Back in 2016, DICE and EA brought the major early-20th century conflict of World War 1 into the public video-game consciousness with the action oriented multiplayer shooter Battlefield 1. But just a year earlier, lesser known developers Blackmill Games and M2H released another multiplayer shooter that took place during the same war - Verdun. This game had a much harsher and more authentic interpretation of the conflict that saw players using bolt-action rifles and bayonets to charge between lines of trenches in a punishing but compelling recreation of the infamous Western-front trench warfare that often symbolizes the brutal clash between outdated tactics and modern weaponry, that made the war particularly horrific. After a stint in early access, the same developers have released a follow-up to Verdun that takes place on the Eastern front during the same war: Tannenberg.
In an effort to adhere to authenticity, the developers have approached the conflict between the Russian Empire and Germany on the Eastern Front a bit differently, with larger, more open maps and a higher player count to represent the more open nature of the battles fought on this front. The primary game mode in Verdun, Frontlines, saw both teams taking turns attacking and defending a series of trench lines. The centerpiece mode in Tannenberg, Manoeuver, is best compared to Supremacy mode in Rising Storm 2 Vietnam, or the Victory point mode in Company of Heroes games.
Large, open maps are divided into sectors, with each sector containing an objective to capture. Each team starts with a single HQ sector, and must move out and try and take control of sectors by capturing these objectives. Both teams have a set amount of tickets, and whichever team controls less of the battlefield will lose tickets over time, with the first team to run out of tickets losing the battle. Each objective also has a bonus tied to it, such as faster recharge times for call-ins like artillery and recon planes, shorter respawn timers, or key objectives that are worth two 'normal' sectors in terms of importance for ticket drain. A further complication is that if a team wants to get the benefits of a captured objective, it must be connected to their HQ through friendly territory.
Compared to the trench warfare that forced you to charge at a heavily defended enemy positions in Verdun, Maneuver feels more approachable and gives you more options. You can choose if you and your squad want to go on the offensive and try and take some more territory for your team, or stay in previously captured territory to defend. There is room to maneuver around objectives and flank them from the sides or behind. However, the fact that teams must connect captured territory back to their HQ means there is still a well-established front line most of the time, and you’ll have a general idea of where enemies will be coming from, making the mode less chaotic than Conquest in Battlefield or Supremacy in Rising Storm 2.
As with Verdun, teams are divided up into squads, with each squad containing four roles, each with unique loadout options. There are a variety of squads to choose from on each side, based on different regional infantry groups in the war, and though the roles remain the same between different squads, the specific weapons and loadouts vary. It’s a bit of an unusual system, and it will take a while for most players to easily remember the differences between the Cossacks and the Roumanians for instance. Further, each role in a squad has a few different pre-set loadout options, with one available at the start and the rest requiring tokens you earn through gameplay to unlock. The game is very generous at doling out tokens and I never felt unable to unlock a new loadout that looked interesting due to a lack of tokens, and nothing gameplay-related requires you to be a higher level to unlock.
Even moreso than Verdun, the roles themselves overlap pretty heavily. Every role will get access to bolt action rifles and bayonets, while only some are able to use semi-auto pistols and grenades. Unlike its predecessor, in Tannenberg, machine-guns are no longer tied to the gunner class, and instead exist as emplacements that anyone can use. Machine-guns were ridiculously effective in Verdun since everyone else had slow-firing weapons, and while realistic, made for some punishing gameplay for those on the receiving end. The new system works well because it limits machine-guns to certain locations, and while they are still highly deadly and effective, you generally have more chances to flank around, and can learn the locations of the emplacements and avoid their cone of fire.
The most important role in each squad is the non-commissioned officer (NCO), who is responsible for giving out orders and calling in support. Depending on the squad and loadout, officers can call in recon-planes to briefly reveal enemy positions on the mini-map, mortars and light artillery barrages, smoke barrages, and gas canister strikes that will create a cloud of deadly gas over a small area of the map, forcing players to put on gas masks. Effective use of call-ins can make the difference between losing and winning, though the NCOs still get access to competitive weapons, making it the class with the most responsibilities, but also the most options for dealing with any given situation.
Though Tannenberg is a bit more accessible than its predecessor thanks to the more welcoming game mode and some clever design tweaks, that isn’t to say the gameplay isn’t lethal or punishing, especially when starting out. Generally, it only takes one rifle shot to take someone out, or a couple of pistol bullets at most. Death will come quickly and often in Tannenberg, and this is something you will have to accept as part of the experience. With only slow-firing weapons available, no matter how good of a shot you are, if you get into a direct engagement with multiple enemies, you will not survive unless they have truly terrible aim. Weapons generally have very slow reload animations, with many rifles requiring you to empty an entire clip before reloading, and some requiring a reload after every shot. Your bayonet is a surprisingly useful tool for moments when clearing out or defending an objective, when you expend your ammo and don’t have time to reload.
