Beyond The Wire fashions itself as an epic simulation of the first World War. When you sign up you’re shuffled into a player-organized battalion, which then orchestrates the full military operations of war-torn Europe across massive, 100-player servers. Your conscript can serve the cause in whatever way they want: maybe they’re an artilleryman who shells the rival factions from afar. Or perhaps they log time as a gunner huddled behind machine gun emplacements, or a scout marking potential headshots for their sniper compatriots. It all sounds incredibly enticing, and when it comes together, Beyond The Wire delivers a steely, thinking-man's interpretation of the chaos found in DICE's 2016 standout Battlefield 1. The problem is, even in the days after its official launch out of early access, Beyond The Wire hasn't yet mustered the steady player count to fulfill its ambitions, and that makes the mere act of playing Redstone Interactive's latest more difficult than it ever should be.
In the first few days after its August 31 launch, Beyond The Wire at full-throttle was a sight to behold. Mortar shells pound the dirt as you dash to the frontlines, like one of the single-shot epics in Sam Mendes's 1917. Enemy soldiers seem to swarm the theater of operations, providing a grist for a hail of rifle fire. Redstone has devised a wonderfully deliberate weightiness with its gunplay, where one missed shot can seal your fate.
The popular fantasy of World War One consists of gray skies, burning warzones, and heavy machinery, and here that vision is presented with an Arma-like commitment to realism. Rifles seem to ricochet back into your shoulder every time you pull the trigger, requiring a tense reloading animation between every bullet, which in turn causes a flat-out panic when you know the soldier you were aiming at is locked and loaded. (There are no kill tags, so oftentimes you'll only know for sure that your target is dead if they stop firing back.) If that fails, you'll almost certainly be outfitted with a melee weapon — perhaps a saber, maybe a club — which can quickly morph the tight, sandbag-laden blindspots of Beyond The Wire's panoramas into a gristly slugfest. These are all smart choices that grounded me within the filthy misery of the conflict: this is not a World War One game brimming with 360 no-scopes or fighter jet suicide dives; death is everywhere, and you're lucky if you see it coming.
Similar to Battlefield 2 or Planetside, character classes are divided into distinct military sections, with one player serving as the leader of each of them while the others follow their orders. The leader's duty hinges on whatever section they're in charge of. If, for instance, they're leading an artillery division, they dictate where they want the mortars to be built, while the subservients do all the construction work. It's a cool concept that should add a juicy layer of strategy to Beyond The Wire's sieges.
All of this is accentuated by Beyond The Wire's substantial graphical pedigree. These maps are gigantic and follow the standard Battlefield-ish control point formula as they send you trampling over impressively slushy mud, piles of lacerated bodies, and the blood-dappled meadows of no man's land. It's gorgeous across the board, and Redstone meshes that fidelity with its gameplay mechanics. For instance, when a bullet hits flesh it explodes in a puff of pink mist, which is the only surefire way to know that you've scored a frag. Like most hardcore shooters, Beyond The Wire is more focused on experiencing its setting than esports-quality readability of headshots, and these wrinkles kept me invigorated throughout the slow-paced cruelty of turn-of-the-previous-century combat. While it never feels great to be picked off in the field by a combatant that you never laid eyes on, it is certainly on theme.
For a few brief hours, Beyond The Wire was clicking at all cylinders… but it is difficult to know how long it will be before it returns to the meager metrics of its last days of early access. After all, by twilight of opening day, the sole active server had deteriorated to 63 players. Granted, that’s a marked improvement on what I’d seen leading up to the 1.0 patch, where the most I’d seen in a game was 16 and oftentimes it was just me and another sad soul loitering around the wasteland, but nothing that inspired much long-term confidence.
It's easy to see Beyond The Wire's potential, but if the player pool dries up again it’ll be a lot harder to experience it. This could be alleviated if Redstone hemmed in a few of its aspirations. Perhaps it could shrink a handful of the maps to create some tighter combat corridors, or provide some alternative modes beyond the huge, hollow multiplayer servers. (Right now, your only other option is a bare-bones shooting range.) Better yet, all of those empty seats could be filled with bots, which, while not the most elegant solution, would at least give us a few more things to shoot at. But thus far, even at the official release date, the developer hasn't made any concessions. So unless Beyond The Wire quickly earns and maintains a plateau of players, its long-term health will be in question.
It's hard to know why Beyond The Wire hasn't overcome those struggles. Perhaps the World War One shooter market is too competitive – another game in the genre, Isonzo, arrives in a matter of days. Regardless, as long as that population problem persists, it will continue to hamper Redstone's cool ideas. There is nothing wrong with this game other than the lack of people playing it, and tragically, that is a tough problem to solve.