Isonzo Review (3)

The Battles of the Isonzo during World War I are well-known in the history books. So it was only natural that when Blackmill Games had to choose a front to represent in the third game of the WW1 series, it chose the one centered on this river in Italy. Unlike the real battles, however, Isonzo is the opposite of a 12 battle slog.

Yes, it’s still an FPS where bolt action rifles rule the day and death comes fast, but Isonzo is anything but a retread of the same the ground. Gone are the four man “platoons” of Verdun and Tannenberg. Instead, Isonzo deploys a more conventional system. There are six classes in the game, and you unlock their upgrades by playing them, rather than spending career points like before.

 

This is a new breach, dear friends

The two factions in the game have few differences, the biggest distinction being visuals and in whatever stats the historically appropriate weaponry had. For example, an upgraded Austrian Assault soldier will have the same abilities and general equipment as an Italian soldier, but he’ll have the strip-fed Steyr-Hahn pistol, and his grenade will be the Rorh cardboard stick wonder. So the differences between factions seem to be smaller than the thematic platoons of the prior games, but it doesn’t feel like much of a downside.

Plus, the developers finally  put more realistic troop proportions in the field. In Isonzo, the Rifleman class is the only one without limits. The rest of the classes don’t even get ten slots each. The most outstanding case are the Officers. You’ll only get two per side.

Isonzo: spawn map screen showing the soldier class you chose to spawn as, displaying the baby blue Austrian uniform.

The blue uniforms are less terrible than you’d think when it comes to fighting in the mountains.

…and a gentleman

This has allowed for a massive expansion of officer powers and arsenal. Previously, Officers had an aura and an artillery call in, all determined by the platoon type. Now, every officer can order Charge (which gives instant respawns for a short time) and direct the battle with Orders (attack or defend an area — they give XP to those who follow them). They also have access to an impressive arsenal of call ins.

Oh, the call ins. After you mark an area of the map with your flare gun, which looks really dramatic in action and is disconcerting if it’s not a friendly flare, you can rush to a field telephone station and order something off the menu. You have three columns to choose from: artillery, chem, and air. Each column has tiers, going from, say, a recon overflight to reveal enemy presence to a massive three bomber raid that will plaster a good part of the map.

Isonzo: an overview of a ruins objective crisscrossed by flares

Those flares don’t bode well for anyone susceptible to high explosives and shrapnel.

No need to unlock a class or platoon, either. They’re just there, you only have to wait for the ability cooldown to pass. Luckily, the better your team is doing, the faster it passes. A lower level always unlocks faster than higher, so you have to weight the value of patience vs. the immediate need to drop mortars on a defended strongpoint. And the effects are massive, with artillery barrages that can pulverize entire squads and gas clouds that linger up to two minutes.

I love it. It’s a great change, and it’s one that really shines when playing Isonzo with human players. Unfortunately, the beta period was mostly played with bots, and I have come to see their multitude of failures. They can reliably shoot a player dead, sure, but all the finesse and class interplay is lost on them.

Isonzo: post battle hall of fame, showing how snazzy an officer player can look.

The officers also get the flashiest skins.

You need human friends

Take, for example, the Mountaineer class, a mix between recon and sabotage. They start with binoculars, which are useful for spotting enemies for other players, but does that matter with bots? They can also unlock flare guns, which can be a massive aid to friendly officers. However, bots don’t understand how to be officers, so the Mountaineer class is essentially pointless when playing with them.

And, as I’ve hinted at already, classes in Isozo can really mutate based on their unlocks. It’s not just gear, though. What were previously passive abilities tied to platoons are now unlocked via class level ups. Officers start out with an increased whistle (charge and order) cool down, but you can switch that out. Feeling like an engineer despite your CO status? Get an aura that improves engineer work speed. Want to be on the frontline for some reason? Gain the ability to spawn on any squad leader .

Isonzo: class upgrade challenge progress windows shows how far you've come in unlocking new weapons and abilities.

Some tasks are easier than others.

