Indie developer Siege Camp has been working on Foxhole for five years now. With the Inferno 1.0 update, their sandbox MMO military sim has left boot camp (aka Early Access) and headed to the front lines as a full release on Steam.
I have watched Foxhole’s development from afar but have always been hesitant to jump in and give it a go; it always felt like Foxhole was still too early in development to give it any real attention. MMOs are constantly under development (or shutting down), but a 1.0 release means Siege Camp believes Foxhole is ready for prime time, so I took up the call to arms and plunged into Foxhole to see if they were right. After spending the last couple of weeks on the front (and back) lines, I am happy to report that Foxhole deserves serious consideration from anyone wanting to take their solo mil-sim experience into an online battlefield.
For those unfamiliar, Foxhole is a semi-realistic war simulation set in an alternate-timeline universe where the World Wars never ended. With WWI and WWII-era technology, two factions - the Colonials and the Wardens - fight a persistent online battle that can run for weeks before victory is claimed. Foxhole is played from a top-down perspective, giving it the feel of a real-time strategy game. Except in Foxhole, every soldier is a human player, and every tank needs an entire crew.
With the potential for thousands of players per faction, Foxhole is a gigantic-scale match of capture the flag. The war is waged across a map made up of 37 hexagonal regions. Within each region are several towns, one of which is a victory town, and victory is earned by one faction holding and upgrading 32 of the victory towns to Provincial Garrisons.
I've never served in the military, but I have watched Saving Private Ryan several times, so I consider myself somewhat of an expert on military realism. With all joking about my military expertise over, much of Foxhole’s battles are based on realistic combat. Each region can hold around 100 soldiers per faction, so squad and platoon tactics reign supreme. High ground matters. Going Rambo and charging headlong into an enemy’s defensive position will abruptly end with just a couple of shots fired. Taking cover in a trench will protect you from random gunfire but does little to save you when enemy artillery shells start raining down from above. Battles can be drawn-out, with good communication and a coordinated strategy needed to break through defensive lines.
With the battle taking place in a sandbox environment, logistics become just as important as battlefield tactics. Beyond a starting stockpile of equipment at the start of the war, every piece of equipment, from each clip of ammunition to bandages to massive battle tanks, must be produced and then hand-delivered to the front lines. There’s nothing worse in Foxhole than spawning into a forward base only to find out there isn’t any ammo to go with the rifles stockpiled there. You can go all Tarkov and scavenge the dead bodies on the ground, but without a healthy supply line bringing a steady flow of equipment to the front, any ground gained by a faction will be quickly lost to a well-stocked enemy.
A New Recruit
Upon entering the game, you are placed at your faction’s home base. This single-hex map is not connected to the main battlefield and has the dual purpose of serving as the game lobby and tutorial area.
As a game lobby, your home base gives you a chance to pull up the map and consider where you wish to deploy. Foxhole’s deployment map shows which faction controls each town zone in a region. It also shares a limited amount of information, such as each zone's friendly population (low, med, high) and whether the zone is a contested or a logistics zone. Actual logistics information is limited to the town locations and road network and doesn’t show what production facilities are available at each spawn point. Unless a zone is at maximum capacity, deployment is immediate, and players can freely deploy and return to the main base at will.
If it’s your first time booting up Foxhole, you’ll want to head to the tutorial area before deploying to the battle. For anyone who has played a real-time strategy game or an action shooter, for that matter, the basics of Foxhole will be familiar. Movement is controlled with the WASD keys, and camera control and weapon aiming are handled with your mouse.
There is an obstacle course to teach you the basics of soldiering - advanced movement, small arms use, heavy arms use, and how to handle explosives ranging from grenades to RPGs. There are also separate tutorial areas for resource gathering, production, trench building, and artillery practice. Each tutorial is minimal at best, and other than familiarizing you with keybindings and such, all of your actual training will take place once you deploy to the battlefield. Fortunately, most players are willing to show new recruits the ropes, and there are plenty of tutorials online to give a more thorough overview of all the different roles you can play.
The Front Lines
For anyone wanting to wade right into combat, the life of a soldier is pretty simple. Once you pull up the map and pick a contested area to deploy to, you will spawn at a base close to the action but not so close that you are in immediate danger. Players can later designate a forward base as a second spawn point, allowing them to quickly return to the action if they die.
I found it very easy to locate active skirmishes. When observing the map, each region lists the relative population and whether it is a contested area or back lines location. Just pick a medium or highly populated region, and you will be in combat faster than you can say “enemy sighted.”
Siege Camp has kept character abilities primarily realistic. Inventory space is limited; the more equipment you carry, the slower you move and the faster your stamina bar depletes. Some items are also designated as large equipment, making you carry them over your shoulder to bear the weight and size. You aren’t a superhuman fighting machine in Foxhole, so don’t expect to dual-wield heavy machine guns or carry unlimited ammo in your backpack.
You are also a fleshy blood bag in Foxhole, and everyone knows how easy it is to poke holes in human flesh and let the blood leak out. You don’t have any magical health potions (although you might have a medic nearby that can save your life), and depending on weapon power and firing distance, it’ll only take a hit or two before someone has to send a letter to your mommy telling her that her little Jimmy won’t be coming home.
