['Battle Klaxon' is a bi-weekly GameSetWatch-exclusive column where traveling games journalist Quintin Smith fights to win a bit of glory for the beautiful, brave but overlooked games that people are missing in their lives. This week: The snap, crackle and pop of Red Orchestra.]

I've been hating on Battlefield 1943 a lot recently. Last week when a fan of the series thrust a calloused finger in my direction and demanded games which did large-scale combat better, I obviously mentioned Warhawk, but was surprised when another name fell out of my mouth. Red Orchestra. The UT2004 mod turned full game that paints a grubby, heart-stopping picture of the Eastern front of WW2.

Red Orchestra solves a problem I've had with almost every shooter I've ever played- that of them steering clear of simulating real guns and real bullets. Game guns are relatively quiet, don't have much recoil, can be shot with accuracy while you walk or run and are always reloaded in a few seconds.

Game bullets have the mysterious ability to fill the clips you're carrying in your pockets so those clips are always full when inserted into guns, and when shot game bullets don't so much as cause anyone pain until enough of them are lodged in a single body that they cause some kind of mysterious stroke.

There are tons of games which act as exceptions to one or two of these rules, but Red Orchestra's the only recent game I can think of to ignore them all. In Red Orchestra you point a gun at someone, there is a BANG and they DIE and you don't RELOAD because it takes AGES and besides in a tight spot you'll never empty a full magazine before getting SHOT yourself anyway.

It's obvious why this is traditionally avoided. It means combat's over in a flash and becomes the domain of twitch-gamers and campers.

And yet that's not the case in Red Orchestra. In most multiplayer games, the game's designed first and the weapons are chosen and tweaked to fit. In the name of setting itself apart, Red Orchestra built the guns first, the most worrying and wicked and downright real things the UT engine has ever seen, and created something great by packing the game tightly around them like a snowball.

It Tolls For You

At once the sneakiest adjustment and the one that's sat in everyone's face at all times is RO's map design. Levels take place in cramped, ruined cities, labyrinthine industrial sites and murky sprawls of countryside, all of which make it very tricky to line up enemies under your sights. By which I mean it's a pretty taxing process to actually find the other team. It turns the game from a shooter into more of a hunter and a creeper, elongating that combat which those realistic guns would originally render too short.

The player uniforms do the same job. The Russian side wear murky brown. The Germans wear browny green. All of the levels are murky, and some are murky browny green. This is a pretty awesome joke in a game where life and death is divided and decided by a split-second and friendly fire is always on.

Red2.jpgI've had more than one match of Red Orchestra where I was exploring some broken house, rounded a corner, come face to face with Another Guy and both of us leapt back out of sight again because for each of us it was the only option that'd definitely keep us alive and prevent us from team-killing.

The really fun part comes when the two of you decode the mental image you're left with and realise no, oh no, you actually are on opposite teams, you missed your chance for a snap shot and now you're alone in a house with a murderer. Although shooting from the hip can be a bad time too. Unless you've attached your bayonet, missing at close quarters with those old bolt-action rifles is a very noisy way of announcing your pants are temporarily down.

Again, the point of this is to slow down the combat, to plug the flow of death, and have everyone moving slower and more thoughtfully.

Another thing Red Orchestra does to accommodate its deadly weaponry is take the disadvantages of real guns as well as their capacity for murder, like having to aim. Shooting in Red Orchestra means looking down ironsights, which means being close to stationary and ditching your peripheral vision. As I've mentioned, it's possible to fire from the hip but unless you're close enough to an enemy to smell the tang of BO and vodka you might as well be firing blanks. Reloading takes a long time, of course, and there's no counter as to how many bullets are left in your clip. But you remember how to count, right?

The list goes on. Machine guns must be deployed on something to get the most out of them. Bullet drop is modeled for all guns, so if you're shooting from one end of the map to the other you'll need to aim above your target as well as leading them if they're moving. Even taking out tanks with anti-armour rockets means you can't hit your target from an angle or the projectile will bounce off the armour. You need a direct hit.

