A Simple, Satisfying Strategic Shooter

As you reach your mid-30s, you begin to accept you’re not as good at things as you once were. Making friends, recovering from an injury, or attempting to sit at a picnic table becomes much more difficult, time-consuming, and exhausting. You can add gaming to this list–when you actually get the chance to play something, you increasingly find yourself being ripped to shreds by enemies, teams, drivers, and fellow players you once brushed aside with ease.

It’s most obvious with online shooters. Quick thinking, lightning-fast reactions, and superhuman accuracy slowly leave you as your body gets old. It’s therefore great that Isonzo exists to deliver something to level the playing field between gamers of all ages: a simple FPS, set during an uncomplicated era, where you’re rewarded for patience, strategy, and carefulness. That doesn’t stop you from being killed by a stray bullet from half a mile away–but this is the First World War, after all.

Following on from Verdun and Tannenberg, Isonzo introduces the third theater of war for M2H and Blackmill Games’ cult WW1 Game Series. After the rather bleak battlefields in France and Poland, Isonzo plonks you in the scenic hills, quaint villages, and dramatic cliffs of northern Italy, where the Kingdom’s Army faces off against the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

This latest outing quickly proves to be what the Blood and Wine expansion was to The Witcher 3: a huge departure from grey-brown, downtrodden, overcast, and somewhat uninspiring surroundings and into colorful, genuinely stunning vistas which, while easy to gawp at, still present the same dangers–and outright horrors–of its forefathers.

It’s also a clear step up from what came before it. By offering just one game mode, a handful of troop classes, a cleaner UI, and a selection of easy-to-understand but exciting maps, Isonzo has ironed out many of its predecessors’ issues, breathing new life into a niche FPS series by focusing on the basics.

Keeping things simple

At its core, Isonzo offers a classic attack vs defend, territory-based battle scenario. Each section kicks off with some time to prepare defenses and weapon points. Attackers must capture areas and use timed explosives to destroy objectives; defenders have the less enviable task of killing scores of soldiers until the number of reinforcements dwindles to zero from up to 500, really hammering home how attrition accounted for 90% of WWI military strategy.

Along the way, both teams try to establish (and destroy) spawn points behind enemy lines, while different classes–including dependable infantrymen, long-ranged marksmen, and creative engineers–add enough variety to playing styles, especially when tactics need to change up.

The most intriguing of them all is the officer, not least because he carries a semi-automatic pistol. Sadly, it doesn’t really hold a candle to the power of standard rifles, even at close range, when the only thing that saves you is your enemy missing their shot. Still, he has the opportunity to call in airstrikes from behind enemy lines, which are definitely great fun, but can more often than not result in pyrrhic gains, given members of both armies mingle throughout the map. The engineer proves most reliable, simply due to the speed of building and ability to destroy and build defenses.

Despite being largely linear, Isonzo’s level design is among its strongest points. As proved by Verdun and Tannenberg before it, Blackmill Games isn’t one to phone things in, instead paying homage to historical battles and their incredibly varied settings across northern Italy, including maze-like villages, open town squares, and intricate underground tunnel networks. While choke points still exist, there’s still a wealth of options available for you to try something different–especially if you’re willing to stick your head above the proverbial and literal trenches.

Careful combat and captivating crawls

Given the game’s large number of fixed gun posts, mortars, and cannons combine with its striking, rocky scenery, Isonzo quickly teaches you to take your time, assessing new routes as you get picked off by a distant sniper, mowed down by a machine gun, or stabbed in the back. Due to its firm focus on bolt-action weapons–which pack an incredible punch, genuinely feel weighty, but are slow to reload–every bullet counts.

There are a few upgrades to be had, unlocked by reaching a certain level and completing relatively arbitrary challenges–for example, killing a set number of enemies with a mortar or machine gun–but these can prove annoying to grind. Still, it’s not the end of the world, as base weaponry and accessories provide more than enough for success–it’s not like debuting in a Call of Duty game six months after release, where you feel like you’re bringing a spud gun to a nuclear war.

Even with your weapon of choice, you spend most of your time not using it. Whether you’re actively pinned down by automatic gunfire, trying to get an angle on a rival sniper, or just attempting to get over another ridge without being spotted, you’re often just analyzing the battlefield, crouched or crawling from point to point. Isonzo’s solid audio design has bullets whizzing past your ears, the yells and screams of your fellow soldiers around you, and explosions galore. Few thrills in FPS games compare to when Isonzo forces you to sneak along the side of a cliff for minutes, staying as silent as possible, knowing you’re one shot away from failure.

The horrors of war

While much of Isonzo’s violence is restricted to bloodless, single-shot, mid-distance killing, the game still manages to surprise you with believable and eye-opening gore. Bullets can pop heads like balloons, or take entire limbs off your enemies, while shot-to-nothing mortars and cannons turn swathes of the opposing army (and often, unfortunately, your own comrades) into a chunky red mist.

Yet it’s the close-combat moments that live with you longest. You almost don’t want to kill someone with your bayonet–despite it being easily the most effective means of killing an enemy–because it’s often met with blood-curdling screams, which can go on for ten or 15 seconds. These aren’t Wilhelm screams, either; hearing an enemy soldier seemingly crying for a loved one, or gurgling vague sentences as blood fills his lungs, really stays with you.

Artificial unintelligence

Before Isonzo went fully live, it offered a crucial insight into its bots. Sadly, however, Isonzo’s AI is among the worst you’ll see in a modern FPS, at least when it’s only you in a battle. Even having a handful of players on a map somehow gives them a kick in the right direction, but you’re not going to feel too challenged if you’re offline.

Initially, AI issues aren’t too obvious. In terms of combat, and given the reliance on bolt-action weapons, your foes are as accurate as you’d expect. However, they fundamentally halt the game experience on a regular basis, whether it’s failing to rush a checkpoint on an attack, or just getting stuck in spawn points. They’re clearly triggered by proximity in order to attack in your direction, but if you know where they’re respawning, you can keep a fair distance and simply pick them off in their foxhole, usually until you run out of bullets.

It’s particularly troublesome if you’re an attacking force, knowing your AI buddies don’t really follow commands and rush alongside you when and where you need them to, so it’s on you to attempt to blow up a cannon or secure a building where enemies have respawned and gathered in such large numbers, it’s impossible to take them out on your own with your bolt-action rifle, unless you get superbly lucky with your bayonet.

Days of past future

Isonzo is far from perfect: its AI is perfunctory at best, frame rates can get choppy, it doesn’t look like the next-gen game it claims to be on Xbox Series X, and certain maps can get a little too repetitive. Yet at its core, with even just a handful of real people, it offers a level playing field for gamers of any skill to find their own role or groove, whether it’s leading the charge as an officer, crawling through the mud as an infantryman, or either setting up or destroying defensive fixtures as an engineer.

It’s easy to see why French publisher Focus Entertainment (A Plague Tale, Curse of the Dead Gods, The Surge) secured M2H’s majority stake in the franchise the day before Isonzo’s official release. There’s still so much more the WW1 Game Series can cover in its clear desire to improve on a compelling formula, while placing a greater emphasis on improving smoothness and visuals.

Whether it’s the hard-hitting battles in Passchendaele or the Somme–or, more likely, another new First World War front with two new forces, such as ANZAC troops taking on Atatürk’s Ottoman forces in the Battle of Gallipoli–there are countless more stories to be told by a franchise that has found its niche, and improves on its no-nonsense approach.

Wherever the WW1 Game Series goes next, one thing’s for sure: if it keeps building on its simple but satisfying blueprint, it should attract a greater mass appeal, bringing players of all abilities together.

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