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Hell Let Loose is a hardcore WW2 shooter with an RTS twist, and it's carnage

Command & plonker.

There's a lot of chatter these days about how my generation would deal with the Second World War. I can't answer that one for you (and, honestly, I don't really care), but if Hell Let Loose is anything to go by I personally would handle it by climbing into an empty tank, getting lost on the way to the front line and then driving into a tree.

Hell Let Loose is carnage, and it's brilliant. Ostensibly it's an ultra-hardcore WW2 shooter, a lot like renaissance roleplaying gem Holdfast: Nations at War, which I loved in equal measure, but with an extra twist. On top of the slower, more grounded approach to moment-to-moment combat is a simplified real-time strategy layer that can only be fully seen by your team's commander, and it's only the team that manages to balance those two sides effectively that's going to win.

Hell Let Loose's latest trailer. There's been good support through years of Early Access, and the recent PC launch is very promising so far.

So, how it works: you join a server like you would in Battlefield. Each match is two teams of 50, one commander each. Each squad - again, think Battlefield - automatically gets one Officer, or squad leader. The commander can see a full tactical map, and has the ability to use things like bombing runs and smoke cover to help their team advance, but they can only communicate, via voice, in the officer's channel. The squad leaders meanwhile can communicate in both the officer's channel and their own squad's channel, and then their squad members can just communicate there (or via proximity to anyone nearby, which is where you get a lot of "medic please!" and "thanks!" and "grenade!"). There's also text-based options for team and squad chatter but it's rarely used.

The point is, voice communication is everything: the commander needs to make strategic decisions based on their own exclusive info gathered from the map and the feedback they get from the squad leaders, and then feed those decisions down the chain of command. Basically, as commander you're an RTS player who has to talk to their little men instead of clicking on them. And, especially on public servers, the little men are also quite prone to ignoring you.

These boys were a treat to play with, but if you're not up for joining a dedicated Discord server, without at least one friend to form a recon squad with your experience is down to luck of the draw.

Where most of the strategic play comes in is around the capturing of key points on the map. The two game modes are either Warfare, where both teams start with control of half the map and have to push their enemy back, either securing territory all the way to the enemy base, or holding the most ground when the timer runs out; and Offensive, where there's an attacking and defending team, like Battlefield's Rush mode, and the defenders win by holding a point by 30 minutes without being pushed back to the next.

The map itself, meanwhile, is split into 3x5 sectors - a large grid of squares - and certain ones provide things like fuel, manpower or munitions, like a game of Company of Heroes, and without them your commander's going to be pretty useless. What's really interesting though are the subtleties around how these mechanics actually work. A "grid", or single map square, let's say B3, might contain a fuel point, and so you'd assume that like any take-and-hold game mode, the more players are in B3 the faster you capture it - but that's not quite right. A sector is made up of four grids, so you actually capture sectors by having more people both in the specific square where the point is, and the squares next to it that form a larger square on the map - so a sector might consist of A3, A4, B3, and B4 together as a four (if this seems like gibberish, see the image and caption below for a more elaborate illustration).

The big hashed circles are 'hardpoints', where people standing within them have 3x the capture power, but all four squares in the sector count towards your capture power overall. In this case, the one in our (blue) territory is influenced by its sector made of E5, E6, F5, and F6. When in doubt, count in groups of four squares from the corner of the map.

This means you need some very clever, very heavily coordinated play, across very large numbers of teammates, if you want to have any luck capturing a point. Without that, you might clog up the square with the point itself in it, but that then makes you very susceptible to mortar fire and artillery - not to mention commander abilities - and you could still lose the point itself by getting surrounded. On more hardcore servers you'll find intricate, straight-from-military school manouevres like the one embedded below, that involve detailed positioning of squads in specific trenches, tanks on specific hills, artillery firing at specific seconds and lots of people taking their roles very seriously indeed. Even on casual ones, a good squad leader and a full squad can lead to some cracking flanks.

