Reviewed On: PC
Developer: Blackmill Games/M2H
Publisher: Blackmill Games/M2H
Laying in the muddy, stinking water of a crater I almost miss the safety of my equally muddy, wet, stinking trench. Here in no-mans lands advancing has become next to impossible as a tricky sniper and heavy machine gunner have all but pinned down the entirety of my squad, and seem to be bringing a halt to our team’s offensive. Unlike those who fought in the real trenches of World War 1 I can’t feel the horrid mud that wants to suck men into the ground, nor do I have to try to fight the cold that seeps into bones. Here in the comfort of a darkened room with nought but a keyboard and mouse instead of a rifle I’m perfectly safe. Nevertheless, I’m afraid.
Verdun has that effect. In this multiplayer only game the search for realism means a single bullet can kill you, and respawns leave you out for twenty or so seconds sometimes. It’s hardly a huge slice of time, but it’s enough for the enemy to get a foothold in the 16v16 matches. Poking your head out of the trenches can often result in instant death, as the legion of Early Access players have had plenty of time to learn the detailed weapon ballistics and judge their shots. Verdun can be frustrating because of how steep its learning curve is, but stick with it and it’s a hugely rewarding game which puts the emphasis on communication, team-work and careful shooting.
The idea of a World War 1 shooter has long been one of great interest to me, but the games industry has ignored it, favoring World War 2, probably due to the wider selection of weapons, greater recognition among people and the lack of trenches which don’t lend themselves to varied and interesting locales to fight in. The Great War was bloody and horrific, but when viewed from a videogame’s perspective it was about a lot of people shooting at each other across a small patch of land and occasionally making bloody stupid suicide charges to capture another few feet of ground. With most rifles being bolt-action and requiring each bullet to be fed into the gun when reloading every shot needs to be carefully considered and even more carefully aimed, as the precious seconds it takes to unleash another round will probably spell death. It goes directly against everything the modern shooter is where guns have 30-rounds to a clip, aiming is something you sort of vaguely do and reloads take mere seconds between darting from cover to cover, witnessing buildings explode and single-handedly conquering the enemy. That’s not to say the pace is always slow: mad dashes across no-mans land are common, and once into the enemy trench it can often be good to quickly move through the tunnels in order to dispatch unwitting foes before any team members can communicate your presence. The slow nature of the guns, though, means that a missed shot can be lethal. It makes for a different sort of tension to that of when you’re defending from attackers or crossing the expanse of no-man’s land.
The primary game mode of Frontlines aims to replicate the back and forth nature of trench warfare, asking you to charge across no-mans land and capture enemy territory when the attack signal is displayed. The goal is basically to fill the enemy trench with soldiers and hold the ground for long enough for it to become yours. Capture the land and you’ll move on to the next chunk of map, assuming you can defend it against the enemy team who them get their opportunity to launch a counter attack. Likewise taking too long to capture a trench results in you having to retreat back across the ruined expanse of no-man’s land and crawl pitifully back into your own hidey-hole to await the enemy team’s assault. Matches can sometimes be a case of one team dominating, and at other times it’s a back and forth over the same two trenches with neither side able to advance because everyone is so well-balanced. It’s a clever thematic twist on the Battlefield Rush formula, managing to both fit wonderfully into the World War 1 theme and create satisfying gameplay mechanics. Visually speaking the maps aren’t anything spectacular or memorable, but their designs are both faithful and important to the action. Some have trenches close together so that you can take pot-shots at the enemy before performing a fast, aggressive charge, while others have huge expanses of no-mans land where snipers and heavy gunners become a genuine concern to the attackers.
