Since 2016, Blackmill has been putting out World War 1 based shooters. Verdun and Tannenburg have both tried to provide a somewhat authentic experience of the warfare of the time, pitting teams of players against each other using period weapons. For this third entry, the developers chose the Italian front, specifically an area of the Isonzo river which was the only feasible place for the Italians to attack the Austro-Hungarian forces which had fortified the mountainous region. Half of the Italian’s war casualties would occur in this small area as they attempted to overcome the core problem they faced; to cross the river they needed to eliminate the Austro-Hungarian defenders but to eliminate the defenders they needed to cross the river.
Note: I wrote this review while suffering from a nasty tooth abscess and so this is far from my best work. Sorry folks!
I found myself wishing on several occasions that Black Mill might turn their attention to crafting a singleplayer campaign for their games. While World War 2 has been the subject of numerous well-known games, the Great War has been left largely untouched. Perhaps it’s purely because people conjure up images of stalemates as opposing forces glare at each across miles upon miles of trenches. Or perhaps it’s simply because there are no black-and-white villains like the Nazis. Whatever the reason, it’s a period of time ripe for developers to use as backdrops, especially a company like Blackmill which very clearly have a deep love for the history of the war and who seek to shed some light on lesser-known parts of it. I knew little about the 12 battles of Isonzo but this game encouraged me to find out more, and that’s pretty cool.
The new Assault game mode is the focus of Isonzo, with one team of 24-players having to push through multiple lines of defence and capture objectives, while the other team of 24 attempts to hold their ground and reduce the enemy’s respawn tickets to zero. If the attackers succeed in taking the objectives, the defenders must retreat to the next section of the map, build a few defences and gear up for a new assault. That’s where the new maps come into the picture. Being set in the Italian front, many of the locations are in steep, rugged mountains where the attackers have to fight uphill, giving the defenders the terrain advantage as they rain down machine gun fire. In real life, the Italian forces were at a huge disadvantage, and while that isn’t so pronounced in the game, there is a definite feel that the defenders do have the edge in many of the locations.
Since each match is a slow advancement across multiple sections, it makes each of the 3 available maps feel much larger and more varied. Beating back the defenders is like entering a new map entirely sometimes, as Blackmill do a good job of changing up the environments. You might begin in a valley, then battle up a steep incline and finish up in a town, for example. Thankfully, there are already three planned expansions that will increase the map count, with three new locations coming in the first one. There hasn’t been any word on the release schedule, though.
Each of the 48 players gets a choice whenever they enter a match or respawn – what type of soldier do they want to be? What battlefield role needs to be filled? The deadliest class, and therefore the most regulated, is undoubtedly the Officer. Only two players get to step into the well-polished shoes of an Officer and wield the dangerous flare gun which they can use to mark locations on the map. Then, Officers pick up a field telephone to call in a variety of support, from artillery barrages to mustard gas and massive airstrikes. These players can cause massive casualties, and the best of them will be able to swing the tide of a match by smartly giving their team cover or bombarding an area just before an assault. And they get access to an ability that briefly suspends the respawn timer, allowing for big pushes to capture territory or defend against a charge. Of course, actually herding a team full of people and getting them to work together for more than 5-seconds is a huge challenge in of itself, so that will likely stop Officer’s becoming too big for their shoes.
Engineers are the only class capable of building mortars, machine guns and a few basic defensive structures like sandbags. It’s an exciting job description but the reality of the position is more limiting than you might imagine – machine guns and mortars can only be plopped in specific locations, so you can’t just build yourself a little machine gun bunker. While that is a bit of a shame, it’s an understandable caveat that stops players from spamming heavy machine guns everywhere or placing them in particularly deadly locations. Because make no mistake, machine guns are bloody lethal, especially against Bots who tend to charge around corners in groups that are perfect for mowing down.
The exception to this rule is the Assault class which the game describes as being the men tasked with leading the charge to take objectives and capture territory. Once you level up the Assault class a bit you can gain access to LMGs such as the Madsen which can be deployed anywhere or even used by aiming down the sights. The suppression system in Isonzo means it becomes a lot harder to aim amidst a hail of bullets, making the Assault class very handy for helping to pin down defenders or hold the line against a charge. Plus, Assault players can get access to other useful tools, like grenades. Who doesn’t love grenades?
Speaking of levelling up, Isonzo uses an interesting system for unlocking new gear and specialisations. Every five levels you’ll be given a specific challenge to complete in order to unlock your new weapons and gear. This might mean capturing or sabotaging five spawn points or giving out a certain amount of orders. It doesn’t really change how you rank up but it is a fun wrinkle in the slow process of gaining new tools.
Snipers are limited to just four per team and that’s because they are the terrors of the battlefield. Long sight lines down valleys and across rocky outcrops, high vantage points, accurate rifles and little in the way of bullet drop or lead time mean a sniper can tear through enemies quicker than a stoner can demolish a Big Mac. While the game tries to point snipers toward countering heavy machine gun positions, the class will undoubtedly become the favourite of loners like myself who like to hang back and cause chaos from afar.
