First Impressions: Holdfast: Nations at War

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Over the course of the past week I have found myself becoming increasingly fascinated with Holdfast: Nations at WarThis early access third person shooter transports you onto the battlefields of the Napoleonic era with the player choosing to fight on the side of either the French or the British armies. Just based on the time period alone, I guessed that the weapons I'd have access to are not particularly varied and I was proven correct right from the start: most soldiers class in the game is armed with some form of musket which not only takes approximately 30 seconds to load but is virtually incapable of hitting anything past 50 meters with any degree of accuracy.  As a backup, players have bayonets, but the melee combat is so buggy that even then your odds are still about 50/50. 

Most of the standard infantry classes are essentially indistinguishable from each other with the exception of bigger, fuzzier hats. The rifleman is ludicrously more effective than any other class, but is rarely playable due to the limited number of slots per class, and the speed at which his fills up. There is a surgeon, but with most deaths being the result of a single shot, he tends to be pretty useless.

Another slight let down was the simple fact that the servers I played on featured maps with no apparent objective outside of ‘kill as many of the enemy as possible in the time allotted’.  Holdfast can barely be qualified as a shooter in any sense of the word, and yet for the past week I have had more fun playing it than I have anything else in a long time.   

 While the game does feature naval battles most of those servers were either underpopulated or buggy as hell.

While the game does feature naval battles most of those servers were either underpopulated or buggy as hell.

Holdfast has more in common with games like VR Chat than it does something like Battlefield One or any similar military shooter.  It’s in many ways a bizarre social experience in the guise of a large scale Napoleonic battle. I discovered fairly quickly into my first match of that the true joy of this game lies not in running off into no-man’s land trying to be a one man army (mostly because that just plain doesn’t work) but in sticking with your team and really getting into the setting.  Actively participating in role-playing in the midst of the battles would prove to be immensely entertaining. I saw players playing the part of the company band, marching in unison as they played their drums and their fifes to inspire the troops.  Playing the officer class didn’t just mean being able to wave a saber around and wear a fancy cap, you were responsible for rallying the men and delivering words of encouragement.  You could even choose to play your role poorly; it didn’t really matter so long as you were playing along.  An example would be the cowardly drummer who decided to defect to the enemy team only to be ruthlessly executed by his captors soon after (I found out first hand that killing surrendering musicians was considered a taboo).  I’ve seen bumbling officers attempt to lead half-baked charges only be gunned down a few seconds in without realizing not a single man had followed them.  One match saw me and few other French soldiers holed up in a farmhouse taking pot shots at the advancing British.  We exchanged insults with the soldiers waiting just outside the doors as they attempted to coax us out, having our own personal Monty Python and the Holy Grail moment. 

 It takes a lot of guts to march into battle with nothing but an instrument, and even more to wear a bright pink uniform.

It takes a lot of guts to march into battle with nothing but an instrument, and even more to wear a bright pink uniform.

So unless you’re a fan of VERY slow paced shooters or simply into the historic authenticity of the units and gameplay there probably isn’t much here for you too like.  But if you’re looking for a fun time role-playing and goofing about with some interesting characters then the fun in this game is what you make of it.

Allow me to leave you with this one final description of a single event in a match that I played which I believe perfectly sums up the appeal of this game.  I started on the side of the British and right away my attention was drawn to this one player who had spawned as an Officer of the Highland Regiment adorned with his large fuzzy hat and traditional kilt.  He quickly drew the attention of our entire team as he began bellowing orders in a thick Scottish brogue, criticizing our slow and messy performance with all the gusto of a Marine Corps drill sergeant.  We simply referred to him as the “Cap’n” though his true name may be lost to history forever.  After organizing us into a column, and making sure our team bagpiper was front and center, the Cap’n marched us over into a small redoubt protected by a cluster of rocks and trees.  He then formed us into a tightly disciplined firing line as we waited for the French team to charge our position.  It wasn’t long before they appeared on the horizon, a screaming, disorganized crowd of Frenchmen. This mob had more in common with a barbarian horde then it did our merry band of gentlemen.  We held our fire until they were so close you could almost smell the frog legs on their breath.  It was at this moment the Cap’n gave the order to fire, our wall of muskets spewed out lead death into the first wave of hapless infantry.  Our well-placed shots scythed down the enemy team with such efficiency even the Reaper himself would have trembled in awe at the slaughter.  

 When you really buy into the setting the game can be every bit as epic as it's advertised to be.

When you really buy into the setting the game can be every bit as epic as it's advertised to be.

For what seemed like an eternity we beat back wave after wave of attacks and all along the Cap’n was there with us.  He stood in the center of our formation, weaving blistering insults and words of encouragement together in a way that only a true Scotsman could pull off.  But bravado can only get you so far and soon attrition began to takes its toll.  Once we came to the grim realization that we would not be able to hold onto our position much longer the Cap’n called us together and delivered one final speech.  He told us how proud he was to have served with such fine men at the end and lamented we were not able to have killed more Frenchmen before our untimely demise.  We finally emerged from our position, bayonets fixed and glittering in the sun like so many deadly blades of grass.  The Cap’n took one last look and screamed, “For Scotland!!” as he led the forlorn hope into the enemy.  The pipes, which had not ceased playing since the start of the game, began to play louder than ever as we charged to our certain doom.  All around me my fellow soldiers cried out and cheered only to be quickly silenced by the enemies’ guns.  We closed in until they were within range of our bayonets and the situation dissolved into a chaotic melee of stabbing and swinging.  The last I saw of the Cap’n he was running into a group of French swinging his sword like a madman, still ranting until the bitter end.  Eventually even the pipes fell silent and I noticed I was alone, the last man standing.  Not far from me was the French flag bearer, and I decided that if I was going to die I was damned sure going to make it count.  With no time to load my musket I aimed my bayonet in his direction and ran straight to him.  Mere feet away I was assured that my final act would be a success, until the flag bearer suddenly wheeled around and skewered me like a stuck pig….five seconds later I respawned.  To my right I noticed the Cap’n and our entire team getting ready to make another go at it.  Welcome to Holdfast.