It’s odd that the Battlefield series hasn’t had more pretenders to the throne. Other titans in the First Person Shooter genre are flattered with mimicry — TF2 has Overwatch, PUBG has Fortnite, Call of Duty has Call of Duty’s 5 through infinity — but we don’t see many that copy the Battlefield formula. Kaos Studios’ Frontlines: Fuels of War and Homefront Multiplayer have been, for the longest time, the beginning and end of the list.
What’s odd is that Project Reality, a Battlefield mod, has spawned more would-be successors than Battlefield ever did. Squad, Post Scriptum, Insurgency on a smaller scale — these games and others can trace their bloodlines to that hyper-realistic Battlefield 2 mod.
At first blush, Hell Let Loose appears to do the same. It features a low TTK, complex logistics elements and lengthy respawn times that make Hell Let Loose — a World War 2 shooter from Aussie-based, worldwide studio Black Matter — feel like it might be competing against Squad, or at least Post Scriptum.
But the more time you spend with the game, the less it feels that way. If Project Reality and its kin attempted to breed out the arcadeyness of Battlefield’s core systems, Hell Let Loose is trying to breed them back in again, like those people who are trying to breed pugs that can breathe.
Hell Let Loose is far more arcadey than its contemporaries. Firing from the hip is viable (if not recommended) in ways that it isn’t in PR or Squad. You can’t spawn directly on your Squad — or even Squad Leader — but it’s easy enough to get them to a spawn down on the fly, which empowers players to take risks that they might not in the more realism-focused games.
Players have plenty of ordinance, enough to fight on for a very long time, which de-emphasises the need for support personnel — although medics, support and engi players are always greatly appreciated.
I think, for me, it comes down to the way the games enable their Battlefield Moments. Project Reality games make you build your Battlefield Moment, which leads to epic, insane instances that you share with the team. White-knuckle last minute victories and defeats are shared evenly between all involved, a macro-economic distribution of Battlefield Moment wealth where occasionally players share in huge individual windfalls.
In Hell Let Loose, the Battlefield Moments are more frequent and more personal. There’s a pace in HLL that encourages the sort of wild experimentation that regularly leads to individual, compartmentalised success. Individual and squad moments happen often — a heroic last stand as a group of six against a giant wave of Germans, or the solo cap on the final point to end the game.
So to me HLL is a Battlefield game, in the sense that it shares more in common with its DICE made cousins than it does the Offworld Industries PR variant. And as World War 2 based Battlefield games go, I think it’s a real contender.
The first challenge when playing Hell Let Loose is getting into a server.
It used to be that every game was built off the back of server browsers. That finding a place to play was as important as playing the game, because more often than not the server community made the game experience. Playing Quake 3 Arena on a server where you weren’t well known was — depending on your level of skill — a recipe for getting accused of hacking and even temp banned.
The process was simple enough — you’d click on multiplayer and it would take you to something resembling an excel spreadsheet replete with colourfully titled Servers, player counts and pings measured in milliseconds. When you were first starting out, you’d click on whatever had empty spaces and a ping low enough to make it worth playing. In Australia, that was generally anything sub-200, but sub-300 would sometimes do.
Eventually you’d learn to look for certain things. In my case, if a server said it was a “GameArena” server, it was probably good. That would be a sub-100 ping and a community of players managed by GameOps who hunted out cheaters and toxic dickheads (although a few GameOps were toxic dickheads too).
As time went on, you’d get more specific with it. The tryhards all played on GA #1, so if you were just having a bit of a goof around you’d pivot for something a little higher in the number count. If you were ready to get sweaty spaghetti, you’d try to get in #1 instead. If you kept your name the same, people started to recognise it and they’d react accordingly. They might switch teams to play with you — or against you — or start shit-talking based on something that happened in a previous game or on the forums.
