Miles and Josh dive into the trenches of WW1 Italy of Isonzo. Does it hit the mark? The Finger Guns Review.
Despite being a key battleground in both World Wars, Italy has always been a bit underserved when it comes to video game action. The stunning vineyards and mountainous terrain should be ripe as theatres for bombastic battles and gritty action, and while the conflict of World War I has become less appealing in the modern age of gaming, could it still have weary legs?
Most recently, Hell Let Loose – released in 2021 – did a great job in reinvigorating people’s enthusiasm for the classic warfare of World War II. It was certainly allied by having a PS+ release, enticing would be recruits to enlist in the old-school battlegrounds once again. Isonzo then, has a slightly uphill struggle to overcome people’s weariness of older shooters, while also meeting the high bars set from other entries over the last couple decades.
Myself and Josh were given the opportunity to scope out Isonzo’s gritty conflict, popping headshots, donning gas masks and charging bayonette first into the sun-kissed fields of Italy. Does it have the pop of a Sicilian lemon or does it cower like a rookie facing their first hail of gunfire?
Over The Top
Unlike the Call of Duty’s and more recent Battlefields of the world, Isonzo is going for the boots on the ground, gritty and realistic approach to the Great War. It’s an FPS where your movement is slow, laboured even. Rifles take an age to fire and reload, with your sights often betraying your reflex aim. Aiming your pistol will have your hand swaying like a drunk stumbling home from a speakeasy. It’s all designed with the aim of immersing you in the less glamorous, but infinitely more real life of a soldier over 100 years ago.
It’s also multiplayer centred, with no story or single player campaign. There’s a single mode of attack vs defence, with the assaulting army attempting to capture points from the defenders or blowing up a designated target. Each match will have multiple phases, whereby each time the attacking force succeeds, the battlefield is pushed back and new targets are spawned until either all objectives are captured or the defending army whittles down the counter of the enemy by a certain amount of points.
The lack of single-player isn’t an issue. Like Insurgency Sandstorm or even something akin to Chivalry 2, story just isn’t the point. You can play offline with bots or if there aren’t enough real humans to fill out a lobby, the AI will fill in the gaps. Or rather, it’ll attempt to. Problem #1 we had with playing Isonzo was that barely anyone else was (what with it being pre-release and all), so we were left to languish with the either horrendously stupid AI or the ridiculously OP occasion where they 360 no scope you with a musket from 40 metres.
Of course, this isn’t the game’s fault, it’s just a shame it couldn’t get to show off how well the gameplay translates when you have dozens of actual thinking people waging warfare against each other. What is more of a problem is the lack of variety in modes. Namely, there just isn’t any. By the time you’ve played each of the 6 maps, these boots will have been thoroughly worn in. Even after just 7 hours playtime I was finding myself losing interest pretty quickly. The uniform of a solid multiplayer shooter is on display here, but it’s missing material and layers suited for combat.
Mechanically, shooters will typically go for fast-paced, twitchy gameplay that suits modern audiences, or a more grounded, methodical pace that placates traditionalists. Isonzo is without doubt the latter. There’s a variety of single-shot rifles and pistols that can be equipped across the different classes you can choose between spawns. While there is a very small selection of quicker firing weapons, they’re much later unlocks once you’ve levelled up each individual class.
Each shot feels weighty and packs a major punch. Both myself and Josh marvelled when we popped our first headshots and saw a burst of red spew forth all around the now headless body collapsing to the floor. Artillery strikes will cause shellshock affecting your movement and aim, while gunfire whistling past your head will narrow your vision. As movement is so slow, it can feel a bit like playing Killzone 2 for those who can remember, with almost an extra level of gravity applied to your traversal.
While you might be thinking “great, that’s authentic 101”, you may want to hold off just a moment. It’s definitely realistic in a lot of ways, but some of the systems are just outright clunky and frustrating. Hitting barbed wire nonsensically paralyses your character altogether, shots will miss that were definitely lined up perfectly and sometimes pressing R2 wouldn’t trigger my character to fire their weapon, which in the thick of battle results in your arm being blown off.
