I must admit that I never got around to playing Verdun, the previous WWI shooter by the folks over at M2H and Blackmill Games, though not for a lack of interest. As I’ve said in my previous reviews of Insurgency: Sandstorm and Rising Storm 2: Vietnam, I’ve been on a bit of an authentic military shooter binge over the past several months when it comes to scratching my team-based online multiplayer itch. So, with the release of Tannenberg from Early Access, I decided to travel to the trenches of the Eastern Front and get a taste of what all those Verdun fans have been raving about over the past few years.
Publisher: M2H, Blackmill Games
Developer: Blackmill Games
Platforms: PC (reviewed), Mac, Linux
Release Date: February 13th, 2019
For the unaware, Tannenberg is somewhere between a standalone expansion and sister game to Verdun. Both games are even in the same launcher, allowing you to freely swap between them from the main menu. While Verdun was about the Western Front, Tannenberg lets you experience massive battles between the Russians, Germans, and their allies on the Eastern Front of the Great War.
While Tannenberg technically has three game modes (Maneuver, Deathmatch, and Team Deathmatch), realistically the only mode you’ll be playing is Maneuver because no one plays the other two.
Maneuver is a fairly standard area control mode where each side has a set number of tickets that are gradually drained based on the territories you control. Each territory offers buffs, such as reduced cooldown on support abilities, with a few key territories that double the ticket drain of the enemy team as long as you can hold them.
Your team wins by either completely draining the enemy team’s tickets, or by having a greater number of tickets at the end of the match, with the default match timer being around 40 minutes.
One thing to note is that, although Tannenberg only has six maps, it features a weather system that helps to break up any monotony. There’s your standard day and night versions, but also snow and fog. The night and fog variants are particularly interesting as it makes seeing distant enemies more difficult, a perk that you’ll understand once I get into the sheer lethality of the game’s weapons.
If you are new to the series, then the first thing you’ll immediately notice about Tannenberg is the complete lack of any sort of tutorial. There’s a short video about the barebones of Maneuver, but nothing else is actually explained.
Sure, the core mechanics of moving, shooting, and knowing when to put on a gas mask are straightforward enough, but the Squad and progression systems have some nuances that could have been explained a bit better. I’ve ran into fellow newbies plenty of times asking basic questions about mechanics because they aren’t explained in-game.
The quick overview of the Squad system is that players are grouped into 4-man fireteams, where each player is a different class. The NCO is the leader, and can issue orders, call in support abilities, and usually has some sort of aura that buffs the squad. The other members are some variant of rifleman, support, and grenadier. The rifleman is your standard grunt. The support can place ammo crates and acts as a field telephone for the NCO to call in fire support. Finally, the grenadier comes with more grenades than the others.
The weapons, gear, and abilities your squad has access to depends on your chosen nationality or unit. The Entente Powers have access to the Russian Frontovik, the Cossacks, and the Roumanians, while the Central Powers include the Austro-Hungarian K.u.K., German Infanterie, and the Bulgarians. Each Squad has a different selection of weapons and passive bonuses, and you can freely swap between the three factions for each side by initiating a vote during the match.
You gain career points as you play that are used to unlock new loadouts and specializations for the various classes in each Squad faction. There’s three levels of specializations per class, per Squad, and for the most part they are all side-grades rather than straight upgrades.
An NCO might trade in his handgun and saber for a rifle, while a grenadier specialization might downgrade from a rifle to a pistol in exchange for more grenades. You gain career points at such a rapid pace that you’ll probably never be in a situation where you don’t have the points to buy an upgrade when trying out a new class or Squad.
The atmosphere and feeling of authenticity are definitely some of Tannenberg‘s strong points. Unlike a certain mainstream franchise that dabbled in WWI somewhat recently, Tannenberg actually feels like what you’d expect from a WWI game. Aside from some revolvers and other handguns, everyone will be fighting with some type of bolt action rifle, and most shots to the torso will be an instant kill.
I’ve always found bolt action rifles to be incredibly satisfying in games, and in Tannenberg they get a chance to really shine. I personally recommend turning manual bolt cycling on to really up the authenticity and feeling of satisfaction when you nail several enemies storming down a hill from 100 meters away.
While I enjoy bolt action rifles and appreciate that Tannenberg doesn’t go full Battlefield 1, I do wish there was greater weapon variety. I know that Verdun had a few classes with portable machineguns and a handful of shotguns and submachineguns, but in Tannenberg its all bolt action rifles and handguns. Admittedly that could just be because of the nationalities involved.
The rifles also feel a bit too good at times, to the point where its hard to justify using any of the specializations that have handguns as their main weapon. The rifles don’t seem to have any significant bullet drop-off, and once I got used to the shooting mechanics, I was regularly sniping people from absurd distances.