There was give and take to the relationship. As you became more familiar with the nature of the servers on the browser, the servers themselves became more familiar with you. You’d lament the times when you couldn’t join your favourite server, or when your online friends weren’t around. A sense of community grew organically as you and others bonded through the experiences both in and out of the game.
They were replaced in many instances by Matchmaking systems. Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 infamously opted for peer-to-peer matchmaking on PC and console, which hurt the experience for everyone. Even in games where matchmaking didn’t become the default, game server providers were all but removed from the equation by developers who wanted to maintain stricter control on the player experience. Those providing third party servers were often relegated to the role of janitor, and they were paying for the privilege.
If the server browser ecosystem had created a wild west of server communities — each server a frontier town where everybody knew your name — then what we have today are the equivalent of the Gibson-esque Corpo-Fascist Megacities where everyone is faceless, stuck living under the jackboot of an EA or Activision or the like.
Indie multiplayer games, lacking the megacorp resources, find themselves still living on the fringes of society then, and so it is that Hell Let Loose utilises a server browser system instead of matchmaking.
Still, considering the server browser should be your first encounter with Hell Let Loose, it’s odd that this one is so garbage. The ‘server game’ is a common concept among those who have spent a lot of time joining servers, and it’s not that difficult to describe. You sit there clicking to join a server, waiting to see if it will allow you to hop in. If you’re quick enough, you’ll join and you can play with your friends. If you’re too slow, you’ll continue to play the server game until enough people leave for your opportunity to present itself.
The server game has been around for as long as the server browser has, which is why over the years it has seen a wide array of improvements. Queue systems allow for a semblance of ‘first in best dressed’ line management, while VIP queues give players an opportunity to pay a little extra for priority boarding. Battlefield allows queues of up to 20 players to wait in line to join the fun. Counter-strike allows you to queue for one server and then join and play in another.
Hell Let Loose has a queue limit of six players. Theoretically, this is to create an opportunity for people to join and fill out other servers, though in my experience this isn’t what happens. It’s not that hard to work out why. You can’t use the server browser once you’re in the queue, so six potential players aren’t able to see an empty server filling.
To get a decent game of HLL going you need at least 30 players, so you need to bank on 29 other people wanting to jump in with you — and until then, you’re just running around a giant map on your own. Anyone capable of some basic maths can work out that it will be faster to wait in a six person queue than it is to wait and hope that 29 other people might join you.
And so you play the server game, and after six other people have jumped in, you’re ready to play. Having defeated the first boss fight in HLL, the real boss rush begins.
For some inexplicable reason Hell Let Loose strongly suggests that new players use the “Rifleman” class, which is utter nonsense — outside of the US Medic and the Rank 3 Medic they are the worst outfitted class in the game, ill-equipped for much of anything beyond being grist for the mill.
New players are instead better off picking the medic class, despite its poor weaponry. I’ve outlined why I think this is the case before, but the short version is simple — squads love and protect their medics, and the visual interface showing where teammates have died provides new players with a lot of information about the game from relative safety. If you can see that four teammates just died around one corner, that’s a strong indicator that it’s not a safe route to take without needing to first peek the angle yourself.
You’ll also learn about smokes, you’ll get used to hearing quite a bit of chatter (although most of it will be screams of ‘Medic!’) and you’ll provide an amazing utility to your team. The respawn system in HLL is faster than Project Reality games, but it’s actually generally a bit slower than Battlefield — the countdown to respawn is roughly the same (about 20 seconds), but because you can only spawn on specific points, the walk back to the frontline is the real time killer.
A medic who is on the frontline, helping their team push, can radically change the landscape of a fight. And then once you’ve learned the ropes as a medic you can switch to any other class (not rifleman) and learn how hard you’ve had things.
While you should be open to returning to the medic whenever your squad needs one, there are 13 other classes available for play in Hell Let Loose, and each brings something different to the table. The two tank classes — Tank Commander and Crewman — are the only roles capable of manning the game’s armoured vehicles. The two recon roles — Sniper and Spotter — are the only ones able to place outposts deep behind enemy lines, and the Sniper is the only class with a scope.
