by Murray Lewis
reviewed on PC
Life is easy for World War 2 buffs in video gaming. No matter what part of the war they'd like to experience, chances are there are half a dozen games that feature it. So, too, are those who prefer the sweaty jungles of Vietnam – the shelves are heaving with titles to transport players back to the era of dense foliage, merciless traps, and endlessly looping singles by The Kinks.
World War 1 is, on the other hand, a difficult war to find in video games. Whether it's because of the limited appeal of trench warfare or the unending bleakness of the period, most developers have shied away from the Great War in favour of other, more bombastic conflicts. Not so for Verdun, a multiplayer-only FPS developed jointly by M2H and Blackmill studios.
With such a thin selection of similar games, Verdun is significant just on the grounds of its subject matter. But is it actually any good, or will it just serve as a warning sign for any other developers thinking of taking on No Man's Land?
THE BIG PUSH
Verdun is a realistic, tactical FPS – balanced somewhere between the ultra-realism of Arma and the Hollywood action of Battlefield. This means weapons are tricky to wield, but absolutely deadly, with players mortally vulnerable to a single well-placed shot. This ruthless approach is tempered by a simple, squad-based respawn system, and fast-paced matches depicting a rapid-fire back-and-forth across no man's land.
The primary gameplay mode is 'Frontlines,' a push-type mode which attempts to recreate the war in the trenches. It's a thematically appropriate twist on the linear push gameplay seen in titles like the Battlefield series, with teams fighting from trenches instead of control points. Both sides attack and counter-attack in turn. A successful capture forces the opposing team backwards across the map, but also gives them a vital opportunity to counter-attack. An attack blunted or too slow to take hold, however, will also incur a counter-attack. This means the teams must push hard or risk the tables being turned against them. It's a great way of encouraging team-play on public servers, with players working together to attack or defend their position.
The two teams are built up from a mix of different squads containing four players each. There are several types of squad, linked to nationalities, and they function as a collective unit type for the players within. A French rifle squad, for example, has very different capabilities to a German Stroßtruppen assault group. Within the squad, players are further divided into classes – an officer type, and three specialised soldiers. It's essential for players in a squad to work together to see the value in the different combinations, although this is sadly rare when playing with strangers online.
In the chaos of a public server, some classes do tend to have the upper hand. As expected from the period, machine gunners can easily dominate the battlefield; cutting down anyone foolish enough to make an advance. Without some level of coordination within a team, it's easy to get bogged down by such a challenge, as it requires an organised flanking squad to neuter the threat. Here, it's easy to see that playing with friends greatly improves the experience.
Squads also gain experience points and level up as a whole unit. Equipment and special abilities improve, and uniforms change visually from early- to late-war variants, which is a nice touch. It does something to encourage teamwork, even between strangers, as even the most 'lone wolf' players will directly benefit from sticking with and supporting their squad.
IT'S GRIM IN THE TRENCHES
The biggest challenge for a WW1 game is to avoid tedium. Trench warfare is different, but lacks variety over the long-term without some added elements to spice things up. Verdun is strictly infantry-focused, so you can forget about using early tanks, but there are still some good twists available. Most notably, some officers are able to call in gas attacks. The immersion of fumbling for your gas mask and continuing the fight is palpable.
Visually, running on the Unity engine, Verdun looks great. Weapons and characters are well-modelled, and the whole game has a brilliantly grim cast to it. Unfortunately, there's a notable lack of variety in the levels available. Some maps have more greenery than others, but every level boils down to trench warfare, completely ignoring the many engagements that took place in more urban environments during WW1. It's an understandable flaw for a game set during that era, but it's a shame it was neglected given that the developers advertise their extensive research on the period.
Ultimately, while levelling up a squad and trying out different roles adds replayability to the game, Verdun may suffer from a lack of longevity as time rolls on after release. M2H and Blackmill have countered this by promising post-release updates, and it will be interesting to see what more they will come up with to give the game more long-term appeal.
I also noted a number of performance issues during my time with the game. Graphics settings like SSAO and motion blur seem to have a disproportionately large impact on performance compared to implementations in other games. Most bizarrely of all, setting the audio to 5.1 mode made my frame-rate drop to 20 or below at regular intervals. These problems shouldn't be occurring, and will need to be ironed out if the game is to be taken seriously.
Verdun is a game that should appeal to any FPS fans looking for something different. The setting is novel, and the gameplay is fun – especially if you can get some friends onboard. But, much like the trench warfare it depicts, the game is in danger of becoming stuck fighting the same battles over and over again. Without an injection of new game modes and maps, Verdun risks out-staying its welcome, and once more consigning WW1 to the history books.
Realistic, immersive gameplay. Innovative squad-levelling system. Novel setting.
Limited selection of maps and game types. Lingering performance issues.