by Jordan Helsley
reviewed on PC
Sometimes Great, Usually War, Mostly Authentic
It's well past a century old, but the First World War has seen a bit of a resurgence lately. The Great War: Western Front attempts to bring somewhat contemporary RTS gameplay to the fold, which means forcing would-be generals to come to terms with just how much war has changed. And much like The War To End All Wars, it manages to provide some potential new groundwork for future iterations, but keeps many of its promises to itself.
It is clear on many levels that the development team wanted to take care with the titular war. There is plenty of historical accuracy in gameplay and concept, while still trying to keep things engaging enough to form an enjoyable game.
Campaigns start in one of two key years: closer to the proliferation of artillery in December 1914, or the point at which technology truly started to evolve the war in May 1916. The differences amount mostly to a grant of research on the tech web relatively in-line with real world advancements. Make no mistake, the technology of this war is the true difference maker, and I found forging my own path to be the preferential way to play.
Macro and Extra-Macro Warfare
Authenticity is not only the name of the game, but a key element to the gameplay as well. Starting at the large scale, a hexagonal map of Western Europe is where you plan your attacks. It resembles a grand strategy game, but is far less restrictive. Companies of men can easily move from the north of France to the south in one "move", so the focus is placed more appropriately on headcount, good reserves and supply management. Gold is used to purchase high tech units such as air wings (or extra supplies) and global supply is used for nearly everything else: from firing artillery to reinforcing front lines with additional soldiers.
Placement on the map depends on factors such as frontline attack/defense, and the strength of a battlefield. Each battlefield has a rating represented in stars. A four-star location requires four major victories to conquer, etc. WW1 played out to a stalemate for a long time, and you'll feel that way in the map a lot. There is a distinction to be made between "a victory" and a "major victory". Simply winning four battles is not enough, you need to absolutely stomp the enemy in the trenches, and you need to do it repeatedly. The silver lining here for grand strategy fans: auto-resolve seemed mostly trustworthy with proper planning.
Trudging Through The Mud
Campaigns in The Great War: Western Front are long affairs, and, much like in history, you may find you've sacrificed a staggering number of lives to gain little, or no, ground. It can be a daunting experience, especially before you inject higher tech, such as tanks, into your forces.
The RTS battles aren't quick by any measure, either. They are presented in a familiar fashion: start by planning battles, building trenches, and staging troops and the like. Once the battle begins the horrors of the war really begin to take shape. You may be limited to 30 "units", but that still allows for thousands of soldiers crossing no man's land to whatever awaits them. Whether it is being cut down by a machine gun or besiegement by a flamethrower in a trench, poor planning and intel has grave consequences for a lot of virtual lives.
The scale of the battles, while still being dwarfed by those of history, is a marvel, and the satisfaction of playing things just right never gets old. Even with thousands of fighters in play, things rarely felt unmanageable or overwhelming. This is helped by a slow motion, or outright paused, battle speed, but the grouping of companies alleviates a lot of headache.
As you introduce tech, you'll be able to set up different types of artillery, utilize air strikes, and more. Your supply level, though, will constantly be your concern. Do you forgo building an extra trench to squeeze another shot out of your artillery? It might make a difference, but it seems most of your major victory potential lies in getting in close, so a few extra reinforcements might be more beneficial.
Points are scored and lost based on casualties. Some conditions, such as destroying artillery or capturing a command trench, might tip the scales that you need by earning you a large chunk of points, so it might be beneficial to sacrifice a few lives to achieve those ends. Occasionally your platoons of men will randomly abandon their trenches in favour of a firing squad, so you're going to need all the points you can get.
Horrors of War
The authenticity of The Great War: Western Front highlights a myriad of reasons why it should have, in fact, ended all wars. As with many strategy games you should be tactical in a way that minimizes casualties, but the lives of the soldiers are the most expendable resource you have. Even in your battle map, the sheer size of your manpower isn't even a concern. Additional men will be commissioned, you need to concern yourself with supply lines and other hard goods. It takes a bit of a mindset change, especially for veterans of most RTS genres. Others will thrive.
Outside of the campaign exists a standard suite of skirmish and multiplayer matches, but the historic battles crafted for the game are another enjoyable feature. Jumping into the Battle of Verdun (as the Germans) with historical resource levels really highlights the arduous task that was the conflict that lasted nearly a year. A few other battles are present here as well, and each is accompanied by an intro video and some background info. Learning about the war is just a nice bonus that punctuates a satisfying challenge.
Victory at any cost
The Great War: Western Front excels at making you feel the pressures of World War I. Sometimes that leaves the gameplay lacking, but most often it requires a level of engagement that is hard to find in a lot of other strategy games. At a certain point it can feel like massive grand strategy tactics, while simply throwing walls of men at each other on the smaller scale. Spending additional time with it, however, will yield additional tactics and technology that transform battles. It is a game clearly made in the image of its namesake, so it is no wonder that the result is a gruelling series of meat grinders that lasts for quite some time. It successfully uses that earnestness to differentiate itself from its competitors enough to make it easy to find joy in the seemingly endless war.
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Mostly historically accurate, a tech web that makes a difference, a two-tiered approach to a vast war
Win conditions can feel punishing, progress is painfully slow, unit pathing occasionally causes mass casualty events.