The Commander can call in all manner of support materials for their team, including supply crates, bombing runs and special ‘airhead’ spawn points when needed. Support players can, on a micro-level, provide their team with similar, well, support, and Engineers can use those supplies to build up defenses and resource generating nodes.
Anti-tank players have anti-tank weapons, machine gunners have machine guns, Assault players get to roll through the map with automatic rifles, smoke grenades and eventually Satchel Charges, and the Automatic Rifleman class gets to be a shittier version of the Assault class.
The role I’ve played the most is the Officer, which is what every squad requires when it is formed. The Officer can place Outposts, which is what your squad is able to spawn on, or Garrisons, which the entire team can spawn on (the Spotter class in Recon is also able to do this) — which means a good Squad Leader is of critical importance.
Good Ess Ells will constantly place new Oh Pees (the short version of Outpost) and if their Squad has a support player they’ll get Garrys (Garrisons) up too. They’ll communicate with their squad using the in-game squad chat, and they’ll coordinate with the rest of the team using the Command chat. The Commander can direct squads to complete certain objectives, but this isn’t Company of Heroes — whether a squad actually does what they’ve been ordered to do is entirely up to the humans the squad is comprised of.
I enjoy playing as the SL, but it’s not my favourite class. I’m generally playing that role because it’s basically mandatory and generally unpopular, although everyone in my regular crew is more than happy to tackle the task. The real problem with playing Squad Lead is that you’re stuck in the Commander chat, a Voice channel where every other Squad Leader can communicate with the Commander of the team when necessary. And when unnecessary. And when they just feel like generally screaming. When they want to tell their friends how their day is going, like they’re sitting around a kitchen table having a cuppa and a yak, telling their kids to play quietly or go outside while they screech at one another at 1000 decibels, only stopping to acquire tar-laced oxygen through an orange filter on the end of a winnie blue.
They never shut the fuck up is what I’m saying, and lately me and those I play with have taken to muting everyone by opening up the scoreboard and doing it manually. It’s a pain, but it’s the only way to avoid the chatter. I’d love to have a button to instantly muted and unmuted the squad lead chat, or everyone except for the Commander, or something like that, because there are multiple times when people in your local area are trying to convey information that just can’t cut through the noise.
Still, even having to manually mute the other squad leads is worth it when you and your crew pull off some miraculous capture, or hold against impossible forces. When they follow your crazy orders and come together to do the unlikely, it’s a beautiful feeling.
And that’s what Hell Let Loose does best. The same as it is in Battlefield games, Hell Let Loose empowers players to compartmentalise. To play a part in a greater battle, but to know your role and to accomplish it well. Thanks to its sense of scale — larger than any Battlefield game has ever been, at least for now — Hell Let Loose provides you with the opportunity to lose a match and still feel some semblance of success.
I was playing a game the other day where, as a Recon Squad, me and my Spotter Nachosjustice hard-flanked the enemy forces as the rest of our team threw themselves into the meat grinder. We were on Purple Heart Lane — the worst map in the game, in my opinion — fighting our way across largely open fields with the smallest amount of cover coming from the flooded trenches crisscrossing the area.
To get this far, we’d had to take down an enemy OP 100 metres from our starting position, on the other side of a narrow bridge. It’d been work — a lot of staggered forward movement to cover ground over the planks of the crosswalk, followed by frantic gunfire to take down the squad spawning in.
Once across, we’d been greeted by a tank, a giant Panzer VI or “Tiger 1” that came equipped with more firepower in its driver seat than we had as a combined duo. We’d snuck past the tank, staying low and avoiding its front, but we weren’t able to do anything about it beyond calling it out for our team.