How many countless late nights and unnutritious meals went into experimenting with all these features I'm not sure, but the results can't be argued with. Red Orchestra is a distinctly playable and fast-paced shooter that boasts honest-to-God real guns.

It's an achievement in itself, sure, but on paper it can seem like a pointless one. When a thousand shooters have had (and continue to have) incredible success dancing around the concept of realism, getting only as close as they can without burning away at the fun of the game, why would you try and force your way closer?

There's an answer hidden in that question. A thousand shooters offer something fun. Battlefield or Warhawk or Counter-Strike offer up fun with both hands and a grin on their painted faces. Red Orchestra? It, and it alone, can provide something else.

Little Rabbit

I remember joining my friend for his very first game of Red Orchestra, how we dropped into the same server just as the match was starting and found ourselves in the muddy woolens of a crowd of Russian infantrymen. We were standing next to a truck in a snowy forest.

As the game began the rest of our team ran off as one to take up positions in the barns and trenches that gave us the best chance of survival, with my friend and I sprinting in their footsteps, rifles against our chests. Soon the first shots were crackling in the distance, their origin and destination unknown to us. We lay there, shoulder to shoulder in a ditch, and we waited and watched for movement.

"OH MY GOD", typed my friend. "I AM ERNEST HEMINGWAY."

Never mind the, uh, multitude of inaccuracies in his claim. The word is immersion. Red Orchestra's guns, seductive as they are, are really only the starting point of something greater.

Red1.jpgSee, realistic weapons that obey all the rules of the real world lead to one thing only, and that's realistic, believable combat. Because of its weaponry, Red Orchestra organically creates so many of the tactics and tropes that games like Call of Duty, Medal of Honour and Brothers in Arms have to fake through set pieces and abstract mechanics. Flanking, suppressive fire, stealth segments, hesitation before shooting, even morale and panic, all of it exists within Red Orchestra without the developers adding so much as a single line of code or breathing a word about it to the player, simply because of the way the guns work. Adapting to survive means adopting the small-unit tactics that exist in real life, and that'll happen whether you're conscious of it or not.

Another war story. I was playing a machine gunner on a heathery, flat map with a massive maze of trenches making up the centre. Through luck and more luck I'd managed to slink through to the far side of it undetected, and found myself and my enormous gun standing some twenty feet behind several enemy soldiers who were lying on their bellies and shooting down at my friends in the trench.

Feeling empty, I lay down facing them and tapped the key that began the laborious process of propping up my machine gun on the ground in front of me. As I was lining up the first shot I noticed a scrap of colour between me and the man I'd chosen to die first. Pulling back from the ironsights, I saw it was a single flower. Gee. It was a pretty thing. The rest of the landscape was so ugly.

That was when one of the soldiers turned around, saw me, whipped up his gun and shot me dead before I could have breathed a word. Some of us don't have it in us, I guess.

Red3.jpgI love that story, because it's too saccharine to appear in a piece of war fiction. A soldier dying because he was totally absorbed in the captivating beauty of a single flower? C'mon.

Think about this:

Because everything in a piece of fiction is preordained by the author, certain events, occurrences or coincidences are off-limits because they appear too unlikely or because they're too obviously meaningful or ugly. They either destroy the story because they aren't believable, or because the give off the stench of bad storytelling, or both.

Ridiculous, overblown imagery then is an area in which games can play where other forms of media cannot, because it's not something placed by an author. It can be something you find, or create yourself.

So, I love the flower story because it's a war story that only a game could tell, and I love Red Orchestra because it's he only game telling it.

Yikes. I remember when I envisioned Battle Klaxon as a light-hearted thing. Not sure what happened there. Tune in next time when I'm sure I'll have written 4,000 words on the parallels between Daggerfall and the Canterbury Tales.

No. No! Something fun, next time. I promise.

[Quinns is a freelance journalist who has fun working for Eurogamer, contributing to Rock Paper Shotgun and reading Action Button. You can currently find him either relaxing in Galway, working in London or at gmail dot com.]