Clambering over walls and trenches is also a crapshoot as to whether the game will grace you with the ability to do so, and it’s all compounded by how slow all these facets make a match feel. Each game can run anywhere from 20 minutes to over an hour, so constantly trudging around or waiting 15 seconds to respawn feels deflating. Each time a problem raised its head I couldn’t help but feel a bit demotivated from keeping up the good fight.
The variety in Isonzo comes from swapping between classes and using the handful of battlefield stations you can construct or destroy. The officer class for example, can fire flares into enemy territory before using an officer table to call in a bombing raid, gas cloud or sustained artillery. Meanwhile, an engineer could be setting up sandbags or building MG nests to mow down crowds of soldiers at once.
Messing with the different abilities each class has was fun temporarily and there’s decent diversification here to make specialising or role-playing feel justified, but each class simultaneously feels a bit homogenous. All start off with a rifle and one of a shovel or ammo box with a bandage. The lack of a specialised medic class (you can 75% heal yourself or be 100% healed by anyone else) makes sense given the time-to-kill is, well, 95% instant with one-shot kills. However, support classes feel devalued to some degree and it makes every class feel like frontline fodder, which may put off support-orientated players.
Standard armaments aren’t your only options though. MG nests, artillery cannons and mortars can be found scattered around for both sides. Mortars are like firing a glowstick into the ocean without spotters, while the artillery cannons are powerful but hard as Hell to aim accurately. Getting successful hits feels great and the limited ammunition makes sure they aren’t abused throughout. Beyond this and being able to destroy bridges on a couple of maps however, there’s little else that dynamically changes the battlefield or creates organic problem-solving.
Elements like destructible environments or vehicle combat go a long way to making the conflicts feel immersive, chaotic and brutal, so they’re a big miss in Isonzo where it’s just trenches, guns and mortars. Sure, it’s a good depiction of the brutal, mundane reality of WW1, but its lacking that dynamism that holds your attention for longer. The only other cool idea is the use of forward spawn points which can be built and destroyed by both sides, reducing an attacking team’s ability to reinforce or allowing them to overwhelm the defenders with superior numbers.
World War Bugs
So far, I’d have considered Isonzo to be decent. It’s not spectacular, it’s not terrible – it’s a solid, authentic experience of WW1 combat that has some issues with variety and replayability over long play sessions. In terms of map design, it’s pretty impressive. Each map has multiple sections, usually involving a lot of verticality and blind spots thanks to the numerous trenches you’ll need to skulk through. The claustrophobic nature of trench warfare is captured supremely as you hesitantly round a corner toward an objective, while the big open spaces incite dread as you sprint in the hope you don’t get mercilessly gunned down or mortared.
The vistas of the maps are also great, whether it be lush fields that have been cratered by shelling or the perilous mountain regions where a misstep will have you plummeting to your death. Though, they did start to mesh together after a couple of play sessions and a bit more visual variety would have gone a long way to differentiating the campaigns a bit more. Unfortunately, the looks of the maps is where the compliments end, as just like a beautiful Carcano rifle, Isonzo is prone to jamming at the most inopportune moments.
For both myself and Josh, screen-tearing was absolutely rampant throughout our time surviving the trenches. Certain medals wouldn’t unlock despite meeting requirements in multiple matches. In one match I spawned underneath the map, which promptly had me freefalling to the end of the known universe, requiring me to forcibly kill my character to get back again. Josh couldn’t equip his shovel for love nor money, meaning he was more vulnerable than a glass bottle at a sharpshooting convention in close quarters. Both of us had an issue with the minimap having icons laid on top of it, making it unusable. The list of bugs and issues went on. You get the picture. Isonzo clearly doesn’t have the budget of a Battlefield or CoD, but it’s still in quite a rough state regardless.
Not just bugs though, the game is just a bit dull on a number of fronts. Explosions are anti-climactic and lack much of a visual representation at all. Fire looks straight up PS3 era and the muzzle flash on an MG nest is just missing altogether. All these little details matter in a game that’s desperately trying to recreate an incredibly intense, chaotic and brutal period of history and without them the action can fall flat, which also isn’t helped by the rousing score randomly starting and pausing throughout matches.
