World War I inhabits an interesting position in the public consciousness. Known as The War to End All Wars, The Great War has since been displaced by World War II, which has the benefit or being more widely taught and more strategically dissected. Games are no different: aside from the upcoming Battlefield 1, I’d wager that the average gamer probably can’t name many games set in World War I. There is, however, no shortage of well-known titles set in World War II.
It’s into this environment that Verdun, created by developers Blackmill Games and M2H, is thrown. The game is based on the Battle of Verdun, one of the largest and longest battles of the First World War. The battle began in February of 1918 and lasted 10 months, leaving over 700,000 soldiers wounded, missing, or dead. As a multiplayer game, Verdun bravely attempts to capture the fear, and occasionally crushing boredom, of a war fought between trenches.
"You only have a certain amount of time to capture a trench, and your enemy’s entrenched position (no, I’m not sorry) means that they have a natural advantage, which makes each attack an uphill battle."
The main way to experience Verdun is in Frontlines mode. It’s a game of momentum. While attacking, you charge across the scarred craters and barbed wire of no man’s land in an attempt to seize your enemy’s trench, which the other team must protect. Capturing a trench requires you to maintain control of it for a set period of time. The more allies attempting to capture a trench, the faster the trench is taken. You only have a certain amount of time to capture a trench, and your enemy’s entrenched position (no, I’m not sorry) means that they have a natural advantage, which makes each attack an uphill battle.
Failing to capture a trench means that momentum shifts to the other team, and it’s their turn to attack. The ultimate goal is to capture enough trenches to reach and capture the enemy headquarters. Because of the inherent defensive advantage, the teams switch between offense and defense frequently, and outright victories are often difficult to obtain. Frequently, matches end in a draw.
You can also dip into Rifle Deathmatch, which is exactly what it sounds like, Attrition, aka Team Deathmatch with Verdun’s full arsenal at your disposal, or Squad Defence, a co-op wave defense where you attempt to hold a trench against wave after wave of enemies. Each of these is interesting enough, especially Squad Defence, which is a great place to learn Verdun’s mechanics as the tutorial does very little to teach you. Sadly, however, these playlists are significantly underpopulated (at the time of this writing, they boasted less than 50 players combined), so Frontlines and Squad Defence are really your only options.
"Defending your trench while under gas assault is legitimately scary, as your gas mask farther hampers your already gas-filled view, and the only sounds are that of your character breathing and the approaching gunfire of the enemy."
Both game modes place you in squads and asks you to fill a role. Some squads are standard attack units with riflemen, gunners, and grenadiers, while others are focused on recon or special weapons, such as flamethrowers. Depending on the squad, the squad’s leader – a non-commissioned officer, also known as a NCO – can call in artillery support, aircraft recon, or poison gas.
Playing in a squad, and with your squad, is essential, and the game rewards you for staying close to your NCO and following his orders. Over time, you and your squad will gain experience and career points. The former will level you up, granting new uniforms and squad buffs, while the latter allows you to unlock new tiers of weapons.
When everything works well, Verdun is an engaging game. Defending your trench while under gas assault is legitimately scary, as your gas mask farther hampers your already gas-filled view, and the only sounds are that of your character breathing and the approaching gunfire of the enemy. Tension builds as your team takes defensive positions in your trench, and all you can do is wait, hoping you’ll see them through the gas before a spray bullet cuts you down. Attacking is just as engaging, as your team charges into no man’s land, hoping to make it across to the enemy’s trench and get into the action before a concealed sniper takes you down.
" It can be especially frustrating when you’re trying to gain a better angle to defend your trench, or running from one part of the trench to another, only for your own soldier to bark some canned line about deserters and cowards being shot."
Yes, Verdun is excellent at capturing the tension of trench warfare. But it also shares its tedium. Matches run long – between 15 and 30 minutes – and most of them are spent doing nothing. If you’re on defense, you’ll have to deal with “dead zones,” areas that cordon off a majority of the map and force you to remain into your trench. A failed attack means that you’ll be forced to retreat into a safe area. Set just one toe over the line, even if the line is just a few centimeters outside of your trench, and the screen will fade to black and white, and a countdown timer to appear.
Fail to retreat far enough into your trench in the allotted time, and you’ll die. It can be especially frustrating when you’re trying to gain a better angle to defend your trench, or running from one part of the trench to another, only for your own soldier to bark some canned line about deserters and cowards being shot. Both of these things will frequently take you into the dead zone for at least a moment, even when it feels like they shouldn’t, which means that if you’re playing properly, it will happen a lot.
So you wait, but even when you get into combat, the tedium is compounded by long respawn times, which can run more than 20 seconds. Worse still, you’re just as likely to respawn out in the open, right in the line of sight of an opportune sniper, as you are in the safety of your trench.
"When Verdun works, when all of its disparate elements combine properly, the mixture of tension and uniqueness it provides is unlike anything else and utterly engaging. Too often, however, the game gets in its own way, either due to technical issues or poor design decisions."
The game’s visual design doesn’t do it any favors. Verdun is an ugly game. No man’s land probably wasn’t pretty, and that’s understandable, but there’s little excuse for how visually bland the levels are, and how technically unimpressive they are, to boot. I could deal with the game’s color palette, which seems to deal almost exclusively in varying shades of brown with the odd smattering of green if the levels were at least well-presented, but they aren’t.
There’s also a number of niggling gameplay issues. The game will often lose your bullets, meaning that you’ll spend a lot of time lining up your shots only for nothing to happen. This would be fine (and would probably mean that you’d missed) if it only happened during long-range rifle shootouts, but I’ve fired into enemies at point-blank range, both human players and AI enemies, shots that couldn’t possibly be missed, and nothing has happened. Team balancing is also poor, and the only way to fix significantly unbalanced teams is for player to switch of their own accord. Verdun seems to lack the ability to balance itself. It’s also quite easy to get stuck on objects in the environment for no discernable reason.
When Verdun works, when all of its disparate elements combine properly, the mixture of tension and uniqueness it provides is unlike anything else and utterly engaging. Too often, however, the game gets in its own way, either due to technical issues or poor design decisions. There’s sparks of glory to be found in these trenches, yes; but at this moment it is largely unrealized, like a great soldier who misses the cry to attack, and sits in his trench as his brothers charge a field, waiting for an order that may never come again.
This game was reviewed on the PlayStation 4.
Interesting and unique game scenarios. Frontlines and Squad Defence are great modes. Captures the tension and tedium of trench warfare. Team play is promoted and rewarding.
Visually bland and technically unimpressive. Some modes are underpopulated. Quite a few technical issues. Maybe does the tedium thing a bit too well. Tutorial does a poor job of teaching you how to play.
When Verdun works, the mixture of tension and uniqueness it provides is unlike anything else and utterly engaging. Too often, however, the game gets in its own way, either due to technical issues or poor design decisions. It’s an incredibly interesting and unique game, but its tedium and technical issues should be considered before you enter its trenches.
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