Medics do what they can, but not everyone is leaving this battlefield
Without special skills or superhuman abilities, success on the front lines requires planning and patience. Natural chokepoints on the map are easily defended, and random attacks on well-fortified positions only result in littering the battlefield with your faction’s precious resources. Slow, cautious play with real-world tactics such as suppressive fire and flanking are required if you want to take and hold positions with minimal casualties and resources.
To this end, Foxhole uses voice and multiple text chat channels to facilitate coordinated attacks (and logistics planning). Players can also group up into squads on the battlefield, and regiments are Foxhole’s version of a clan system to promote long-term group play.
The Back Lines
You only need three things to begin your career as a logistics player: a hammer, basic materials or b-mats as they're called in-game, and a truck. The hammer is automatically supplied to every player when they deploy, so that's easy enough.
The two remaining items are sort of a chicken or egg problem, except in Foxhole, there is an answer to which one came first. Hover your mouse over the Supply Depot and see if any trucks are available. If there are, then the truck comes first. If not, you'll have to gather scrap, refine it into basic materials, or b-mats as they're called in-game, and finally hammer the b-mats into a truck at the garage.
It’s a thankless job, but someone has to gather the scrap
To anyone who has ever crafted in an MMO, you won’t find anything new in Foxhole. Salvage, sulfur, coal, oil, and component fields are scattered around the map, which serves as the raw resources necessary for production. Once these are refined into useable materials, they can then be used to produce the various weapons, vehicles, and fuel needed to supply the troops in combat.
Supplying the towns and bases near the front lines doesn’t just magically happen in Foxhole. There aren’t any general stores or NPCs to outfit the troops, so every piece of equipment must be transported to the front lines. To accomplish this, solo players and small groups can easily perform the process from resource gathering to supplying the forward base, and every truckload of ammunition or medical supplies is greatly appreciated on the front lines.
Larger logistical groups still perform the same operations as solo players and small groups, but they can do more efficiently and at a much larger scale. Massive amounts of resources can quickly be collected for those willing to build the infrastructure to handle it, and production and shipping are also scaled up. The Inferno update just added player-made facilities to the mix, giving even more flexibility and production options to the largest logi groups that can build and maintain them.
The Sandbox War Machine
Many games claim to have a sandbox environment, but Foxhole is the first MMO I've played that gives players the freedom to do whatever they want without penalty. Modern MMOs like Final Fantasy XIV have multiple avenues to level up your character, but there is always a best or fastest method that gives you more XP per hour. The same can be said about older MMOs as well. No matter the options, many players will take whatever leveling path is the fastest, no matter how boring or mundane.
As you play Foxhole, you slowly level up from completing actions like killing enemies or gathering resources, but your level doesn’t have any in-game relevance. You don’t get additional health, skills, or inventory slots from leveling up. Foxhole’s only equivalent to gaining XP and leveling up in other MMOs is earning commendations and promotion to a higher rank. There are only a few benefits to increasing your rank, and none of them increase the skill or power of your character. At rank 3 (Corporal), you gain the ability to place map markers and create a squad, and at rank 5 (Staff Sergeant), you can create a regiment. Squads (parties) and regiments (clans or guilds) provide quality-of-life upgrades like private voice and text chat, but players could easily enjoy their time in Foxhole without any extra benefits.
Because of this, players are free to play however they want without the fear of falling behind the curve or being ineffective in combat. If you want to grab a rifle and immediately join the fight on the front lines, you are free to do so. The same goes for grabbing a hammer and gathering resources. All the tech advancements are shared across your faction, so the only limiting factor in your gear is whether someone has crafted and delivered it to your base.
All the reward that anyone needs (or gets) in Foxhole
This lack of individual progression could be the biggest downside to Foxhole for a traditional MMORPG player. I found it to be the exact opposite, and I find that the faction-focused progression brings a proper sandbox environment to Foxhole. No matter what I am doing, my actions contribute to the war effort. I didn’t have to mindlessly grind some beginner areas to increase my skills before heading to the front lines, and I didn’t have to shoot 20 players just to get a 1% increase in my aim ability. The only skills I need are the ability to take orders, aim the best I can, and pull the trigger.
The team progression also means I don’t have to worry about falling behind if I decide to switch roles for a while. I can put on a medic uniform and spend a few hours healing my comrades, or just head to the back line and become a cog in the logistics machine. Everything I do impacts my faction and fellow players, and when I feel like I want to head back into the action, I just grab a rifle and pick up where I left off, none the worse for the time spent doing other activities. Well, if that isn’t the true definition of a sandbox, it should be.
Besides grabbing a truck and running supplies to the front line or possibly playing as a medic, Siege Camp has done little to support solo-minded players. Still, I was pleasantly surprised by how well Foxhole accommodates both casual and hardcore gamers. As a casual gamer, I can jump in at any point during a war, grab some gear, and head straight to the front lines to join up with a group of players. After a couple of hours, I can switch to a Logi role, run supplies for a while, and then jump back off again. I can jump back in the next day or the following week and do it all over again. All the while, hardcore players will happily be trudging along, gaining or losing ground. They won’t even notice my absence but will have no problem filtering me into their plans whenever I’m around. Sure, the hardcore players will most likely be part of a regiment and have more access to armored vehicles and other powerful weapons, but casual players can always find a place in the overall scheme of things. Grunts still make up the bulk of any real-world army, after all.