Some Man’s Land
If you’ve reached this point of the review you may be thinking myself and Josh (me especially) really didn’t like Isonzo. In some ways, you’d be right. Yet, despite the numerous technical problems, the lack of variety and the unfortunate reality of playing against jarhead bots, we still had some fun in this Italian theatre of war. We celebrated wildly after an hour long match whereby the AI held us down on the final objective for so long we were down to our last 14 reinforcement points. We were despairing, fearing our efforts to guide the AI to a resounding victory would be in vain, only for us both to clutch it in the final, desperate moments.
Eventually, I got to play a couple of matches with a handful of other players and the experience was definitely more fluid and chaotic, but the underlying mechanical issues never really go away. For historians and sticklers for warfare authenticity, Isonzo will bludgeon that bloody urge for claustrophobic trench encounters and explosive action, but it comes with a number of caveats. It’s a beaten, weary soldier but also a battle-hardened veteran.
With only a handful of maps and one mode, it’s sorely missing some extra content that’ll elevate it into a great package, but what’s here will provide service for a dozen or so hours before the disinterest will fully take hold. The price point and your penchant for grounded action will determine whether this is worth picking up for you, just be aware that mortars and rifles aren’t the only dangers you’ll need to watch out for.
Don’t just take my word for it however, as you can read Josh’s thoughts on Isonzo below:
Miles and I have very similar tastes when it comes to video games. To say we didn’t have fun is an understatement. In fact, there were moments we both enjoyed and shared a laugh or two, but those moments were far and few between. The time was instead spent travelling through the map for a few minutes, only for a bot to strike us down before our aim was cocked. If the aim wasn’t comparable to a T-1000, they were probably stood in place waiting for orders from a captain that doesn’t exist. I’d like to say that this experience were just the woes of playing before launch, but depending on the post-launch player base, this could unfortunately be a player’s experience. With that said, when the AI works it really does. Units follow objectives to a fault of their own, and sometimes huddle round waiting to use a mounted machine gun or mortar which really mimics player behaviour of wanting their go on the fun shooty gun.
I didn’t find there was much variety in the maps overall. There are limitations by just being the battles the Italians fought, but differences in weather or time of day would have added a little bit more distinction between the maps. Another aspect that is light on variety are the weapons. Each class has more or less the same guns, with differences being the iron sight and the look. There’re opportunities to upgrade the weapons with different sights, but progression was at a sluggish pace – trying every class to experiment becomes a detriment as it takes a while to see what differences they have to offer.
Gunplay was the standout, if you’re familiar with games of a similar genre you’ll know how this plays. It’s slow and purposeful in its actions, guns are often a one shot kill so lining up to fire is of up most importance. The kills are satisfying as red mist splatters the air confirming your shot. The gameplay isn’t completely solid however, as I came across a couple of glitches that only I experienced here at Finger Guns. Things such as items in my loadout would not equip in combat and icons in my mini map would take up the majority of real estate becoming unusable. It didn’t harm the overall experience but when small annoyances stack, it adds up. Other visual glitches like screen tearing and stuttering were a regular occurrence, something that hopefully gets patched.
There didn’t feel like too much to get stuck into for Isonzo. There’s one game mode where you’ll fight as either side, defending or attacking. There’s only so many ways to skin the proverbial cat in this. No vehicles, lack of gun variety and classes that don’t embrace their differences often enough make for a game that only has one thing it’s good at. Thankfully it’s the bulk of the gameplay – and with a fireteam – fun could be had here. I’m interested to see the support this game has post-launch but in its current state it has more elements lacking than things to enjoy.
World War I returns with the Italian theatre authentically recreated for some grounded, methodical FPS action. The real war was a grind and Isonzo maybe captures that feeling a little too well with a lack of variety in maps and modes, coupled with some major technical and visual issues. Even so, it’s an earnest effort that’ll draw in appreciators of history and those who like their FPS experiences to be more tactical and threatening than the Battlefield 2042s of the world.
Isonzo is launching on PS5 (review platform), PS4, Xbox One, Xbox Series S|X, Linux and PC on September 13th, 2022.
Developer: Blackmill Games
Disclaimer: In order to complete this review, we were provided with a promotional code from the publisher. For our full review policy, please go here.
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