300m of tense crawling later, we’d fully flanked the cap zone in the centre of the map, a location called “Carentan Causeway”. Two more tanks came careening down the road that splits the capture point just as we made our way in, popping our (admittedly optimistic) OP to the side of the road and giving us away. But while the tanks searched for us back near our OP — it was positioned so that it might have been used on the way to go stop the German Artillery — we snuck into the cap and started contesting.
I sat there for minutes, my pistol in hand, shooting any enemies who poked their head over my side of the wall. I was too close to be very effective with my Springfield Rifle, but they were collectively too scared to try to take on my M1911 handgun. In their defence, I’d fragged a lot of them.
That effort to get onto the cap forced the German side to fall back in defence. They redeployed a heap of troops to come secure the Causeway, giving the US side the opportunity to push through and make a strong attack. And here’s the thing — we still lost. The enemy rallied faster than our team was able to construct defences, and buoyed with momentum my teammates immediately overextended trying to cap the next point. But that deep flank from me and NachosJustice felt like an absolute win to me.
That’s the beauty of Hell Let Loose. Battlefield Moments are regularly just those yarns you tell about epic things you pulled off, but Hell Let Loose’s systems combine to deeply encourage the sort of Playing the Fucking Objective that I love. I have dozens of stories of unlikely heroics thanks to Hell Let Loose. Something as simple as running up to a garry and dying on it without being headshot can save your team’s bacon.
Breaking the Habit
Hell Let Loose has some excellent weapons, although many of them are trapped behind an awfully protracted ‘levelling’ system. I’ve played the game for 130 hours and I still haven’t unlocked everything for all the roles. JRPGs look at Hell Let Loose’s leveling system and shudder at the grind. Mobile games scrunch up their noses and say ‘oh, steady on, that’s a bit much isn’t it?’
It’s a problem, because a lot of the more interesting playstyles are hidden deep behind this overwrought experience mechanism. It’s a progression system borne of a deep insecurity, this sort of belief that the game isn’t worth playing if players don’t have something to grind towards.
And so you wind up in a place where you can’t do certain things without forcing yourself to play a role for dozens of hours. You can’t hand out explosive ammunition without grinding through three levels of support, can’t use the brand-new-with-1.0 Scoped SVT-40 without having played dozens of hours of Sniper already (despite the fact that a semi-auto Sniper Rifle would theoretically be much easier for a new player to get a handle on).
It’s reminiscent of jumping into a Call of Duty server when you didn’t get to play the game at launch and finding yourself getting plotzed by players with god tier weaponry while you’re using some sort of garbage gun. A rifleman running into battle with a Kar98k against players with BARs and Tommy Guns is barely worth the bullet required to put them down. And the knowledge that you won’t be able to use something better for hours is demoralising.
But Hell Let Loose’s gameplay is compelling beyond this misguided extrinsic motivation effort. And there really aren’t enough weapons in Hell Let Loose to facilitate an unlock system of this nature, which means most of the classes start out with a trash weapon and slowly work their way up to something better — but it takes time. I honestly wonder how many players have jumped into HLL for a free weekend, run into a firefight with an M1 Garand, been mowed down by someone with a much faster firing weapon and then quit forever.
Worse still is the fact that the fastest way around this problem involves Hell Let Loose’s shittiest element. Because the fastest way to rank up roles continues to be playing Artillery.
On paper, Artillery makes sense. In World War 1 the fields in Verdun were so brutally bombarded with a non-stop barrage of explosive shells that more than 100 years later the terrain itself is still pock-marked with the evidence. Artillery changed the landscape of war both figuratively and literally. For many of the brave men who come back from war, the pounding of mighty cannons raining inconceivable death upon the battlefield shapes the rest of their lives.
So I understand why games insist on including it. It is terrifying in a way that can barely be fathomed. The loud boom, the whistle and the instant game over screen convey just barely a taste of what long range ordinance has done in conflicts the world over.
