Hell Let Loose Review: Hell or Highwater
There are few combinations in gaming that have been more saturated than shooters and World War II. It’s understandable; the era is fascinating. The weapons lend themselves well to video game balance. And the bad guys are easy to identify.
Yet Hell Let Loose by Australian developer Black Matter manages to stay fresh by embracing perhaps the most hardcore niche of military shooters. The result is a game that is brilliant for fans of the sub-genre, but will be incomprehensible to new players for the first several hours.
Hell Let Loose Review: Hell or Highwater
Hell Let Loose is a Military Simulation, or “Milsim”, game. It falls into a sub-genre best known for games like Squad and Arma. It is a first-person shooter, but it's not like Call of Duty. Large 50v50 battles play out between armies with full command structures.
Each army has a Commander, who then gives orders to squad leaders, who in turn command their individual squads to execute their goals and capture sectors on massive, sprawling battlefields. All of these roles are human-controlled.
Each army has supplies to manage, and battles play out on foot, in vehicles, and with artillery. Managing that supply chain is every bit as critical as the individual skirmishes on the map, as well-managed teams have more vehicles, spawn points closer to the action, and more advantageous positions.
Every player has a specific role, and there are over a dozen of them to choose from. The commander (one per side), gives out orders and uses resources to call in air strikes, request vehicles, set supply drops, and more. Infantry units fight battles and seize territory, recon units create spawn points in enemy territories, armor units use tanks, and the list goes on.
War is Hell
If that sounds dense, then you have the right idea. The systems in Hell Let Loose are intentionally meant to mimic the challenge of coordinating a war effort. No amount of being good at shooters can make up for logistical missteps, but you must win skirmishes to capture more of the map, which then generates more resources to feed the war effort.
It’s a symbiotic relationship between fighting and management.
It took me a long time to “get” Hell Let Loose. Several hours into the game, after many fruitless lives, I found myself having a miserable experience in a game that seemed generally well constructed and thought out. Trudging across enormous areas just to die to an unseen enemy, while perhaps, sadly true to war, isn’t a particularly fun way to spend time.
There is no tutorial, nor are there any bots or other instructional modes. Players are dropped right into the game, with only the many pages of text via the in-game manual to explain what is going on, or how to play.
Hell Let Loose is about as unfriendly to beginners as a game can be, which is a shame because there is a fun game to uncover here if you can find it.
Seeing the Light
It wasn’t until I finally found squad mates invested in a mission that all the pieces fell into place. Suddenly, I was reporting to an officer, who had specific goals fed by the commander. I had several people to help keep me alive (including a medic to bring me back from the brink of death). Both the number of enemies I killed and my average lifespan increased significantly.
In another match, I paired with a sniper as a two-man recon team. I was a spotter during this mission, and I hardly used my gun. Instead, my weapon was a pair of binoculars. We hid behind cover, and I surveyed a fierce battlefield, tagging enemies for my sniper to eliminate. As strange as it sounds, this was one of my most exhilarating experiences in Hell Let Loose.
The vehicles operate as facsimiles to their real-world counterparts (which is a fancy way of saying they are intentionally difficult to use). Driving a tank means carefully managing the gearbox. The gunner has a powerful weapon, but visibility is often difficult. Traveling long distances is best done with a passenger glued to their map, guiding the driver.
Like most things in Hell Let Loose, it is difficult, and requires teamwork. But a well-managed vehicle unit can dominate with a tank or drop-off large groups of infantries in key areas.
A Well Presented Battlefield
Hell Let Loose has a fairly standard progression system. Performing well on the battlefield, completing matches, and achieving victory all factor into earning experience points, which raise both a career and role level.
This in turn unlocks cosmetic items, and it also acts as an initial experience gate, preventing players from below a certain level (beginners), from taking on roles like Commander until they’ve put in enough leveling. It makes sense and progresses at a reasonable rate. It’s also a great incentive to not abandon a losing squad, as doing so can cost quite a bit of potential XP.
The visuals here aren’t particularly exciting. Some of this is by design. The dreary war-torn countryside in Europe isn’t meant to be light and colorful. Less forgivable is the frequent popups for vegetation and textures.
Hell Let Loose requires that you be observant, looking for any movement that could give away an enemy. That’s difficult to do when shrubbery keeps suddenly appearing, and somewhat surprising, given the otherwise sparse special effects.
Sound design, on the other hand, is fantastic. Plenty of games have big, booming sound effects. Hell Let Loose is one that clearly has deeper sound engineering. Bullets fly by your head with a threatening whizz. Distant gunfire accurately places enemy locations, and nearby explosions are devastatingly chaotic. The audio is significantly additive to the experience, provided you have the headphones or sound system to take advantage of it.
Hell Let Loose Review — The Bottom Line
- Deeply immersive military simulation
- Myriad ways to contribute to your team outside of combat
- Outstanding sound design
- No designed onboarding process for new players
- Gameplay can be boring and frustrating solo
- Surprising amount of texture pop on current-gen hardware
- Unappealing visuals
The experience of playing Hell Let Loose is largely dependent on the player. People new to the genre, especially those playing solo, may be inclined to abandon the game entirely after just a few hours, and I wouldn’t blame them.
But Milsim veterans, and players who stick around long enough to learn the ropes and find a squad, will find a deep and rewarding experience in this WWII shooter.
[Note: Team 17 provided the copy of Hell Let Loose used for this review.]