'Hell Let Loose' Asks 50 Players to Work Together, or Die

We have met the enemy and they are us.
HLL Hed

A peevish, flat Midwestern voice hisses from my headphones. "Hey squad leaders, we need more people on the point. Stop screwing around and get to Yamki."

This is a bad game with a bad commander. We don't need more people at the tiny steppe village on the Kursk map. We have about 40 infantry on our team across eight squads, and Yamki is really nothing more than a row of small wooden houses, burning ruins, a couple ditches, and a vegetable garden. You can't put too many people in Yamki before you're just jamming more fish in the barrel. But there is a circle on the map with a two-colored bar that shows the tug of war for the control point in Yamki, and our commander is tunnel-visioning on it, hectoring every squad leader to rush in there and survive just long enough for other players' respawn timers to finish counting down. The village is now under fire in a 300 degree arc, while our team has one last team-wide respawn garrison near the village that is under a constant spray of machine gun and rifle fire.

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What makes Black Matter’s Hell Let Loose special is that the battle for this one little hardscrabble patch of Soviet soil isn't solely or even mostly decided by what happens inside that tiny magic circle marked on the map. It can be decided on the entrenched ridgeline almost a kilometer away, which commands views stretching across and behind the village. A sniper on that ridge can smite any infantry that stands still for more than a couple seconds. A machine gunner can force infantry to crawl across the fields around Yamki on their bellies, half-blinded by the "suppression" effect of the shots snapping overhead and occasionally killed by the ones that dip into the tall grass. A tank parked on that ridge can render the entire approach to Yamki almost impassable, slowing infantry with its two machine guns and then blasting them with its main gun. A squad leader on that ridge can tell the entire team, all 50 members, exactly where the enemy is and what they are doing. And if all those units are on the ridge, there is no way to take Yamki from the front.

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On the other hand, the ridge faces two directions. If the attacker gets up there, they have almost as good a view of the roads the defenders have to use to approach the town. The trench network behind the ridge runs, with only a few gaps, all the way behind and around the village, and can give waves of attacking troops a multitude of places to set-up. Alternatively, a canny enemy commander could try and slip soldiers around the far side of Yamki village, using the fortified farmstead of Oleg's House as cover. Or they could call in an "airhead", an aerial bridgehead that serves as a temporary spawn point for an entire team, that you can place well behind enemy lines to create surprise attacks. To defend Yamki, a team needs to figure out which of these strategies the enemy team is employing, and send squads and tanks to shut them down.

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At its best, Hell Let Loose is full of these move-countermove dynamics. Every map features its own variable set of victory locations, and each one transforms the meaning and significance of other parts of the map. It's structured to help teams take advantage of them: each team is led by a commander who can call in special abilities and reinforcements using an RTS-like trio of strategic resources: manpower, fuel, and munitions. Mostly the commander functions like a central switchboard for all the various squad leaders they share the command comms network with. They can give orders to squad leaders but there is no guarantee those orders will be followed unless squad leaders decide to do so, and even then it depends on whether the other people in their squads also listen to their instructions. The command channel is mostly a place where information can be centrally located, with the map updated with fresh reports that filter from individual soldiers inside squads, up to their squad leaders, and then up to the entire team via command chat.

A good team has a commander and a few squad leaders who understand these dependencies and the potential for a little cooperation to act as a force multiplier. They will read the map, make educated guesses about what the enemy is doing next, and show up to the decisive battles that are occurring away from where the game is intentionally funneling the action. And when teams are decent, not even good or great, they just have to be decent, Hell Let Loose is one of the best multiplayer military shooters I've ever played and the first one I've loved since Red Orchestra 2.

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But when it's bad, it's a frustrating meat-grinder where someone will yell at you to "get on the point" every ten seconds while the command comms descend into profane finger-pointing. Squad leaders will realize none of their soldiers are using voice comms, so they're not listening to anything squadmates are saying and are instead just looking for a squad with an open slot for them to play their favorite character class, so they can take the gun they like and vanish into the fog of war. Squad leaders themselves might get fed up and quit without warning, leaving their squad unaware that nobody is passing their info up to the rest or the team. Commanders will fixate on the next objective, ignoring any attempts to shore up flanks, establish map control, or scout the enemy. In those games, the experience for players is little different from Operation Metro in Battlefield as they spawn in waves, begin beelining for an objective, and get gunned down in almost the exact same place by the exact same group of enemies.

