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Verdun review: A thoughtful, squad-based take on WWI

Hayden Dingman | May 19, 2015
It feels like they'll never stop coming. Through my rifle's oversized scope I watch German after German bob and weave across the battlefield, their spiked helmets popping up for mere instants before sinking back down into another crater, edging ever closer to our trench.

It feels like they'll never stop coming. Through my rifle's oversized scope I watch German after German bob and weave across the battlefield, their spiked helmets popping up for mere instants before sinking back down into another crater, edging ever closer to our trench.

I pick off one, two, three, and then artillery fire is raining down to my left, massive plumes of dirt erupting into the air from our front lines. The Germans swarm into the breach, shouting. A whistle blows off to my right, a man waving his pistol into the air and pushing his men to plug the gap. They run straight into a cloud of gas. Four men die before the rest get their masks on.

But even shorthanded, the rest manage to repel the German advance. Then another whistle blows, and this time we go over the top, making our own doomed charge towards the enemy.

And the band played Waltzing Matilda...

Johnny got his gun

World War I is a tough subject for a game. It's got none of the rah-rah patriotism of modern warfare, none of the counter-culture glam of Vietnam, none of the good-guys-bad-guys appeal of World War II. And perhaps worst of all, it's a meat grinder. It's gas and bolt-action rifles and barbed wire and mud and trenchfoot and young men sprinting trench to trench in thousands of crazed suicide runs.

It's a nearly incomprehensible nightmare.

Verdun does what it can to distill the Great War into a multiplayer shooter. I'm a bit disappointed it's multiplayer only because I think World War I is great unexplored fodder for games, as evidenced by last year's incredible Valiant Hearts.

But there's still quite a bit to like and appreciate about Verdun — not least the way it translates trench warfare into a game mechanic.

Verdun 's central game mode, Frontlines, draws heavily from Battlefield and games of that ilk, in that it's basically a point-capture mode. When a match starts, one team sits in its trench playing defense while the other sprints across the battlefield towards them, dodging gas and artillery fire and sniper shots. The goal is to make it across the entire no-man's-land (harder than it sounds) and capture the opponent's trench.

You're on a time limit, though. Run out of time and you're forced to make a frantic retreat back to your own trench, defense becomes offense and vice versa, and then you're the one watching as men run screaming towards you across no-man's-land.

Rinse and repeat. Just like World War I.

If nothing else, Verdun's given me an excellent understanding of what a mess World War I was. The game doesn't have the best graphics, the best sound, the best character models, or what have you — and yet few games have so consistently stressed me out like Verdun. The first time I went over the top I said more than a few "Holy $@*&%s" out loud. It seems impossible you're going to cross this massive field of barbed wire, craters, and mud all while bullets crack overhead.

 

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