War is hell… but it's slightly less hellish when viewed from a distance. At least, that's true of Running With Rifles, a goofy, enjoyable, surprisingly demanding PC game that recently got a full release on Steam.
Developed by Modulaatio Games, Running With Rifles had been on Steam Early Access for a while before last week's full release. A few years back, Luke described it as "Cannon Fodder for the 21st century." My frame of reference is a bit different, so I'd describe it as a fast-paced, top-down version of Battlefield 1942… with maybe a little bit of Hotline Miami in there? (I'll admit, that's partly because I've been playing a lot of Hotline Miami lately.)
In RWR, you take control of a single soldier on a vast, oddly timeless battlefield, where modern technology (like remote-detonated explosives and single-soldier portable RPGs) collide with distinctly World War II-ish pageantry.
You'll move your little army man with the WASD keys, controlling his targeting with the mouse. Running With Rifles has a great feel to it, and takes only a few minutes to get the hang of it. At first, I had a hard time telling if I had the correct angle and elevation to hit an enemy, but as I played, I found I quickly learned to intuit whether I could hit whatever I was aiming at.
The game more or less throws you right into the action -- there is a tutorial, but it's easy to miss, since you have to hit Esc at the main menu to do it. That's fine, really, since Running with Rifles is best learned on the fly. I've played a couple of hours and I more or less have my head around the basics.
You can play the game in single-player, in online co-op with a friend, or against other human players. I've played mostly in single-player, but the structure is similar regardless of which type of game you choose.
Each game consists of a campaign that takes place across a sprawling map. Each map is a bit different, and each one has different terrain. You'll spawn as a low-level soldier with a unique name, rank, and weapons. You'll think, "OK, this game is called Running With Rifles, so that's what I'm gonna do!" And you'll run, with your rifle, into the fray, and get killed in like 3 seconds.
That's the thing about Running With Rifles -- it may look like a simple game, and in some respects it may be a simple game, but it's definitely not easy. It requires a good deal of tactical thought. Your character is fragile, and enemy AI is aggressive and surprisingly unpredictable. One or two deaths in, I realised that I'd have to play much more strategically if I actually wanted to stay alive for a significant period of time.
I quickly started to develop elaborate battlefield strategies. You can climb to a vantage point and take cover, picking off enemies down below with a sniper rifle. You can pull up to cover, waiting for your team to flank enemy emplacements, or throw in grenades, or jump into an armoured vehicle, or wait for someone to lead a large charge across an open field… and on, and on.
A Running With Rifles campaign is very fluid; each battlefield is constantly in motion, with opposing sides pushing the front-line forward or backward, taking or losing new territory. There are three possible sides in any given campaign -- the Greenbelts, the Graycollars, and the Brownpants. (They're basically the USA, Germany, and Russia.) As you play, you'll earn higher and higher ranks for your character, which will allow you to equip better weapons, carry more grenades, take command of vehicles, and use radio calls to spot targets for artillery or call in reinforcements. You'll also earn resource points, which you can spend to get better gear at the armory.
Running With Rifles does a remarkably poor job of communicating how all of this works, and while it's fun to jump in and immediately start playing, I do recommend checking out the exhaustive official Wiki before too much time passes. The wiki explains the finer points of the game's controls, upgrades, and gameplay systems, which are more complex than they initially seem.
Related to that, it would be nice if the game's multiplayer were more user-friendly -- Nathan Grayson and I attempted to play a co-op game yesterday and were stymied by the in-game server situation. I'd try to host my own server, but he'd be unable to join, and if we switched roles, the same thing happened. It sounds like there are some viable workarounds, and I'd imagine that if we had spent more time working on it, we would have been able to get a game going. All the same, it'd be nice if the multiplayer were more seamless.
Really, though, all the rules and game modes, the and RPG levelling and multiplayer options… they're all secondary to how fundamentally fun Running With Rifles is. It's easy to start playing, and difficult to stop. You'll run, you'll drive, you'll shoot, you'll die, and then you'll do it all over again.
I'd find a good vantage point and take down a whole squad of enemies, who would then change up their strategies and flank me. As soon as I was getting tired of fighting in a certain area of the map, the battle would push beyond it to a new strategic challenge. Running with Rifles often has the same engrossing rhythm as twitchy online shooters like Call of Duty, but with a different perspective and therefore a different energy.
I'm sure I'll be playing more, but those are my impressions after an hour or two of playing. If you're looking for a game that you can pick up and immediately start having fun -- or if you liked Battlefield 1942 and think that a top-down equivalent sounds fun -- Running With Rifles is worth a shot. There's even a free demo available, if you want to try it out.