Oh, but the level ups aren’t based just on grind, though there’s certainly some grinding — this is World War I, after all. You unlock new weapons and abilities at five level increments, but mere XP won’t be enough. No, you are challenged to demonstrate that you’ve mastered the previous kit. Want to unlock melee weapons as Assault? Shoot some guys with pistols and blow up a few blokes with grenades to show that you know how to handle the previous unlocks.

It’s easier said than done, as pistols only have their rate of fire to put them above the ubiquitous rifles, while the grenades come with fuses set to go off within the next business day. That’s in addition to WW1 series’ trademark: a truckload of awful bolt-action rifles. Isonzo scours the armories for the worst of the weapon industry.

Isonzo: mortar view including the map you use to target it

You can pretend to be an officer by manning one of the emplaced mortars. Good for taking out known sniper spots and MG nests.

Reloading mid magazine? This is a 1869 black powder rifle that Italians inexplicably adopted in single-shot variety, only to later convert it to a magazine rifle and then change the caliber. The clips it’s fed with have a wood block on top where the string is for yanking the clip after loading. You’re not reloading mid magazine.

Actually, I have some suspicion that the devs may have gone too far into the obscure, which is a strange choice but a choice I respect more than the mental gymnastics needed to accept a World War I game where everyone gets an SMG.

How are we fighting this?

Right, I’ve gotten this far without talking about game modes. Each of the three titles has the premier mode that tries to catch the general vibe of the warfare on the front. For Isonzo, it’s the Offensive. Similar to Battlefield 1’s Operations, the attacker has to conquer line after line of objectives while having a limited amount of tickets. Once you capture and/or destroy the objectives, the attacker gains more tickets, and the next line is unlocked. The maps come in mostly in sets of three.

Defenders have infinite tickets and, usually, time enough to erect defenses, both of the fixed variety (mortars and MGs emplaced by map designers) and the more obscure ad hoc  (Engineer class getting busy with wires and sandbags). What’s interesting is that as the battle line moves, the attacker gets the chance to build their own MGs and mortars to support the push.

Isonzo: manning the MG, looking at some brown gas clouds, screen is red from getting shot.

The machinegunner experience is getting sniped out of your post by some guy you can’t even see.

Having enjoyed the offerings in Verdun and Tannenberg, I enjoyed the Offensive as well. With actual people playing around you, it’s much more dynamic and nail-biting than it is with bots. Sure, HMGs are way harder to use as even regular rifles can easily dome you at range, but it’s a lot of fun.

It’s in the details

And it’s a visual feast as well! You’ll never mistake Isonzo for another game, and its distinct visual style is great at showing the stark beauty of the battlefields you’ll be fighting over. Terrain changes as you move from one line of objectives from other, and you go from fighting in the forests to assaulting trenches carved into bare rock. Luckily for us, the in-game rock doesn’t seem to shower you with additional shrapnel whenever something explodes nearby.

I adore the audio of Isonzo just as much. The Austro-Hungarians and Italians shout in their native languages, the menu screen is covered by a beautiful Italian song, and of course, there’s a myriad of battle sounds. The only weird thing is the metallic ding when you score a headshot. Even when accounting for cosmetics (of which there are many), the absolute majority of player models will be running around helmetless.

Isonzo: Reserve Units DLC adds skins that look like Napoleonic soldiers

You know war is going bad when they draft cosplayers.

On a related subject, currently, it seems that Isonzo’s DLC comes in the most ethical variety: cosmetics. While you have a lot of choices that you can unlock for free, there are some sweet DLC options. Want to take to the field sporting a bicorne a la Napoleon? Then the Reserve units DLC is just for you.

All in all, Isonzo is as great as the previous WW1 game series games, if not better. The developers are breaking the mold without giving in to the worse impulses of the AAA FPS game industry. The real question at this point is how sustainable the player counts will be. And if they are, can we get the real snowy hell of the White War? Because if there’s one way to make fighting in this rocky hellhole worse, it’s to take it two kilometers above sea level and sprinkle it with ice.

Isonzo

8

Isonzo changes the formula of the WW1 game series -- and it's all for the better.

Martynas Klimas
Always chasing that full-time-game-reviewer fairy. Perennially grumpy about Warhammer 40,000. Big fan of RTS, RPG, and FPS games. Has written for other sites. The only Lithuanian you know.

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