Each army of sixteen would-be soldiers is broken down into four squads of varying types, depending on the nationalities involved in the fight. A French rifle squad, for example, is vastly different to a German Stroßtruppen assault group, and the game clearly expects you to understand this pretty quickly. Furthermore each of these squads is broken down into one command player, the NCO, who can launch mortar strikes and more if his or her squad is performing well as a unit, and then three specialised troops with very different roles on the battlefield. Each of these roles gets extra little perks and abilities to help further define what they should be aiming to do on the battlefield, too. If you’ve got a heavy MG then you need to carefully position yourself to either mow down attackers or lay down covering fire for the rest of the team, while a Grenadier is always good for lobbing in some explosives to clear out a section of trench so the rest of the squad can get a foothold. You can swap roles within a squad at any time if a slot is free, or you can helpfully request that another player swaps with you, and generally speaking the online community is a friendly bunch so if you’re adamant you can make a difference with a sniper rifle they’ll usually agree. And on top of that you can also spend points earned by levelling up to purchase one of three further specialisations for the classes, too. These aren’t upgrades as such, though, which is important to know. One specialisation, for instance, might give you a scope while the other lets you keep a plain rifle, and each is useful. However, some clearly seem to be too good. Take playing as an MG wielder where I discovered that the third specialisation lets me have both my MG and a rifle, making the previous two specializations utterly redundant because I suddenly became capable of laying down defensive fire and storming the enemy. It makes the fact that you have to buy the next two specializations in order also feel a bit stupid since many of them are equally useful in different situations. Having said that, some seemed a bit useless, too.
Sticking with your squad is something even traditionally lone wolf players need to keep in mind. Just being around them is enough as your kills and saves will count towards the squads overall experience and level, which actually carries over from match to match. That rank improves your squad equipment and abilities. A nice touch is that there’s also uniform upgrades, too, making your squad stand out on the field. There’s even the ability to unleash gas strikes, which can then be countered by the incredibly claustrophobic gas masks. It has to be said that lying prone on the ground, wearing a gas mask and squinting through the obscuring fog of death for an attack you know has to be coming is wonderfully tense. I found myself almost twitch shooting every little shadow in the gas field. Brilliant.
The fact that playing as a team is heavily rewarded is praise-worth, for sure, but it does mean that if you don’t have any friends playing Verdun or struggle to meet people online for whatever reason, like me, then it might get annoying to see squads getting slightly better stuff. I didn’t have anyone on my friends list interested in playing Verdun, so I mostly had to rely on jumping into existing squads, but then it was often hard to stick with them. I made some friends, but even then never got a squad leveled up very far. Indeed, the vast, vast majority if squads are all of a very low-level, and only a few have managed to build up their points over time, earning an advantage over everyone else. It should be said that the advantages don’t break the game, but…yeah. It’s a shame to see a damn good mechanic seemingly only affect a small segment of the population. The community is friendly and more than willing to chat, but that’s a very different thing from being able to form reliable squads.
Outside of the Frontlines game mode there’s straight up Deathmatch where you can spend earned points to unlock new rifles. It’s deathmatch, so there’s little for me to say here, but the rifles do give it an interesting pace.
The biggest flaw is that of an incredibly steep learning curve for newcomers. This is not a forgiving game and the lack of practice range, singleplayer or AI controlled bots makes it a daunting prospect for a newbie to come in and learn the ropes. Being killed by a single bullet means death comes fast and even little mistakes are usually rewarding with somebody putting a shot through your head. It’s a trial and error approach to learning, and one that isn’t helped by a number of factors. Figuring out squads, for example, isn’t the easiest. When joining a match you’re given a list of squads to join, and just looking at them feels confusing. The different roles in each aren’t explained on-screen, so new players will have to jump in and hope the best, where they may be greeted immediately with just a basic revolver and no idea of how to get hold of a rifle. To switch roles you need to hit the ESC button, but when mousing over the available slots there’s once again no explanation given as to their purpose. It’s only when you hit the switch button and change over that you can then read that role’s perks and weapon loadout. Furthermore, unlocking new tiers of weapons can only actually be done in-game for some reason, so you have to stand still on the battlefield like an idiot for a little bit while the war rages on around you. This stuff is explained in a game guide available outside of the game itself, but that doesn’t excuse the lack of communication Verdun has with its players. Thankfully the community so far seems genuinely helpful and willing to provide tips and explanations.
