Toy Soldiers

Computer game designers in Bedford re-create the greatest generation online

Revi68ss knows he has to be smarter than the enemy. His weaponry--tank, rifle, fighter, bomber, you name it--is inferior to that of the Allies he's fighting in Western Europe. That doesn't bother him. The challenge for Revi68ss and his comrades in the 6th Panzer Regiment ("Graubär") is in outthinking and outmaneuvering the Allies. He can't be afraid just because he's in the middle of the 1940 Blitzkrieg. He can't give in to fear even though he's in a firefight in north-central Namur and he comes across a Matilda Mk II Allied tank, which can take him out with a clean shot. His name, after all, embraces and flaunts death. It comes from Revelation 6:8, which begins, "And I looked, and behold a pale horse, and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him."

Revi68ss, as any gamer by now has guessed, is a screen name, in this case for World War II Online: Blitzkrieg, an online title produced by a small Bedford company, Cornered Rat Software. WWII Onlineis known as a "massively multiplayer online game," meaning thousands of people across the world log on as players in the huge virtual battle zone of Western Europe (as either Allied or Axis players) and help simulate a real-time, ongoing battle against other players. In other words, virtual players shoot (think Doom) or drive or fly (think Microsoft Flight Simulator) under orders from other higher-ranked players to achieve objectives in this organic online theater (think any of the Sim games). It is, in concept and often in execution, an awesome melding of gaming styles into an absorbing, historically accurate, persistent virtual world. One kick-ass game, in other words.

Why, then, have you most likely never heard of it?

At top, the map of the Western European theater that makes up WWII Online's virtual battlefield, which is modeled on a one-half scale (every actual mile equals a half-mile in the game), meaning it would take you several days to walk across Europe; below, the game offers fighting by air (the Vickers-Supermarine Spitfire MkI), land (you choose which side your soldier fights on) and sea (the Brits' Fairmile B Type Motor Launch).
At top, the map of the Western European theater that makes up WWII Online's virtual battlefield, which is modeled on a one-half scale (every actual mile equals a half-mile in the game), meaning it would take you several days to walk across Europe; below, the game offers fighting by air (the Vickers-Supermarine Spitfire MkI), land (you choose which side your soldier fights on) and sea (the Brits' Fairmile B Type Motor Launch).
PlayNet/Cornered Rat exec Chris "Mo" Sherland, above, doesn't let his World War II model airplanes distract him when he's flying virtual sorties; below, associate producer Dana "Gophur" Baldwin says he wants you to play his game...so long as you don't act like an FNG.
Mark Graham
PlayNet/Cornered Rat exec Chris "Mo" Sherland, above, doesn't let his World War II model airplanes distract him when he's flying virtual sorties; below, associate producer Dana "Gophur" Baldwin says he wants you to play his game...so long as you don't act like an FNG.

Well, if you're someone like Revi68ss, you have. But you're not like him. He is a sergeant in the U.S. Army's 4th Infantry Division, stationed at Fort Hood and already deployed to Iraq (which is why no names, please). He is a flight surgeon of an air ambulance unit. And he's a gaming fan who is technologically savvy (the 4th Infantry Division is called the "first digital division") and is obsessed with World War II German history. "So many things have brought me to WWII Online," he says in an online interview before deployment. "I love WWII history...It's very realistic. I like the fact that I can call air support or a naval vessel. I like that it takes you 10 to 15 minutes to get back in the fight [after you die, you are "respawned" and have to rejoin your crew]...There are so many reasons."

These are the very reasons you've never heard of it. The game is realistic, too much so for many folks looking to drop into a battle and start shooting immediately, as they do in PlayStation 2 games or other "first-person shooters." The realism puts a premium on strategy, which can take a long time to learn. For example, every weapon or vehicle is made as almost an exact replica, meaning some drive faster or fly easier or shoot farther than others. Proper training (and, therefore, enjoyment) usually comes from joining a team, which changes the solitary nature of gaming into something communal, even intimidating, for new players. That's why other online games, such as the genre's 800-pound mystical ogre, Everquest, have a far higher profile and hundreds of thousands of more players.

Which is too bad, because the boys in Bedford at Cornered Rat Software have created, after a disastrous start, a unique gaming experience, partly because World War II Onlineis more than a game. It is also a passionate community, complete with a large contingent of mid-30s male gamers, as well as history and World War II buffs. But there are also Canadian grandmothers, war veterans in their 60s and 20-year-old "twitch" gamers looking for something more satisfying than Madden 2003.

"This game, this community, is unlike any other on the Net or in any game," says executive producer Chris Sherland (game name "Mo").

Also unique are the trials the group in Bedford has undergone. For WWII Onlineattempts to capture the "holy grail" for online games, a huge, ongoing virtual world that attracts people for its role-playing, fighting, planning and game-play elements. Even if it's on its way to achieving that, the terrible start the game had--now legendary within the gaming community--hampers its prospects for financial success. So although its players have achieved a unique virtual community, even though the real-life military continues to adapt and adopt gaming technologies for its recruitment, training and in-battle situations, the gamemakers at Cornered Rat are constantly scrambling to stay afloat--and to make the game more compelling for longtime players.

"In almost two years since its launch, the game doesn't even resemble the original release," says executive producer Al Corey (a.k.a. Rafter). "But no matter how many times we get reviewed, we always get, 'Although these guys had the worst launch in history...' We can never get over that. I guess we never will."

"But," adds Sherland, smiling, "we're still here."

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