Welcome! This column is part of a series in which members of the Tom's Guide staff share what they're playing and enjoying right now, with the goal of helping you find great games that you may have missed. Be sure to check out our previous entry, where we talk about The Dark Pictures Switchback VR.
When, in your gaming life, have you witnessed 50 Napoleonic-era French line infantry, arranged in columns, walking backwards in sync into direct artillery and musket fire, all to the sound of Cher’s Believe?
It wouldn’t surprise me if you’d never seen such a sight — unless of course, you’ve played Holdfast: Nations At War on PC. Such glorious, hilarious spectacles are commonplace in Holdfast, a Napoleonic multiplayer online shooter, which I’ve been playing since 2017 when it launched in Early Access on Steam.
By all rights, Holdfast is a game that shouldn’t still be here. It’s a small, somewhat niche shooter, ostensibly appealing primarily to history nerds like me. It’s the kind of game where, after the initial buzz, you’d expect maybe a one or two-year run before the servers died and the game finally stopped being supported — indeed, that would be good going. And that’s what I expected.
Six years later, however, Holdfast still amazes me every time I log on to get a quick fix of swashbuckling historical action. It certainly hasn’t died and instead just keeps getting better. Simple, fun and hilarious, it’s a hidden gem that I believe more people should be playing — this article, my Ode to Holdfast, will tell you why.
Holdfast has maintained a loyal player base, of which I am a part. There are two main servers: the EU and U.S. land battle public servers, which host 150 players in sieges and pitched battles. At the appropriate times of day for each server, they’re almost always full, although it’s never hard to get a game. Then there are the two public naval battle servers, again EU and U.S., which hover between half-full and full depending on the time of day and maps being played. That’s four main public servers with enough players to have a decent game.
There are private servers too, where the real history nerds organize highly regimented set-piece line infantry battles (if that’s your thing, you definitely need to play this game) — but as you can see, the community is small, with no more than a few hundred players a day according to steamdb.info. Each time I return to the game, for a four or five-day session every couple of months, I recognize player names. Despite not knowing or even communicating much with other players, this still elicits an underlying sense of community. Humans are social animals, so that’s a lovely thing to experience from a game, and a good reason to get and stay on board.
However, it’s the factors behind Holdfast’s loyal players that are more pertinent to why you should play. Holdfast has maintained its community, in my opinion, for two primary reasons. The first is that it is supremely fun. Set in the age of powder and shot, you have one round per minute in land battles. If you miss (which you usually will, given you’re usually firing muskets or flintlock pistols), you fall back on a bayonet or sword if the enemy has closed in.
The slow firing rate and lack of accuracy make scoring a hit marvelously satisfying, but also lead to daring maneuvers and bayonet charges, capitalizing on the low(ish) probability of being sniped and the futility of trying to range someone yourself with a musket (there are limited sharpshooter positions available so most use a musket or pistol). In a gaming world full of run-and-gun high-intensity shooters, it’s refreshing to play something a bit different; there is value in simplicity.
Naval battles are just as fun, especially during coastal sieges. A well-steered frigate with a team of experienced players manning the guns is a wonderful thing. Masts topple, hulls splinter and jolly boats dispatch as crews abandon ship, throw caution to the wind and attempt a last-minute boarding raid. The satisfaction of broadsiding is topped only by manning a long-range cannon atop a coastal fort, picking off ship sails with chain shot from a half mile out and racking up double-digit kills. It’s in naval battles too where the game’s destructive environment feels best employed and most immersive, decks shattering and forts dropping chunks of masonry.
The second reason why I think Holdfast has kept its player base is that it's, as we say here in the U.K., batsh*t crazy. Public servers are full of light-hearted japery.
Voice chat is used primarily to soundtrack the action with cheesy pop songs or noughties Eurotrash, but also serves as a vehicle for players to channel their inner 19th-century British officer, ordering men up front with a “tally ho lads."
There are always a few brave fools running into enemy ranks, proclaiming they are unarmed and peaceful before running through the first group of naive soldiers who took them at their word. There are challenges to a duel, begging for mercy, faux cries of pain and many terrible Prussian accents. Pipers pipe marching tunes as guns fire, cavalry charge and rockets explode around them. It’s chaos, of the best kind, and even if you don’t give a jot about history, you’ll find this game incredibly entertaining.
The continued development of Holdfast: Nations At War is perhaps what surprises me most given its player base has been relatively small for as long as I’ve been playing. Anvil Game Studios, the publisher and developer, have continued releasing flavor packs, map packs, and even a whole WW1 expansion (which, admittedly, not many people seem to play on in public servers). It’s great to see this happening for a game that costs so little and already gives so much.
I’m not naive enough to dismiss the fact that Holdfast is by now an aging game, meaning further DLC is likely severely limited. But I do hold out hope that this game continues receiving the update support it currently gets to keep it running for players old and new. So far though, so good.
Ode to Holdfast: Finale
While it obviously helps to have an interest in the Napoleonic era, you don’t have to be a history fan to enjoy Holdfast: Nations At War. It’s a shooter which gets so much right. It’s simple but challenging, chaotic but fun. Its community is small but brilliant, and something I’m proud to be a part of. It’s cheap and still receives DLC and loving support from its creators. To top it all off, you can even play on the Steam Deck — you’ll need a custom controller map, but there are some really good ones available to download.
With all this said, I’m confused as to why the community remains so small, my only guess is the limited draw from its niche historical USP. Some people may prefer a game with a closer community, but I'm of the mind that the only way this game will survive is by expanding its player base. So, whatever the reason for it being underrated, hopefully, this love letter can get at least a couple more people playing Holdfast, because it deserves more attention.