There are likely plenty of gamers who have become firearm enthusiasts after playing some of the more popular first-person shooters. Who hasn’t wished they could fire in real life (IRL) some of the guns seen in such titles as Call of Duty: Modern Warfare or Sandstorm: Insurgency? Likewise, historic games–notably the Battlefield series have helped put some less well-known weapons in the spotlight.
Though it is unlikely that we should expect prices for the Carcano M1891 or Steyr Mannlicher M1895 to vastly jump, those bolt action rifles
have each received new attention thanks to the recently released FPS from Blackmill Games/M2H. Titled simply Isonzo
, it is the third entry in the developer’s World War I Game Series that began with 2015’s Verdun
and continued with Tannenberg
four years later.
The game’s load screens provide insight into the battle and even a historic image that helps showcase the great lengths the developers went to in creating the maps.
Currently in its pre-release “Early Access” stage on Steam, Isonzo actually is already appearing more polished than some “final” releases from much larger publishers. And it could make some largely overlooked rifles, pistols, and machine guns a bit more familiar in the process.
The deployment map is similar to most first-person shooters, but this one offers a preview of how the player will look on the map. In this case, the Austrian infantryman is outfitted as he would have been during the early stages of the war.
The Battles of Isonzo
Unlike the previous titles in this series, Isonzo is unique in that it is actually focused on the series of battles for which it is named. Verdun wasn’t just about the nearly year-long 1916 battle—the longest of the First World War—but instead featured multiple engagements across the Western Front. It also offered multiple playable units that weren’t at the actual battle—notably the United States, which didn’t even enter the conflict until after that bloody engagement had concluded. Likewise, Tannenberg was named after the infamous Battle of Tannenberg, but the game also served to cover numerous engagements on the Eastern Front during the First World War.
With Isonzo, however, the action is specific to the dozen battles fought near the Isonzo River in the Julian Alps between 1915 and 1918. Though largely overshadowed by the fighting on the Western Front, around one million soldiers were still killed or wounded in the fighting. Though Electronic Arts Battlefield 1 featured the fighting between the Kingdom of Italy and the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the region, that game took numerous “liberties” with the events and even provided players with a slew of automatic weapons, armored vehicles, and even airships.
Isonzo is far more grounded in reality, or at least as much as a video game can be.
To the uninformed, the uniforms could be mistaken for the American Civil War with mixes of blues and grays—however, the Austrians are in light blue while the Italian Army is kitted out with greenish-gray uniforms.
It would also be fair to say that this is a shooter that will likely appeal more to history buffs who enjoy video games, than those hardcore gamers, who aren’t likely to appreciate the title’s attention to detail. Isonzo is one that offers more than period-correct small arms (which we will get to), but the game’s developers have strived to recreate the uniforms and equipment.
The post-game recap of the highest players also shows the distinct uniforms of the era—it certainly is a different look than what many gamers might expect.
The game offers the ability to customize each character. Note the German-style Austrian M1917 steel helmet.
Players can customize their characters—including deciding on what type of headgear this Italian soldier would receive.
Where there is a break from reality is that those uniforms actually “evolve” not with the individual maps, but rather with the experience of the player/squad. Thus players can expect to see the more colorful uniforms worn by each side in the early stages of the war, as well as the more muted grays and greens that were common later in the fighting. Currently, the game only includes Austrian and Italian units, and it isn’t clear if the German alpine troops that took part in the larger stages of the campaign will be added at another point.
However, for history buffs, there is a lot of eye candy to take in already.
Actual First World War Austria steel helmets—including the early “Berndorfer” model (left) and the later German-style M1917 pattern helmet. Both can be found in the game.
The Gameplay — Pretty Standard Stuff
Unlike many other shooters that offer a multitude of modes, gameplay in Isonzo is a bit more focused—or perhaps limited depending on what one might expect. It involves large-scale infantry assaults spread over successive maps. In each, enemy objectives must be captured, or key points—such as artillery and bridges—must be blown up, while the advance must be prevented by the other side.