Here is where Hell Let Loose's focus on the team haunts it a bit. The tradeoff that Battlefield has historically made is that good teamwork isn't really required to have a great round. If you want to log into Battlefield and just be a one-person army, you can do that and in fact this is probably what makes it so hard for Battlefield games to pay off on their size and scale. It's a really fun shooter if you just grab your favorite weapon and head out to cause chaos. At the other end of the realism spectrum, Red Orchestra made using antique WW2 small arms so fussy and satisfying that even in the midst of a lousy round with a lousy team, you could still access the core Red Orchestra experience just by embracing the deliberate, procedural nature of its weapons. In a word, my memories of that series are mostly killcam highlights of single, exquisite shots with bolt action rifles. Who won those matches? Were they good? I mostly can't tell you, and I mostly don't care.

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Hell Let Loose absolutely needs decent teams to sing. In this way its closest analogues aren't other military shooters but MOBAs. You are depending at every turn on other people knowing their role and being willing to play it. Not everyone needs to be on the same page: on any team of 50 players, it's a good bet 20-30 are mostly running around the battlefield trying to amass kills and ignoring objectives. But you need at least a couple people in your squad to pay attention to the map and the squad leader's information. You need someone who is willing to be squad leader, even if that means they're stuck with second-rate weapons for much of the game. You need people who are willing to work together to crew a tank. And you need a commander who is paying attention and helping people contribute to the big picture, and who knows that when they call a strategy or ask for help at a key location, most squad leaders will at least respond and try to make it work. When those elements are present, Hell Let Loose is incredibly dramatic as a spectacle and equally rewarding as an exercise in teamwork as all the complementary moving pieces of your team swing into action. It's a game that absolutely justifies its expansive maps and geological-scale match timers. When those elements are absent, Hell Let Loose is a decent but frustrating WW2 multiplayer shooter.

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Hell Let Loose isn't hedging its bets, and for the most part its community seems to be meeting it more than halfway. It's not designed to let people ignore the team-scale action in favor of individual rewards. For the most part, aside from some beautiful and atmospheric maps and incredible sound design, there are no individual rewards. Even the cosmetics you unlock mostly give you access to more beat-to-shit looking uniforms and men, a far cry from Battlefield V's occasionally "Wehraboo ebay auction" aesthetic (and it's worth noting how many of the game's most popular servers have very explicit "keep that Nazi shit out of here" rules). If you're going to have the best time possible with Hell Let Loose, the game is doing its level best to force you to work with other people, or force you to ragequit to another game.

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But while those players are being brought up to speed and either shaping up or shipping out, I can feel my own relationship with Hell Let Loose itself hanging by a thread. It's surprisingly difficult to play with more than one or two friends, because most servers are either at max capacity or are nearly deserted. If you want to play with a full squad of six, you have to find a server with a dozen open slots, because Hell Let Loose keeps will lock one side or the other to keep them roughly in balance. Bringing a full squad of friends involves a lengthy process of finding a server with open slots, frantically clicking on the faction you want to play so that you can join it the instant the sides are balanced enough that it unlocks, and then milling around waiting for your friends to finish going through the same process. It's understandable why the system operates this way, and within its constraints it works well, but it's also a pity that the most reliable way of having a good experience—playing with friends—is so fussy to set-up.

The result is that I often end up randomly matched with teams, and the number of experiences I can have is getting constrained.  I'm being backed into playing squad leader or commander more and more, because people quit those roles or avoid them in the first place. When I'm a squad leader, my group is often forced to play defensively or reactively, just because we will respond to a commander when nobody else will. I'll beg for help from a friendly tank, only to see a one-person tank crew roll up on my position and get blasted to pieces while a single player hops from the driver's seat to the spotter's seat and finally into the gunner's seat. When I change classes to help them control their tank, it's a good bet that they won't say a word on comms but will promptly drive the tank into a pond and drown us both. I can sense the same testiness from veteran players, the meta-game of Hell Let Loose itself turning into The Big Red One or When Trumpets Fade, with the game's experienced sergeants and officers simply running out of patience with the growing number of rookie replacements pouring into games and promptly causing disasters for their teams.

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Which is on some level itself another form of tribute to Hell Let Loose and the way, one way or another, it turns you into a character in its war stories. The other day, as my squad raced to defend the next to last point on the map, I stood next to another squad's engineer as the commander leaped into the truck full of supplies we'd just brought forward to build resource nodes and defenses. The commander drifted it in a wide circle around the bastion we were preparing to defend, then went fishtailing down the road to the front line. Before the truck could vanish into the distance, we saw it explode into a fireball from a tank shell.

On proximity chat, with the first rounds of German MG fire starting to snap overhead, the engineer cut in matter of factly: "You know I'm starting to think our commander might fucking suck."