But after the first time you’ve been killed by Arty in a game, it doesn’t work. And I don’t mean the first time in each game — the first time you get killed by artillery in any video game you’ve ever played is the last time it works as intended. From then out it is, instead, one of the worst mistakes a video game can make.
It’s random, unavoidable, unlearn-fromable death. You can’t get out of the way. You can’t adjust your playstyle to accommodate for it. When the whistle happens and the explosions begin, your life is left in the hands of fate, and that’s just a straight up bad system in a game.
Most games do something about this to make it less awful. Battlefield 2 used to give you ample warning, telling you there was an Artillery Strike on your position. World of Tanks makes the self-propelled guns slow to move and aim, allowing players to learn not to camp. PlayerUnknown Presents PUBG Battlegrounds chucks a big red circle on the map, although it’s still a bad system in that game because there’s very little you can do about it if you’re in the circle and already in a firefight.
Hell Let Loose, on the other hand, features one of the worst implementations of artillery I’ve ever experienced. There’s no warning. Once you hear the whistle, it is too late — you either die or you do not. There’s no playing around it — with but a few exceptions spawn points must be placed outdoors, so it’s very possible to be killed upon spawn by arty — without the spawn point being destroyed.
The randomness is, to be fair, an illusion. Arty players work very hard to put those rounds exactly on top of you, and by very hard I mean they punch a few details into the automatic calculator they have up on their second screen. But for the person being gibbed it’s random, and that never changes.
What makes it worse is that it’s far from the most lethal element of the game. Tanks are exponentially more dangerous than artillery, capable of mincing players even as they actually play the fucking objective with the team. The Bombing Run, which the Commander on each side can call in, lays down explosions that rain dust and dirt and smoke across a far wider area than any arty shell is capable of.
But neither of these are as hated as Artillery because players learn what they can do about them. They learn how to play around these elements. I still can’t tell one plane from another, but if you see one coming in above a certain altitude you know the thunderous roar of death is about to kick off.
With tanks, you can flank them pretty easily as they turn slowly and can only fire from the front of the turret. A semi-competent Anti-Tank player can take out any vehicle in the game, and the tank players need to put themselves at risk to provide their team with any effective armour support.
There’s no way to outplay Arty. They sit back, kilometres behind the actual frontline, doing their thing with nary a worry in the world. Even if you send a savvy recon squad over to murder them — and when I play Recon, it’s my favourite thing in the world to do — on many servers it’s almost not allowed. Hell Let Loose spawns the Arty very close to the uncap spawn points in each team’s main bases, which means when you’re not killing Arty you’re technically spawn camping. It’s bad form, right, to spawncamp a team, and to combat this servers implement rules stating that you must kill the Arty and then immediately leave the sector. Except even with the 8-by scope on the German Sniper rifle, you can’t see the Arty from anywhere on any map except for basically on top of them. You can’t destroy the artillery, so you shoot the three people on the guns and then you are to directly exit the zone.
And when they jump straight back on the artillery again, they get 2 minutes of free rein to rain death and reign supreme until you get back to them. All because it would be unfair if you sat in their uncap and killed them until they stopped coming back. All because spawn camping is not a fun experience for anyone in the game.
Except, of course, when Artillery kills 30 people with a single shell as those players spawn onto a garrison. That’s fair. That’s good gameplay. That’s a game experience people will hold onto for the rest of their lives.
If we think about Battlefield type games as Battlefield Moment Generation Machines, what does Artillery actually bring to the table? What does it do for the game? What is the Battlefield moment somebody has had thanks to Arty?
“Oh, yeah, I just had the CRAZIEST GAME! I spawned in and I was immediately gibbed, and 40 seconds later when I spawned again it happened again! Never in a million years would that happen to anyone, right? I mean except for the other 10 idiots who’d spawned on that garrison with me. It happened to them. I’ll fondly remember this moment for the rest of my life.”
Beautiful fuel for the emergent narrative fire that is not. What about from the other side?
