This is war, and war is hell.
When I booted up Verdun on my Playstation 4 earlier this week, I had a thereabouts idea as to what to expect. Blackmill Games’ realistic and infinitely more sobering take on the horrors of The Great War went into Steam Early Access in early 2014, and was formally released on PC in April, 2015.
…and it took its damned time arriving on Playstation.
But rejoice, lads (and ladies), because behind its ravaged visage, Verdun was more than worth the wait.
First things first, the visuals are a little dated. With the unfortunate timing of Battlefield 1 just around the corner, this game can do little to match the mammoth budget of the genre’s titans.
Yet taken on its own, some of the maps are surprisingly beautiful. Of note, is the battle for the Marne, where amidst the carnage of artillery barrages, gas attacks and time-appropriate rifles, poppies sprout up, and lush foliage covers torn wagons and the bloodied remains of your comrades. Then with maps like that of the Artois region, the archetypal image of The First World War is found using palettes of grey and brown, No Man’s Land stretched across the horizon like Death’s own shadow. At every turn, the game is quick to remind you that this horror actually happened, and that the fundamental theme here is death.
Verdun prides itself on a degree of realism. Whilst the titular battlefield of Verdun (regarded by most as comparable to The Somme in its duration and casualty-count) is included, the game dips its gory claws into the entire length of The Great War. Starting in 1914, the maps include the fight around the Marne, the Aisne, the Somme, and the conflicts of the Artois, Champagne and Ypres regions. Depending on which map you find yourself conscripted into, the game uses subtle changes in uniforms, weapons, and even the quality of the trenches to firmly plant your weary boots into whichever year of the War you find yourself a part of.
Gas attacks feature heavily in each battle, called in by the leader of any squad with sufficient XP. The particle physics here work well, ominously evolving from a small cloud, to a small sea of viscous, green gas that sinks into each trench, forcing each player in its vicinity to holster their rifle, and spend an agonising wait fixing their gas masks on. From this moment, the HUD becomes claustrophobic, as the player’s vision becomes limited to two small, obstructing eye-holes in the mask. True fighting becomes near impossible, making each skirmish in this mode a desperate, bloody fight to hold onto each inch of trench. With the inclusion of barbed wire, navigating the area in and around these trenches creates a chaos to every firefight, only made worse by gas, gas, and more gas.
And trust me, you will be holding onto a lot of trenches. Each game lasts 30 minutes, and is a constant switch between two-minute segments. One team begins attacking the enemy trench; if, within two minutes, they capture the trench, then they must hold that against an enemy counterattack. Aside from accurately recreating the attritional back-and-forth of actual trench warfare, from a gameplay standpoint, this system makes it difficult for one-team to quickly dominate the battlefield too soon. Every game is different, though there are several instances where games become frustrating, and even a little stale – either this is genius, recreating the true nature of the war, or its a flaw in the gameplay which should be addressed soon, for fear of unbalancing issues.
All Western-Front nations can be played here, and with surprisingly rich voice acting, these factions feel different to one another. The American ‘Dough-boys’ are brash and cocky, whilst the Commonwealth forces are more grisled, more worn down by years of conflict. Moreover, each faction has its own, historically-correct weapons to go over-the-top with, depending on which class of infantryman you elect to use.
It is this method of choosing a class which creates one of the more unique levelling systems in recent FPS memory. By signing into a game, you select a squad on whichever side of the wire you want to fight for. In each squad, there is an NCO, with access to binoculars and an artillery-fired smoke barrage. There is then an infantryman, with a rifle, a grenade and a sidearm pistol. Third, is the gunner, with access initially to much the same equipment as the rifleman class. Fourth, is the specialist of the squad; dependent on the map and team, one could find themselves equipped with a flamethrower, a scoped-rifle, or other trench-fighting goodies.
The true innovation here is the emphasis on squad-based tactics; the idea is that you find a squad, and play together in as many matches as you can. As the squad levels up, each class gets access to new perks and weapons; for example, the NCO can access a gas-attack perk, whilst the gunner can set up a Lewis machine-gun to mow down the hordes as they snag themselves on barbed wire.
To sum up, as a history nerd, this game is the World War One shooter that I have been waiting for. The visuals, whilst dated, get the job done, and the sound design (the voices, the hissing of gas, and the screaming of whistles) is very impressive, immersing the player in scenes from a full-colour documentary. For only £11.99, you could do a lot worse than fork out on a game this rich in levelling and realism. It is unfortunate, with Battlefield 1 less than two months away, that ultimately, Verdun will rely on a small, but dedicated community, and so I implore you to at least try Verdun. I have a feeling that many of its systems have already set several trends for future titles…