones around the enemy HQ, and doing so allows you to launch a final and decisive offensive in an attempt to secure their base.
In contrast to the predominantly ‘everyone for themselves’ chaos of an entry in the Battlefield series, Tannenberg attempts the Sisyphean task of getting people online to work together as a team. It mostly manages it too. Each four player squad consists of complementary roles; an officer to command, assault and long range specialists for combat, and a support to provide ammunition. It’s vital that the squad works together, as just one or two shots are enough to put anyone down in Tannenberg, uttering some very convincing screams and moans as your avatar crumples to the ground.
Tannenberg encourages teamwork by having squad spawns be by far the easiest and most effective method to return to battle. There’s also instructions, commands and observations to be yelled, though sadly these are selected by controls far too fiddly to be of any actual use. For the most part your team mates will be silent, other than the screaming of their death throes or the gruesome sound of the air leaking from their pierced lung – the sound design really is horribly effective.
What works far better is the mini-map, a tool that allows you to select points of attack or defence with ease. Even better is the fact that your suggested approach is marked with a big green arrow. You can even see the other squads direction of attack too. This simple mechanic means you can actually coordinate and carry out tactics with your teammates. You’ll be successfully initiating flanking manoeuvres and unleashing sneak attacks in no time. If I could marry this mini-map I would; it’s everything I ever wanted from one.
This is an online shooter that actually has tactics then, rather than just running and gunning. Tannenberg has little running, nor indeed, gunning. The historical weapons are, as you would expect considering the period the game is set in, an absolute chore to aim and reload. On one hand I’m impressed in the attempt at realism – forcing players to expend an entire ammo clip before they can manually reload is a bold choice – but there’s really no excuse for the lack of heft, weight and sense of impact that the guns provide. Often it feels like you’re wielding a ‘Laser Quest’ rifle. And not one of the good ones, one of the faulty packs with a dodgy sensor that means you never hit anyone.
All of which makes the combat feel very samey and a bit boring. Even the melee weapons offer little excitement – hacking off limbs with a sabre, bonking a bonce with binoculars or slugging a foe with a shovel all result in the same accidental and borderline embarrassing ‘flailing technique’. As such it often looks like an enemy has collapsed due to some long-term health condition, rather than because of anything you’re doing.
Matters aren’t helped by a curious lack of anything for the different squad roles to actually do. Officers can call in artillery attacks (awesome), but everyone else on the squad is limited to the uninspired combat or plopping out an occasional ammo crate. There’s also little to interact with on the battlefields other than machine gun nests – I found myself pining for a biplane to fly or longing for a horse to ride just to shake the combat up a bit. Instead I had a plethora of only slightly different but entirely historically accurate bolt-action rifles to shoot.
If ever a game was hampered by its attempts at authenticity then it’s Tannenberg. M2H and BlackMill Games were so in pursuit of realism that they sacrificed too much fun in the process, resulting in a samey shooter that often ends up being a bit dull. There’s some great tactical elements to Tannenberg but boring combat does not a good online shooter make. Despite its budget price this is a far too limited experience, after a few hours of online play you’ll have seen everything Tannenberg has to offer and have little reason to return for more.