An Italian infantryman reloads his Carcano rifle—note the accurate stripper clip and proper-sized ammunition.
The gameplay would be familiar to those who have played the Operations Mode of Battlefield 1 or the Battlefield series’ “rush” modes of gameplay where one team takes an offensive role while the other is on defense. Unlike in Verdun, there aren’t counterattacks either, so once ground is lost there is no way of recapturing it.
One complaint is that the teams are never swapped, playing the map from the other perspective involves manually changing to the other side or going to a different game server. Yet, this also means that players can get comfortable with the respective side throughout a series of engagements.
Isonzo utilizes a now-common FPS class-style system that provides specific abilities, while the game has also taken on some familiar attributes from other shooters. This includes the ability to create or destroy defensive positions, deploy mortars and machine guns, spot enemy positions, and heal teammates. Each team’s officers can call in air support, artillery strikes, launch smoke, or even poison gas. Different weapons and other passive perks can be unlocked as a reward for gameplay.
Isonzo — Much Accuracy
While the designers strived for it to be historically accurate in terms of equipment, uniforms, and small arms, it is still meant to be an accessible game that isn’t buried in too much realism.
The distinct Villar Perosa M1915 submachine gun—the first such weapon deployed in combat—is one of the game’s truly “exotic” weapons. Not its use of twin magazines and barrels!
As noted, the game’s designers took great efforts to make Isonzo look visually striking. What is also notable is that unlike Verdun and Tannenberg, which largely featured generic locations based on the frontlines of their respective settings, Isonzo was meant to more accurately depict a few specific places where actual fighting took place.
Right off the bat, it could be easy to see why those familiar with games like the aforementioned Call of Duty or Insurgency: Sandstorm might not be able to get into Isonzo. Most players will be carrying bolt action rifles, which may not appeal to those looking for the fast-paced gameplay that comes with carrying a modern assault rifle. The settings are also meant to recreate the trench warfare of the First World War, so this means crossing open terrain with little cover, and there aren’t a multitude of options for flanking maneuvers to occur. It must be remembered, the leadership on both sides was determined to break the enemy lines through direct assaults.
A period photo of the Villar Perosa M1915 submachine gun with its unique defense shield. (Public domain)
At the same time, Isonzo still offers typical gameplay flourishes—a mountaineer can spot the enemy with binoculars and those unfortunate troops will suddenly appear on the overhead map. Likewise, to help differentiate friend from foe, green dots hover over those on your side. That should be a blessing to those not as familiar with the particular Austrian and Italian Army uniforms of the era. Yet, it can be all too easy to mistake friend for foe!
The Guns of the First World War
This is a game that will certainly be appreciated by those who have an interest in the historic firearms of the era—especially the bolt action rifles, revolvers
, and machine guns employed by each side. The weapons are also specific to each side, and soldiers can’t “pick up” or swap out weapons from the fallen.
The Schwarzlose Machine Gun Model 07/12 serves as the Austrian fixed heavy machine gun. It is accurately modeled, except that it has the extended water jacket of the models used by the Romanian Army during the Second World War. This is likely due to the non-firing “dummy guns” sold online by companies such IMA -USA.
Don’t expect to find a Lee Enfield
or Colt 1911
however. Rather this is about the Beretta M1915 and Steyr M1912 automatic pistols; and the Carcano M1891, Vetterli-Vitali M1870/87, Steyr Mannlicher M1888-90 and Repetiergewehr M.13 bolt action rifles. Impressively, these have many of the correct markings and largely accurate action during gameplay. Though it is possible to run and gun, there is virtually no accuracy—and this is where Isonzo
does stand apart from Battlefield 1
and other shooters.
A non-firing Schwarzlose—notice how it is also painted in the post-WWI era green paint of the Romanian Army.