It’s also worth noting that the developers are seemingly planning on adding a bot mode somewhere down the line, which could greatly help out new players, although frankly I believe it will be too little too late as this is already a niche title and I don’t foresee a lot of new players arriving.
There’s other gripes to contend with, too. When generally moving, aiming and shooting it’s abundantly clear that Verdun lacks the smoothness of its peers. Take getting up from prone or crouched and sprinting – it feels clumsy, and considerably slower that it really should be. Getting caught on the terrain doesn’t help things, either, but it’s irritatingly common to find yourself struggling to get out of a trench in a graceful manner or battling against a rock or something else that results in your brain being splattered across the field of battle. I can’t count how many times prone was apparently blocked, or that I was crawling around and suddenly got caught up on something that should never have been an issue, forcing me to stand up and get shot. Even getting out of foxholes sometimes proved a problem.
Repetition could also prove to be a thorn in Verdun’s side. As enjoyable and satisfying as the gameplay is there’s no getting around the fact that matches tend to blur together very quickly. The maps are mildly interesting but don’t vary much because of real-life history, and trench warfare feels much the same every time. Perhaps this is the biggest reason WWII was favored as it allowed for more variety in location and action, like driving tanks. Games like Battlefield 1942 let players jump in planes, fight on land and drive jeeps, while the newer titles throw in helicopter, even more tanks, terrain destruction and plenty of fun gadgets to ensure that there’s always something cool going on. Verdun relies purely on its satisfying combat and semi-realism. I say semi because things like being able to spawn on certain squad members and other things are clearly things implemented in the name of videogames. On the one hand it’s downright praise-worthy that Verdun’s core gameplay remains incredibly fun for so long, but at the same time it’s fair to say a lot of potential players will find themselves struggling to continue playing after a relatively short while, the more varied thrills the shooter genre tends to offer today winning them back. For those that stay, though, this is a game where sinking in heaps of time is a reward in itself.
But in an industry currently obsessed with releasing pricier and pricier DLC that feels increasingly less worthwhile the developers of Verdun intend on releasing at least four free expansion packs, the first of which will bring new squads with new tools and weapons, plus an icon of Verdun, Fort Douaumont. Another pack will introduce new squad mechanics and co-op gameplay, and yet another will overhaul the gore system to make for a more gruesome, realistic experience. Presumably this still depends on how well Verdun performs on Steam, but it’s good to see a support plan in place that will offer the fanbase free content to further enjoy the game.
Graphically the game is chugging along on the Unity 5 engine and generally looks pretty damn good. That’s not to say it looks brilliant; there’s a noticeable flatness and lack of detail that doesn’t manage to really sell the idea of clinging mud and water that made the trenches so miserable, but overall it’s nice to look at. The sound design is solid, too, with most weapons feeling and sounding good to fire. I also enjoyed some of the smaller details, like how when you bring a scope up not only does it not obscure the entire screen but it also takes a second for everything to come into focus. Performance seems to be generally good, but some graphical options hit the framerate in strange ways.
While it could be far more welcoming for new players and may become tiring due to repetition Verdun is one of the most enjoyable multiplayer games I’ve played in a while, serving up some truly unique FPS action. The weapons, maps and fragility of players dictate a more considered pace broken up by moments of frantic madness as you decide to charge down a trench as fast as possible in order to catch the enemy unaware, racking up kills before somebody faster and more accurate puts an end to you. It’s a tense shooter with a genuine need for teamwork, and though it doesn’t truly come close to capturing the atmosphere of World War 1 it nevertheless kept me hooked and happy for many, many hours. It’s a lovely antidote to the more bombastic, generic online shooters of late, and wins my recommendation. Go play it.