Home By Christmas

HIGH Disappearing into the trees and picking off a dozen soldiers before anyone knew where I was.

LOW Getting spawn-camped three lives in a row.

WTF The devs just didn’t bother putting in a ‘wearing gas mask’ version of the AI models.


Historically, I’ve had grave misgivings about games based on World War I. That entire enterprise was so pointless and horrific that I have trouble being objective about attempts to gamify its tragedies. Yet, I also care passionately about games involving the early days of air combat. This led to a wildly unbalanced review I once turned in that excoriated a Snoopy game for making light of mustard gas.

…It wasn’t one of my finer moments.

Knowing this about myself, I was mindful of my biases when going into Verdun, a online competitive shooter that simulates the push and pull of WWI’s trench warfare, in all its muddy horror. Setting aside personal feelings about the subject matter, I was determined to judge the game solely on how well it executed its aspirations.

The answer? More than adequately.

Verdun won’t be getting praise for its graphics — this is obviously a small-studio title. Textures are indistinct, trees are sparse and blocky, and even the ground has the unnatural rounded quality of thrown-together environments.

In another game, these would be huge drawbacks, but in Verdun these slightly shoddy production values actually work towards the game’s aesthetics. The developers are depicting sections of France that have been torn to pieces by years of shelling, bombing, and desperate shoveling. Everything looks like a broken, ugly mess, which is exactly how it should — trench warfare was ugly, and these pared-down graphics reflect the reality better than ‘realistic’ graphics could. That doesn’t excuse the player models, though. Their animation is stiff, and way behind the curve for modern shooters.

The central mode of play is based around holding land — two teams start in the middle of a football field-sized section of trenches, with one assigned the role of attacker, and the other set to defend their territory. Players have to push into enemy territory, holding trenches within a time limit. Fail to push far enough before the clock counts down, and suddenly they’re placed on defense, trying to preserve their own line. The mode is much more fluid in practice than it may sound, and the time limits are actually dynamic — if a team manages to keep their momentum up by killing enough enemies and moving into enemy territory, they can receive time extensions on their assault.

Strategy is paramount here. Players are divided up into groups of four and given perks and bonus experience points based on their ability to stay together and function as a team. The game is scored solely based on how much land one team is able to take away from the other, and I found that games would frequently end in ties. Surprisingly, this didn’t seem to frustrate any of the players I ran into, since the moment-to-moment combat feels so intense and satisfying. Also, stalemates are historically accurate.

Much of Verdun‘s success can be attributed to the primitive weapons. Each one has advantages that are offset by huge drawbacks, and nothing ever feels overpowered. Machine guns are wildly inaccurate, rifles have to be re-chambered after every shot, and pistols don’t do much damage. There’s no ‘best’ way to play the game, just a series of least bad options, as it should be. That said, it’s clear the devs love bolt-action rifles. A wide variety have been simulated, each one with accurate sights and action — and with rifles generally killing with a single shot, learning to love iron sights is an absolute must for success,

Unfortunately, while Verdun‘s versus is worthwhile, the co-op mode is a wash. Teams of players (or a single masochist) are tasked with defending a position from wave after wave of AI foes. Unfortunately, AI enemies are as dumb as dirt, and tend to clump together, running in crowds. Gunning them down isn’t particularly satisfying or challenging until the numbers get overwhelming, and even then it doesn’t feel like superior technique is winning the day, it’s just being overwhelmed.

There’s also a problem in the rifle deathmatch mode — it’s largely amazing, with a handful of players armed with bolt-action rifles creeping around cluttered maps, trying to spy enemies before catching a bullet. Not enough thought was put into the spawn locations in some maps, though. Two or three snipers can easily have most of the possible starting locations covered, effectively making it impossible for respawned players to make any progress until someone takes the snipers down.

While it’s far from the most attractive FPS I’ve played this year, Verdun gets its setting and tone incredibly right. There’s a moment in every match where I found myself peering out from behind cover, looking down my rifle, desperate to catch sign of any movement in a field of debris — a moment where the game completely justifies its setting and mechanics. Verdun is rough at times and only half of its modes are any good, but those special moments it offers are rare enough to deserve attention. Rating: 7.5 out of 10

Disclosures: This game is developed and published by Blackmail Games. It is currently available on PC, XBO and PS4. This copy of the game was obtained via publisher and reviewed on the PS4. Approximately 1 hour of play was devoted to the single-player mode. 8 hours of play were spent in multiplayer modes.

Parents: According to the ESRB, this game is rated Mature and contains Blood and Gore, Intense Violence, and Strong Language. I didn’t actually notice any strong language, so I just have to take their word for it, but it really is quite violent. Headshots, bombs, poison gas — none of it is especially gory despite the warning, but all has the potential to traumatize younger teens. Also, one stage features the corpses of a few fallen horses, which can be used as cover. So yeah, it’s rough.

Deaf & Hard of Hearing Gamers: Hearing is absolutely vital to success in the game. While there is a map to offer basic information on enemy locations, being able to determine what direction gunfire is coming from, as well as hear approaching footfalls can mean the difference between life and death. Sadly, there are no visual cues to help with these functions.

Remappable Controls: Players can use a few different preset control setups in the options menu, but the controls are not fully remappable.

Colorblind Modes: There are no colorblind modes available in the options.

Daniel Weissenberger
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