After a couple of years of relative quiet in the world of historical shooters, we've recently seen a trickle turn into a veritable flood. Both Call of Duty and Battlefield have returned to the conflicts of yesteryear and we've played a bunch of similarly themed shooters that complement these AAA offerings. Hell Let Loose is the latest to take aim at the historical shooter crowd, and we jumped into Black Matter's 100-player FPS to see how it's shaping up.
With such variety coming from within the relatively narrow confines of this sub-genre, the first thing to do is really nail down where Hell Let Loose sits within the grand scheme of things. The shorthand explanation is that the developers are big fans of Red Orchestra 2: Heroes of Stalingrad and are looking to evoke a similar experience. The extended explanation is that Black Matter is looking to craft a game that finds the sweet spot between more arcade-inspired shooters like CoD and BFV, and hardcore military shooters like the Arma series. The plan is to achieve this via huge 100-player battles where strategic planning and resource management define the combat that takes place across expansive maps, with two teams contesting a series of objectives as one outfit looks to roll their opposition back to the edge of the map and claim victory. Naturally, that's easier said than done.
The winning team is the one that pushes their opponents back from their final stronghold to dominate the map, but as we discovered firsthand during our hands-on demo, these matches can take an hour or more to conclude as it's not as simple as grabbing an objective and then hunkering down - there's an emphasis on taking the initiative and then kicking on. However, it's just as important to know when not to push because if you overextend you risk undoing your good work and handing the initiative back to the enemy. Put it this way: a stubborn team fighting to the bitter end might not be beaten within the two-hour limit imposed by the studio, and to reinforce our point, our second match lasted 1h50m.
The maps in Hell Let Loose are massive, but they're built around key locations that host most of the action. That's not to say that skirmishes won't flare up anywhere on the map, but the battle will concentrate around these key objectives, with victory decided by who holds the majority of them. Players start by selecting spawn points at the back of the map and then trekking into the middle in search of combat, but after a while, squads can coordinate to set up their own spawn points further in. That makes your tactics important when it comes to placement, and as a defending team, it's a good idea to track your enemies back and try and cut off their supply, sending them back to less advantageous spawn points in the process.
Moveable spawn points also help to keep the action intense, leaning Hell Let Loose away from more serious military sims thanks to each quick-fire return to action. Oftentimes you're working hard to make sure your team has a foothold near an enemy-held objective, so you can take it and then push on and move to the next target, however, if you advance too soon you might leave yourself vulnerable or isolated, encouraging your enemy to push back and try to destroy your spawn, in the process giving themselves more room to breathe as you start the long trek from the back of the map. It's a constant tug of war and the action is built around a really interesting meta whereby both of the 50-strong teams need to coordinate carefully (squad leaders can talk to each other in a private channel, which helps), communicating as much as possible and bringing in the tanks and bombing strikes whenever possible.
There are times in the game when you're moving between objectives where it's relatively quiet, but more often than not Hell Let Loose is full of incident. It took us a while to get into the swing of things and start affecting the game in a meaningful way, but once we got a feel for the gunplay and our aim tightened up, we started to enjoy more success. We experimented with a couple of different classes, each with their own loadouts and weapons (we mostly swapped between a bolt-action semi-automatic and an assault rifle), and this side of the game is certainly worth coordinating. There's a really nice selection of battlefield roles to choose from, and a full squad of six would do well to have a good mix of long-range weapons, equipment, and explosive firepower in their midst - a well-balanced team using voice comms will certainly have the upper hand.
With two big teams of up to 50 players each clashing, things can get very intense. Whether you're wading through smoke trying to catch a glimpse of an enemy who's looking for you too, hiding in cover while bullets whistle overhead, or charging towards an objective with comrades at your side, Hell Let Loose is certainly a visceral experience. When the bombs drop and the screen starts to rock, it's not unusual to see mutilated bodies strewn throughout the trenches, and there's a seriousness to the action here that should speak to those who like to sprinkle a little role-play on their military engagements.
From a visual perspective, the European battlefields of the 1940s have been brought to life to a decent standard (in Unreal Engine 4) using to-scale maps and aerial photos of real historical locations. We primarily played on a forest map punctuated by rustic-looking buildings, but there was a fair amount of variation built into the environment and that helped create a nice ebb and flow to the action, and this was despite the long running time of the matches. That's something the devs will monitor carefully over time, seeing where and when the battles take place, tweaking the timers to ensure that it's as fair as it can be, all things considered.
As well as the forest-covered map there was a second that we didn't get to try, and even more locations are being worked on ahead of the game's upcoming Early Access release in June. According to the devs, the plan is for Hell Let Loose to stay in development there for around six months while spit and polish is applied and new features are added based on community feedback. Indeed, community seems at the heart of what Black Matter is trying to achieve here, and the studio is already working to build a strong rapport with its player-base.
The setup in Hell Let Loose certainly looks like it may bear fruit and our initial impression is that it offers a nice blend of tactical thinking and chaotic gunplay. As it's still in development there's a number of bugs to contend with, and the build we played didn't offer the ability to mantle yet, so it's hard to judge Black Matter's debut offering as things stand. Still, we're optimistic that it'll come together, and with the plan being to start Early Access in June and launch months (not years) later, it won't take long to find out whether Hell Let Loose can hold its own in a genre currently flush with engaging historical shooters.
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