“Oh, bro, you’ve got to watch this crazy clip! Look, here I am, you can’t see it because Shadowplay only records one screen, but here I am dialling in numbers into my off-screen calculator, and then I hit fire and BOOM! 30 kills! You can’t see the kills because the game doesn’t have a killfeed, so you’d have to press tab and then click “Personal Scoreboard” to see how much the number changed by, but yeah man lots of kills. I really feel a great sense of pride and accomplishment from that one.”
Artillery serves literally no purpose in its current form in Hell Let Loose. It’s the worst implementation of a bad system, and it sits alongside great alternatives right there in HLL. There’s no reason for it to be placed low in the ground, protected from Snipers. There’s no reason it shouldn’t be destructible. There’s really no reason it should be player controlled at all — it should be a Commander tool, the same as the Bombing Run, same as the Strafing Run. Same as it was in Battlefield 2.
In its current form, it only serves to allow three players on each team the opportunity to farm kills and waste team resources under practically zero threat. And when a new player joins the game and dies on spawn, there’s a decent chance that player leaves and never returns. That’s not idle speculation, mind you. I’ve seen it happen. Artillery in Hell Let Loose actively detracts from the game experience while adding absolutely nothing.
One small thing that boggles my mind is the swimming in Hell Let Loose. Or, rather, the lack of it. If you spend more than six seconds with your head below water, you will die. That’s four seconds less than what you get if you run out of bounds. It turns some portions of some maps into Davy Jones Locker. Most of Purple Heart Lane is blocked off by sections where one misplaced step means death.
I get the sense that it’s designed to channel players into the chokepoints that are bridges, to force flanks to take distant detours, but couldn’t this be accomplished in ways that make more sense than everyone collectively pretending that holding your breath for seven seconds was a trait humans didn’t evolve until 1946?
If the idea of players usurping your map design by swimming for a tenth of a minute is so devastating to the intended playstyle, is the solution really ‘kill them”? There’s nothing more frustrating than dying to artillery, but slipping into a trench and drowning is a close second.
In The End
This review probably seems pretty negative, and i’d understand if you concluded that I didn’t like Hell Let Loose. I’ve always felt that reviews are more challenging when they are positive — the glowing review is not a strong suit of mine. But I love Hell Let Loose. I think it could be better — there is a laundry list of small quality of life things I would have liked to see introduced with 1.0, and obviously some pretty big issues listed above — but I by-and-large I love the game.
It’s because I’m a sucker for the Battlefield style game. Alan Moore’s chief complaint about people making films from his comics was that he believed the medium of the comic was unique, that the medium of comics could achieve something no other could. I don’t know if he’s still correct, but he certainly seemed to be when he said it at the turn of the century.
In my mind video games are the same. They are a medium that is unique, in that the process of interactivity allows players to connect with the stories told more intimately. But at their best, for me anyway, video games go one step further by allowing players to tell their own stories. By allowing us to craft tales that could only really happen to us because those tales are personal.
And Hell Let Loose does this with ease. Thanks to its large scale and wide array of role-based combat, HLL encourages players to strategise on a micro and macro level, and because of the number of players involved it’s possible to celebrate successes on many different levels. And those successes are grand yarns waiting to be told, or simply remembered wistfully by players for minutes, hours, days and weeks after the events they recall occurred.
I don’t think every single HLL match turns into some grand adventure, but it’s a game that punches far above its weight in that regard. I took a break from writing this review to play some HLL — not something I do with games I dislike — and experienced another epic feat of heroism right there on the spot.
The “Battlefield” Game has almost always been solely the domain of games that start with the letters B, a, t, t, l, e and f — I’m not trying to rule out Battlefront here — and as such I’ve never had a problem with referring to its particular brand of personal content generation as a Battlefield Moment. But HLL has created more of those moments for me than any Battlefield game has in a long time. And even after the Battlefield 2042 juggernaut has arrived, some of the moments HLL created will stick with me.