The flipside, of course, are the public servers, which is where most players will likely experience the game, and which have in early access also been mostly chaos. Hell Let Loose is really a hardcore shooter in more than one sense. First, mechanically: there's effectively no HUD besides a compass, which means no crosshairs, no indication of bullets in your clip beyond that lovely audible ping when you're out, no minimap of little red enemy dots - just you, your gun, and your comrades. You're downed in one shot to any part of the body, only able to be revived by a medic, or killed outright by a headshot. When you get hit, you start bleeding out and will die without bandaging yourself up, with different amounts of time left for different parts of the body hit. There's no indication but sound for where gunfire is coming from, no handy lens reflection from half a mile away to point out a sniper, and only the squad leader can use the full range of on-screen pings for their team. Even artillery needs a very precise range converter, plus someone calling out positions, for you to land a hit.

"If you do persevere with Hell Let Loose, the upside is hugely rewarding."

But it's also hardcore in that it requires a lot of input from you, before you get much back. Hell Let Loose came out of Early Access this week and there's still no tutorial, aside from a 'field manual' glossary - in Early Access this was effectively just a message encouraging you to stick with it and be prepared for a bumpy start. There's little overt communication of those lovely gameplay subtleties - I learned about the multiple-sector captures from YouTube tutorials, for instance, although they are now in the field manual at last - and, while longer-term players are generally very happy to help a newcomer, asking for help is obviously daunting. Some, including those less straight, white, and male sounding than I, might understandably feel less comfortable using voice chat in a public multiplayer game. Some might not have a great mic, or might generally just be a little uneasy with striking up a chat with strangers online. And getting over that steep start just takes a lot of time. Games can last a good hour, and you might get through close to a dozen of them before things begin to really click.

Does a glossary count as a tutorial? Not really. It's plenty helpful once you know the basics, but reading a load of text before diving into combat isn't the best onboarding experience for first-timers. At least the old-timey menu music slaps.

If you do persevere though, the upside is hugely rewarding, and the learning curve itself can actually be very fun, if you put your actual performance to one side. Even if you just have one partner, nabbing a two-person recon squad and going on a sneaky little adventure to spot-and-snipe your way through the enemy backline can be hilarious. As can accidentally drowning while trying to cross seemingly shallow rivers (backpacks were heavy back then!), inching your way across open fields through the cover of long grass, or dodging, diving, dipping, ducking, and dodging your way through whizzing bullets and pine trees, or trying to drive the aforementioned tank. Seriously, you look through a window the size of a letterbox and have to use actual gears. Gears!

Carnage! Playing as a medic is actually good fun though, which is always a good sign - being the one to keep reviving and healing your squad, while still following them into the crossfire, feels valuable and satisfying. And hearing teammates yell 'KATYUSHA!' alongside that enemy truck-artillery's wonderful screams is something else.

Get a bigger squad, too, and role-playing can be a treat, your squad leader feeding back slightly tweaked orders from their slightly flustered boss, and your unit debating the merits but still respecting the chain of command. There's proper tension to carrying out a real plan as a group, clearing buildings one by one or sneaking around a tank and taking it down from the rear - and proper chaos to fending other attackers off amid the smoke and shelling and hellish crossfire. The spawning system is fantastic, where select roles are able to place garrisons that let your whole team choose to spawn there, or outposts that are just for your squad - a great officer will manage a kind of rolling frontline by continuously picking up and re-placing outposts as you edge through the muck of Belgian trenches or dust of some French town. And the scale of it all, too, is truly vast.

So, maybe a few teething problems around launch (I've not even mentioned performance - Hell Let Loose can be extremely demanding depending on the latest patch, and the volume of voice-over-IP chatter seems to have hamstrung the devs to an extent, so be prepare for a bit of tinkering and reddit research at first). But then also some truly huge potential if you can wade through it. Right now, it's looking like another gem for roleplayers or just shooter nerds who want more realism or a new challenge to master, but maybe one to hold off on for just a smidge longer if you're not sure you want to commit to something so demanding of your patience or time. And either way, best steer clear of driving tanks for a little while.

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Chris Tapsell avatar

Chris Tapsell

Deputy Editor

Chris Tapsell is Eurogamer's Deputy Editor and most decorated Football Manager. He used to write guides, and will send you links to his favourite spreadsheets if you ask him about League of Legends or competitive Pokémon.