If you can see a person, even if they are a speck in the distance, you can probably hit them without too much trouble. The ease at which you can hit enemies from great distances makes using the emplaced machine guns suicidal, as other players will probably have you in their sights as soon as you start firing.
Tannenberg‘s visuals and sound assets are also great, and really help with the game’s feeling of authenticity. The gas mask animations and FOV are particularly well-done.
When gas shells hit, all the nearby soldiers will begin coughing and choking, and your character will gasp for breath for a few seconds after getting their gas mask on. You can hear your character’s muffled chatter and breathing, and the goggles of your mask always have bits of dirt and scratches on them from use in the field.
The masks restrict your ability to see clearly quite a bit, meaning that gas attacks are effective even though everyone has ready access to a mask. Squad chatter is also all in the appropriate language of whatever nationality you’re playing as.
While the animations are fairly solid, they also have the level of jank and glitchiness I’ve come to expect from mid-budget military shooters these days. Sometimes the animations will bug out, especially if you enter or exit your iron sight view rapidly or while in the middle of other animations. I’ve also had the gas mask animations stay even after I took the mask off.
There’s a number of other bugs and glitches that I’ve encountered frequently enough that they are worth mentioning. Getting on a machine gun, calling in support, and refilling your ammo all come in the form of UI prompts.
I’ve had plenty of times where the prompts didn’t appear, stayed on my screen long after leaving the vicinity of the item in question, or just straight up wouldn’t allow me to take the intended action.
I’ve found myself stuck on or under terrain a decent number of times as well. There’s a handful of trees that you can glitch your way up, though the lethality of weapons in the game means that it’s ill-advised as a tactic.
In one instance I got stuck under an overhang in a trench, and no amount of jumping, crouching, or going prone could get me dislodged. Luckily my position was shelled with mustard gas shortly afterward, allowing me to let the toxic fumes envelope my character with the merciful release of death.
Ultimately though, the biggest flaw with Tannenberg is something that isn’t even necessarily the dev’s fault: The anemic playerbase. Tannenberg just released from Early Access around a month ago, but the game’s playerbase is nowhere to be seen.
On a busy night, the American servers cap out at around 170 people. Most of the time the player count is way below that. My session last night, at 6:00 PM CST, was a measly 53 players divided between two matches. In the time that I’ve been playing Tannenberg, I’ve never actually played in a fully populated, 64-player server.
Luckily, the Maneuver mode features AI soldiers fighting alongside the players as one of its core mechanics, and the game will fill out half-full player Squads with bots. Unfortunately, the game’s AI isn’t exactly the source of the smartest bots I’ve ever encountered, and are little more than cannon fodder to pad out your K/D. Navigating doors is a particularly arduous task for the AI, and I’ve seen several traffic jams caused by this. Other times they’ll mindlessly stand somewhere, or attach themselves to a machine gun emplacement and not shoot at any enemies.
The low player count and the ineptitude of the AI can result in some massively one-sided battles where one team simply didn’t stand a chance. A good chunk of the people playing Tannenberg have been doing so since the game first entered Early Access a few years ago. Some are even veterans of Verdun on top of their prior experience in the Early Access build. This can result in some truly frustrating matches if you were unlucky enough to get stuck with mostly new players and bots against a decent number of veterans.
This puts me in a rather difficult spot as both a reviewer and someone who has really enjoyed their time with the game. On one hand, I want to give Tannenberg a glowing recommendation because its a deeply immersive shooter with some really solid gunplay.
On the other hand, I can’t deny the fact that the low playerbase has me extremely worried about the game’s future. You can usually find a server with about 40 people in it most nights, and that’s still enough to provide you with a few hours of entertainment.
However, if the player base is only in the high double digits this soon after launch, where will it be two months from now? Six months? A year? Verdun still gets comparable numbers some four years after launch, so I’m sure there will be an audience for Tannenberg as the years go on, it’s just that you’ll likely need to get used to playing on half-populated servers. A full, 64-player match seems like a distance dream based on my time with the game.
Glitches, inept AI, and low player counts aside, I do still recommend giving Tannenberg a shot, especially if you are looking for a game that really nails the look, feel, and atmosphere of WWI. The weapons feel great to use, and I imagine that Tannenberg would be an amazing experience with a large group of friends willing to coordinate their actions. It’s convinced me that I need to check out Verdun at some point too. I just wish there were more people playing, because it really deserves your attention.
Tannenberg was reviewed on Windows PC using a review copy provided by Blackmill Games. You can find additional information about Niche Gamer’s reviews/ethics policy here.