I’m crouched on a rocky outcrop, overlooking a confused and undulating mass of French infantry. They are surrounded on all sides and not entirely sure what they are doing and four or five are squarely in my sights. In my headphones, I hear a dubstep remix of Clair De Lune. I try to avert my eyes from the filth in the chat and focus on the shot. I take it. It misses completely. The crosshair was about the size of a small field and despite the massed enemies I had somehow found a gap between them. My musket takes what seems an eternity to reload so I scan the chat. Unfortunately, it is filled with extremely toxic trolls. As I read, I’m ridden down by a charging hussar. This is Holdfast: Nations at War and it’s insane.
What is the Holdfast Multiplayer experience meant to be?
Holdfast: Nations at War is a Napoleonic first-person/third-person multiplayer shooter experience. Considering the large maps and teams, it is tempting to compare Holdfast to Battlefield. However, though Battlefield has gone back in time before, this has been largely cosmetic with most guns functioning as modern weapons. Holdfast commits to its musket warfare inspiration. Ultimately it is just a remake of Mount and Blade‘s Napoleonic Wars DLC, the community seems fairly indistinguishable, as do most aspects of gameplay. This full game treatment was a needed upgrade on the spin-off feel of the original. It improves the experience without changing too much of the core gameplay.
Reloading takes around ten full seconds and you can shoot once at a time. Now, this is a lot shorter than it would be historically, but it still completely changes the game. The wide crosshairs similarly make the game completely different from a modern shooter. Massing up, using cover and barely moving are all encouraged. If you want to take an objective you really need everyone shooting at once and then charging with bayonets.
Naturally, this is difficult to organise and this is where the magic starts to happen. The slow pace and effectiveness of even basic strategies mean you need to be communicating with your nearby teammates. The only problem with this is it means you have to talk to your teammates.
Meet your teammates
The voice chat is based on proximity and so at any one time, despite the 150 player servers, you are likely moving in a group of 10-20 at most. Officers can lay down markers for you to stand on, they will also likely say random nonsense in an incomprehensible put-on accent. The musician is there, doing his bit to give you buffs but also probably pumping a dubstep remix over the top. At least one line infantry is typing something gross and deranged in chat. You, however, are just trying to stay alive in the rank and file, alongside a few dozen others who are trying and failing to form something resembling a line to make a game-winning push at the flanks.
The weirdness of the Holdfast multiplayer experience is its greatest weakness and its greatest strength. A group of musicians jamming around a central piano is great fun. A group of racists typing out slurs in the chat is not. With a small team behind it, Holdfast has no hope of ever solving its disgusting problem with bigots in chat. The Modern Warfare lobby joke truly has nothing on Holdfast and that really does hurt the experience. You hope for the amazing moments of kinship with allies and enemies alike but the negatives of the community are constantly there, on the surface.
Organising the rabble
The game’s community is organised through a large Discord server through which regular events are organised. These often include player imposed rules and regiment loyalties which make gameplay a little more like real Napoleonic warfare. Most commonly you will see line-battles in which no one is allowed to go it alone and must follow their officers’ orders and only fire whilst standing in line with their allies.
These bring a little more decorum to the game and can make the game a little more manageable. They also limit your ability to express yourself or influence your fate. You already have a fairly limited ability to aim but in line battles, you are basically just following orders so have no more influence on how you move. It is usually best to mix and match these game modes, alongside the fantastic naval battles.
No one is really taking the game all that seriously so there is plenty of laid back shenanigans. Even in line battles, it’s more about playing the role of a frightened conscript than trying competitively to win. In fact, you see more players called a try-hard for trying to do a posh English voice than actually trying hard to win the game.
Is the Holdfast multiplayer experience worth the issues?
I don’t think anyone can decide for you if the game is worth the struggle. Everyone has a different amount of extremely online grossness they can handle. Apparently, some people also don’t like being bossed about, barely doing anything and pretending to be line infantry. I can’t imagine why for that one. There is always the option of disabling chat if you want the Holdfast multiplayer experience without the modern weirdness.
Unfortunately to do so does mean you will miss out on the hilarious banter and weird interactions which really do come thick and fast. I would recommend everyone tries this unique (Mount and Blade notwithstanding) multiplayer experience. However, be prepared, Holdfast may well not be for you. Perhaps be prepared to refund if necessary.
(Video Sources: Anthony Cox, Pixelated Apollo)