Of course, it wouldn’t be a First World War FPS if it didn’t have some machine guns—the weapon largely responsible for the horrific trench warfare that was seen in nearly every theater of the conflict. Each side has a static machine gun that can be employed in defensive position. For the Italians, it is the Fiat-Revelli M1914, a water-cooled, closed-bolt, recoil-delayed blowback-operated machine gun that was unique for employing a strip-feed box magazine; while the Austrians are equipped with the Schwarlose Model 07/12, a belt-fed heavy machine gun.
Unfortunately, the designers incorrectly modeled the latter after the Romanian-used version that featured an extended barrel and cooling jacket—but that fact is likely something only WWI firearms experts would catch (or if you happened to own a dummy gun that IMA-USA sold a few years ago). Each weapon was known to have jamming issues, but fortunately, the game doesn’t get into such details.
This game has more dead Italians than a season of The Sopranos!
For more mobile firepower, the game also includes two automatic weapons—the Danish-made Madsen M1902, which is exclusive to the Austro-Hungarian assault troops; and the Italian Villar Perosa M1915 submachine gun. The choice of the former is likely to balance with the Italian’s SMG, but there is little evidence that the Austrian forces used the weapon.
The Villar Perosa is a unique choice as well, but as the first SMG to ever see combat, gamers might have been disappointed had it not been included in the game. The twin-barrel weapon was originally fielded in the role of a crew-served light machine gun, but with the establishment of the Arditi Corps in 1917, it was fielded as an assault weapon for clearing trenches. Only a few dozen were known to have been deployed before the war ended.
The Fiat-Revelli M1914 heavy machine gun in action in the Alps!
The unique Fiat-Revelli M1914 heavy machine gun. It was similar in appearance to the Maxim machine gun but had entirely different internal workings. It was also notable for it being fed from a strip-feed box magazine. Though the game version operates effectively, in actual practice it was prone to malfunctions!
While automatic weapons might seem to unbalance the game, or even give a particular player an advantage, this is far from the case. Crossing no man’s land with either automatic weapon is far easier said than done. Each is great for clearing trenches, but again this isn’t Battlefield 1, where it is so easy to fire while on the move. Those weapons are not only far from controllable by mobile troops, but when stationary the operator becomes a juicy target for snipers.
The same is quite true of the fixed machine guns. Though each can help slow down an advance, the mountainous terrain offers an advantage for a sniper to take out the gunner. Yet, because of the terrain, with its trenches, tunnels, and fortified positions, snipers don’t have an immediate advantage over the common infantryman either.
The game offers literally dozens of period-correct weapons, from bolt action rifles and heavy machine guns to sidearms to trench mortars.
As with Verdun and Tannenberg, whether the gameplay is to be considered enjoyable or frustrating will also depend on one’s appreciation for the First World War. As with the other titles in the series, it is meant to capture the futility of the situation—namely crossing no man’s land with almost no cover and often with little chance of success.
Unlike the open fields of Tannenberg or the largely flat terrain of Verdun, Isonzo adds mountains and valleys, which also limit the paths that players can take. This can create choke points that are as frustrating to defend as they are to assault. Likewise, the high ground doesn’t always offer an advantage. Though this could be seen by hardcore gamers as poor map design, it is actually meant to highlight the difficult situation faced by both sides in the actual conflict.
The Italian assault troop prepares to deploy. Note the correct mid-war brown uniform and leather ammo pouches. It isn’t clear if this game will have the longevity of other shooters. There is certainly some good variety in the various settings, which include high mountain peaks, river valleys and even fighting in a few villages as well as street-to-street fighting in a town. However, there is just the one mode of game—and that may not be everyone’s cup of Viennese tea or glass of Italian wine!
Yet, for those who don’t want another game filled with modern assault weapons, Dragonov sniper rifles, and rocket launchers, and can appreciate an era before tactical gear and camouflage, this is the game that promises something truly different. It might also make some with an interest in historic firearms take a greater interest in Austria and Italian bolt-action rifles from the First World War. Already, this reporter has been searching for them on Gun Broker!