The biggest challenge that might turn off new players is almost certainly going to be player visibility and differentiating friend and foe. Friendly players are marked with a blue circle above their heads if you look directly at them, while enemy players are unmarked. This makes it pretty easy to differentiate friend and foe if you are looking out over an open area and seeing people in the distance. However, things become more difficult when fighting over objectives, as players from both sides will be in close proximity, and with so many blue circles in a small area, it can be easy to make mistakes. The historically accurate but tough to differentiate mix of brown and blue uniforms don’t help matters, and I found myself watching blankly as an enemy walked up and bayonetted me in the gut thinking it was a teammate, or frantically shooting at teammates thinking they were enemies. Though you do receive a small point penalty for friendly fire, there does seem to be reduced damage as I never actually killed a friendly.
One interesting side-effect of the slow firing weapons is some pretty organic team work. Since you can’t effectively take down an enemy squad by yourself, personal success often relies on sticking together. One soldier running across an open area to take an objective has a pretty low chance of survival, but if you and a bunch of teammates charge at the same time, chances are at least a couple of you will make it to the objective intact. When NCO’s issue an attack order, they blow a whistle to spur on nearby troops. The spawn map and mini-map are cleverly designed, showing you where friendly soldiers are getting killed so you can avoid those areas or approach them with caution. The frustration of death is mitigated by quick respawns, and a generally good spawn system that lets you spawn on teammates or pick a specific location, but doesn’t let you spawn if the squad-mate is taking fire or the sector is getting captured.
It is also worth noting that in Manoeuver, empty spaces on servers will be filled up with bots. I found that the quick-play function worked very well and generally put me into servers with at least forty people, and though the bot AI isn’t great, having just a few of them running around on each team isn’t too noticeable and the bots will go after objectives and manage kill players pretty regularly without feeling cheap. You can even choose to host a private match and play exclusively with bots and/or friends if you so choose. Unfortunately, the other two modes available do not support bots, and currently no one is playing them, so the only way you’ll get to experience them is if you host a game and actively find people to join you. One of these is a team deathmatch variation called Attrition, while another is a rifles-only free-for-all dubbed Rifle Deathmatch, but I wasn’t able to try them out for this review since no one is playing them. Fortunately, Manoeuver seems to be consistently populated and is definitely the focal point of the game.
There are currently six maps you can play on, with a mixture of forests, rural villages and more open countryside to fight across. All maps can also be played at night or during the day time, and there are a variety of weather effects such as fog that can impact visibility. Though weather is not dynamic and won't change during a match, the variations do significantly change how the maps play, and will prevent you from getting bored of the six maps too quickly. A couple of the maps feature some open areas that can be difficult to deal with, but generally there is a good mix of terrain and the levels are all fun to play on.
Visually, the game looks surprisingly good for a budget-priced shooter with large maps running on the Unity engine, thanks to solid lighting and texture work making the environments pleasing to look at. Character models are fairly detailed, but animations are stiff, and this is also reflected in movement that can feel a bit clunky when climbing over objects or jumping. The game generally runs very well and I didn’t have any issues with crashing or instability, though I did notice that when matches fill up all the way, the extra strain on the server seemed to cause some occasional issues with hit detection and seemingly well-aimed shots not registering.
The audio side of things is a bit of a mixed bag. Rifles sound detailed and satisfyingly powerful, and lying in some tiny ditch as rifle shots whistle overhead and land with a thud in the flesh of nearby team-mates can be an audio-driven terrifying highlight of a match. However there is a lot of empty space in the sound staging, with artillery and grenades not sounding quite as deafening as you might expect, resulting in surprisingly peaceful moments in a recreation of a notoriously loud conflict. The yells of soldiers in battle are fairly well executed however, and the music makes for a rousing end to each match.
Tannenberg is overall a very solid follow-up to Verdun, with some clever design tweaks and an excellent new game mode making it a more accessible and consistently enjoyable game. Though the appeal will still be niche, the larger maps and player counts in combination with slow-firing weapons make for a unique and refreshing gameplay experience that allows teamwork to happen organically and makes for some really fun and exciting moments. Whether that's charging across an open field to an objective with teammates on either side and bullets whizzing all around, or crawling face-first in a ditch towards cover as a hidden sniper picks off teammates who crumple to the ground all around you. If you enjoy historically themed multiplayer games and are willing to accept a lot of unavoidable deaths, Tannenberg is a worthwhile pickup at a great price.