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The Slacker's Guide - World War II Online

by Chris Barylick
September 16th, 2005

Into the Fray:
Somewhere over the skies of France, I finally had the German 110 in my sights. With almost no coordination, I dipped the plane lower, rolling it to the right and firing at the fuselage while trying to lead the target. In what could only be described as a minor miracle, smoke erupted from the plane, which veered sharply only to set me up as the perfect target for a teammate that had been following me the whole time.

As my plane plunged into the ground, a sound caught my attention from across the room. My girlfriend, effectively shunned for the past two hours by the game I was playing for review, cleared her throat and cast me a look that openly wondered if the game surpassed human companionship.

And, even in its earlier stages of development, World War II Online: BattleGround Europe for the Mac might have done just that. Perhaps not the most lovingly reviewed massively multiplayer online role playing game to grace the platform, World War II Online was able to catch my attention in the fall of 2003 and, even with other games to focus on, it has managed to retain my interest over the years.

One of the stranger role playing games on the market, World War II Online has always opted for sheer authenticity of the situation rather than a fast action paced which made other World War 2-themed games more popular. Unlike Medal of Honor or Call of Duty, there is no immediate reward to be acquired once the user has logged in. Combat within the game had to be located, discovered and dealt with in lieu of the dominant "nigh-invincible-hero-grabs-heavy-weaponry-within-seconds-and-quickly-mows-down-Axis-forces" motif.

Instead, World War II Online places the player in the middle of a 1:3 scale Europe with the task of working with other players to win the war by taking one town at a time by any means necessary with the overall purpose of advancing their position and depleting the enemy's resources. Not the most typical play style, but even so, the title is worthwhile in the long run.

A true role playing game starts the player from a weak position. To this extent, World War II Online has done this perfectly. Create a character for either the Allied (French or British) or Axis (German) side and you begin as a rank private with only a rifle, pistol, grenades and knife to your name. Stay alive, fight well, gain experience points and your character gains ranks, weapons, improved abilities, access to additional vehicles and the authority to command forces with options such as creating new missions after a certain level has been reached. Apply this idea to multiple military branches (namely each side's army, navy and air force) and the role playing element grows as there's always a new goal to strive for.

If anything kept me coming back to this game, it was the team element. While World of Warcraft will allow a player to go far alone, this has never been the case with World War II Online. Here a player must work within a unit in order to survive and the player who decides to try to take a town alone will find themselves hard pressed to survive for long, especially after the enemy notices the capture points within the town being taken and sends forces to explore the disturbance.

German troops take cover near a spawn point in World War II Online: Battleground Europe.

Join a unit and you join a family, a group that will help you train both online and offline (the best way to get a feel for the game's dozens of vehicles that a player can spawn as), that's usually happy to answer any question. Even if a campaign to capture a city takes the better part of an evening, there's a sense of teamwork that's unparalleled in any other online game as a general coordinates the overall attack while section leaders might guide the air, tank and troop strikes that make up the effort.

A sense of scale has always been important to any conflict and becomes even more so here. World War II Online's only true limit is that of 64 players fighting within a given city or area. Beyond this, anything goes. An effort to take a city typically becomes identical to that of a siege in which multiple forces from each side attempt to attack and defend with each player having complete, autonomous control of their unit. As a result, tactics can and do change in the middle of battle and given that these are attrition-based efforts, the team with the best strategy, coordination and communication is typically the one that wins in most conflicts.

A pilot seeks to complete his kill over enemy terrain.

One of the strange but fascinating elements has been to watch the game grow and expand. Playnet has long known that while they may have had a popular title with a large player base, it wasn't perfect and could be improved upon. On occasions when new units, weapons and rules have been changed, the entire game and the way it was played was literally altered overnight.

When paratrooper units were added several revisions ago, the ideas of both attack and defense changed, especially when the enemy could now place over 20 units anywhere they wanted on the map with only a moderate amount of coordination. Other radical improvements have included graphics, sound, controls and play style, factors which justified the game's $14.99 monthly membership fee.

A Panzer goes up in flames after being hit by multiple artillery rounds

Finally, an extensive level of reality and detailed control has helped the game, even if it did make the learning curve somewhat formidable to new players. Vehicles have long been the backbone of World War II Online and no title has done this better or justified owning a joystick. Tanks, planes, boats, trucks and anti-aircraft weaponry each have their own nuances as well as realistic limitations. One tank may be a speed demon while another will crawl along, yet take extensive amounts of damage. A bomber will take off and handle like a winged sponge while a player will need to run through the gears to make the truck they're driving pick up any appreciable speed as it heads to its destination. The end result is a set of vehicles that feel as realistic as the genuine article as well as the fact that the player must learn to work with each vehicle's strengths and weaknesses in order to be of some use to their team.

World War II Online requires a 700 MHz G4 processor, Mac OS X 10.1 or later, 512 MB of RAM and a video card with at least 32 MB of VRAM (ATI Radeon or NVIDIA GeForce or better) to run. The full version of the game is available for download via standard FTP or BitTorrent links with the program's PlayGate sub-program contacting the server and installing any recent updates whenever the game is launched. For more information, go the Playnet's web site and for the latest BitTorrent client, click this link.

This may not be your thing and the game's learning curve is far from immediate with several hours and a fair amount of chat required with other players to get a true feel for what's going on. But hang in there, see what you make of it, pick up as much as you can and if you have a joystick on hand, make every effort to become familiar with the vehicles in the game's offline/"practice" mode. Because, like any role playing game, once a certain comfort level has been reached and the player sees a goal as worth pursuing, nothing will keep them from it, save for any pets, family members or loved ones that seem to need to be fed on a daily basis.

As always, if you see anything cool or worth comment in the Mac universe, please let me know.

Chris Barylick covers games for The Mac Observer, and has written for Inside Mac Games, MacGamer, UPI, the Washington Post, and other publications.

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