The recon class is for the support player looking to aid their time by tagging enemies using binoculars, building periscopes so that teammates can peek out of trenches without getting their faces blown off and more. Just like the rest of the classes, the recon soldier gets a rifle that’s perfectly capable of eliminating targets. In other words, almost every class is perfectly capable of fighting on the frontlines, with the exception of the Officer who only gets a pistol. Hopefully, being able to fight like everyone else means the Recon class won’t get forgotten about entirely.
And finally, there are the Riflemen, the heart and soul of the team. This is the only class that doesn’t have a limit on how many people can spawn in because obviously, you need plenty of fodder that can charge the enemy and die a needlessly “heroic” death in the name of advancing a few more metres. But don’t just get handed a rifle and kicked out the trench – nah, you get the ability to drop down an ammo crate as well so that your inevitable death can help others.
The moment-to-moment gameplay is a refreshing change of pace from most other shooters, the wooden rifles of the time keeping you from just spraying and praying. Taking a shot means having to pull back on the bolt, taking up a valuable second or two of time in which you are vulnerable to every Tom, Dick and Harry. It really made me curse myself every time I missed a shot. In a game where it typically only takes a single bullet to kill a player, missing the mark feels like an automatic death sentence, especially in those tense seconds where you run into an enemy in the trenches and you reflexively pull the trigger. Thankfully you have a melee option to deal with those close-range situations
Unfortunately, the tradeoff for authentic weaponry is a general sense of repetition. The vast majority of guns you use will be bolt-action rifles, and while there are a couple of different models they feel practically identical to use. Small stat differences mean that on paper they should behave a tad differently, but in practice, I didn’t really notice all that much, except that one or two rifles weren’t as much of a consistent one-shot kill at range. Speaking of which, the rifles in Isonzo are actually very accurate, so provided you line up the sight the bullet will hit, even at quite long ranges. There’s no aim assist, either, which could potentially make playing on console feel a bit awkward.
A huge part of why the game works so well is the thick atmosphere, largely created by the excellent sound design, and the constant tension that stems from the slower pace of the combat, focus on accuracy and the ease at which death comes. As you run from foxhole to tree to rock, mortar fire will rain down, the constant crack of rifle fire will occasionally give way to the sound of a bullet coming worryingly close and the battlefield will be pierced by the agonised scream of a dying soldier. The audio excels with a good pair of headphones, and I especially love that even in the chaos it’s still possible to pinpoint certain sounds, letting you get the jump on a sneaky enemy soldier trying to outflank you or sneak into an objective. While it obviously doesn’t even come close to the terrors that soldiers faced on the real battlefields of the Italian front, for just a second you can experience a tiny fraction of what it must have been like.
It’s not just the audio, either. The Unity engine logo on startup can often feel like the herald of questionable experiences these days, so it’s always nice to be reminded that good developers can work still work magic with it. There’s a nice contrast between the bloody carnage going on and the often vibrant environments, and there’s plenty of detail in the texture work. It’s great to be reminded that Unity can still be used to produce solid games, and the PC performance is solid, too.
For the majority of time before the game launched proper I had to play in nearly empty servers, but that did provide a chance to put the AI bots through their paces. In the months following launch the player base will gradually dwindle, an issue that previous games in the series have suffered from, and thus the bots can become important to bulk out the matches. Of course, they’re never going to replace humans and that quickly became apparent by their strange behaviour. They will frequently mill about, go the wrong way entirely or fail to react to threats. They aren’t great at using any other class than the core Rifleman, either – I never saw any of them taking up a sniper rifle, for example, and I could count on one hand how many of them bothered to call in air-support as an Officer. It can actually make them mindlessly fun to play against, though, because you’ll often end a match with over a hundred kills to your name, a handful of deaths and enough medals to melt down and cast a statue of yourself. They do the job of filling gaps as players jump in and out, and that’s about the extent of their talents.
I also noted the inclusion of microtransactions in the form of cosmetics to bolster the limited customisation options. These are purely visual purchases and the developers have kept it tasteful in the sense that it’s all appropriate to the tone. Honestly, these didn’t bother me because they felt like a way for people who sink hundreds of hours into Isonzo to support the game a little more.
These days multiplayer shooters have a tough, uphill battle ahead of them. With so many games vying for people’s attention, retaining a player base big enough to keep the servers full is hard, and on top of that, there are expectations for continued content delivery and support. And so there is a sort of inherent risk to buying any multiplayer title – it could have a strong player base for years to come or it could fade away after a month. The good news is that the prior two games have managed to cultivate small but loyal groups that ensure there’s usually at least one or two full servers. Isonzo’s launch has already garnered more players than either of the previous games managed, so it’s a promising start for this deserving game.
If you’re looking for a shooter that’s a little different, Isonzo is a lot of fun. Sometimes its “authentic” style doesn’t mesh with its more gamified elements, like the points for kills popping up, but the atmosphere is terrific and helps elevate a fairly straightforward multiplayer shooter to something great. It’s a lot of tense fun to try to push the defenders back and advance across the large maps, and it’s thrilling to valiantly hold the lines as mortar fire, bombing runs and bullets hit the earth around you. If Blackmill can offer solid content drops then Isonzo should earn itself a dedicated fanbase, including myself.