Verdun 1914-1918 – MMO Game Preview
This preview of Verdun: 1914-1918 used a pre-release version and may not reflect features present in the final release.
World War II was the focus of a plethora of first person shooters that included the Medal of Honor, Call of Duty and Battlefield series, just to name a few. These games recreated the action in Europe and the Pacific and in many ways helped make the Second World War “cool” again to a younger generation. Most of the major publishers of these games have moved on to focus on modern warfare and near-future conflicts.
That isn’t to say that World War II has been left behind, as games such as Red Orchestra and Day of Defeat continue to recreate the horrors of the conflict—while still making it fun in the process. World War II was of course a perfect setting for shooters because these offered a fairly level playing field in terms of equipment at the squad level.
So this brings up the question: why hasn’t the First World War gotten the same treatment? Apart from a couple of mods (user-made modifications) for the Battlefield series there was little attempt by anyone to create a first person shooter set in the trenches on the Western Front. Fortunately, BlackMill Games and M2H Studios stepped up and not only proved that such a setting would make for a viable setting but has in the past year refined the game so much that it is probably one of the most balanced and historically accurate FPS games to date.
This game is Verdun: 1914-1918, and it chronicles not just the epic 1916 battle but in a general sense covers the entire conflict on the Western Front. While still very much in development this shooter is actually more refined and playable than many full-blown releases; anyone who played a Battlefield game in the first week of release will understand.
Squad Level Combat
At its heart Verdun is a squad-level multiplayer game and in this regard isn’t that much different from the Battlefield series, but with one notable exception. It has actually taken a step back and is strictly an infantry-only experience. There are no tanks to drive, no planes to fly and no other vehicles. By taking this path the developers have focused on exactly what the Great War’s Western Front was about—namely, senseless infantry assaults across no-man’s land.
The game allows players to squad up as either the Allies or Central Powers. In the current build there are options to play as the French infantry (Poilus), French light infantry (Chasseurs Alpin), Canadian infantry, British infantry (Tommies), or as German infantry (Landsers), Alpenjäger or Stoβtruppen (storm troopers). Each type of squad consists of four positions that include an NCO and three infantry positions that could include rifleman, bomber, sniper, gunner or assault troop. Each particular trooper begins with fairly basic weapons, possibly just a bolt-action rifle or handgun.
As players earn points for making kills or capturing enemy trenches the soldier levels up, and unlocks new weapons. This can include hand grenades but also items such as shovels that can be used as blunt objects in a melee attack—a not-so-subtle reminder of how horrific the combat became in the trenches!
The NCO has special abilities as well. The British Tommy, French Poilus and German Landser can call in artillery or mortar strikes on enemy positions. In addition as the NCO advances forward to enemy lines troops in the squad can spawn on him, making it a little easier than trying to cross no-man’s land from the trenches. The Chassuers and Alpenjäger NCOs can call in for air cover, which provides details on the location of the enemy units. Finally, the Canadian and Stoβtruppen NCOs can launch gas attacks, yet another not-so-subtle reminder of the horrors of WWI.
In its present mode matches max out at four squads (16 players) per team. This limits the size of the attacks but the map size has been designed so that this can feel like an overwhelming number at times. While perhaps the game would be more realistic if it offered 32 vs. 32 play the balance works reasonably well. It enables the intensity of the war without it feeling overwhelming.
Bolt-Action Rifles and Pistols
The other distinguishing feature of Verdun is that this isn’t a game where snipers and those with the latest/greatest assault rifle will rule the map. Most of the players will be armed with bolt-action rifles including the British/Canadian SMLE (Short Magazine Lee Enfield), the German Gewehr 98, the French M1886 Lebel and the M1892 Berthier. Each rifle is accurately detailed with the respective advantages and shortcomings.
The Bertheir, for example, has great stopping power but has the same flaw the French soldiers discovered during the war regarding its three-round magazine; it gets the job done as long as you don’t need to take more than three shots. The SMLE has a 10-round magazine but it often requires more than one shot at longer ranges. In this regard the designers did try to offer some balance.
Mirroring the real conflict, NCOs typically begin with just handguns. This can be frustrating in the early going, as it is nearly impossible to shoot an enemy at range with even a Luger; however, in the actual trenches the ability to blast off several rounds quickly comes in handy.
Machine guns are very limited in Verdun, and just one squad member in each four-man squad even has the ability to carry one. While these weapons could have the potential for disrupting the game and giving those players wielding them nearly unstoppable power the game’s designers noted that this was far from the fact in the actual war.
First, as has been noted, the game limits the number of machine guns that can appear in the game. The other aspect is that the machine guns are somewhat limited, too. The German Stoβtruppens have the only true machine pistol with the MP-18, a gun that made its appearance in the final months of the war. It fires a 9mm pistol round, so it is only good close up. In the trenches it is devastating, of course, but the soldier wielding it is vulnerable whilst crossing no-man’s land.
The French Poilus can use the Chauchat, arguably the world’s first true assault weapon. It can be fired from the hip but is far from accurate. It has a fairly slow rate of fire for a machine gun and takes a while to reload. The designers haven’t offered any solution to the real-world problem of jamming, but given the weapon’s other limitations it is likely a moot point.
The same can be said of the British Lewis Gun. It can be carried, albeit slowly, and fired from the hip with limited accuracy, but as with the Chauchat it is most effective when set up in a prone position. This is also true of the German MG08/15, a “mobile” version of the heavy machine gun. These guns are really meant to be used in prone position and thus are better on defense than when assaulting. The guns have only limited ability to traverse when used in the prone position, and this puts the user in harm’s way from flanking attempts, not to mention artillery attacks and snipers.
In other words, the balance with the small arms is handled quite well. In this way Verdun offers far better balance than many other shooters. If anything—apart from those truly skilled (or lucky) gamers—the chances are players will die a lot, potentially as often as they score “kills.” The individual matches often have seriously high body counts, but that just reinforces that the designers truly captured the spirit of the horrific attacks made during the war.
Unlike other shooters, in Verdun players stick to one side through a session, so there is no switching of sides after each match. This means players can focus solely on one type of unit and/or position. Personally, this reviewer finds that refreshing, especially as I have a fondness for the British Tommy.
In the Details
As noted, Verdun is not about the specific battle of the same name and instead covers five locations, including the “Four de Paris” in the wooded region near Verdun, the hills overlooking the plains in the mining region of Artois, the muddy fields of Ypres, the hills of Picardy and the dense trench network near Vauqois.
Each of the five maps is different and unique and evoke different images of World War I. In the process they dispel a common myth—namely that the war was one of endless trench lines. While trenches are common in all five maps the types of trenches are different. This is because the types of trenches and the combat used to assault and/or defend these networks evolved as the war went on.
Some are well built-up while others are little more than mud-filled craters. This is likely the most accurate depiction of a battlefield in any shooter. If there is one shortcoming with the designs it is the fact that the terrain isn’t actually destructible, so bunkers can’t be blown up by artillery, trenches don’t cave in and the few trees or other static objects remain truly static throughout the game.
Though it is hard to notice while playing the game, the maps are also fairly small—not that wide and not even very deep. This, however, is not a complaint; the smaller maps accurately depict how little ground was actually fought over and shows that to make a successful breakthrough required a major push costing a lot of bodies.
In addition to the attention to detail in the weapons and locations the developers should earn some major kudos in the rendering of uniforms and equipment. As the game begins each squad goes into the line wearing uniforms that were common in 1914-15, with the French dressed in dark blue jackets and red trousers, while the Germans have spiked helmets (pickelhaubes) and the British sport visor caps as their respective headdress. As the match progresses and the squad levels up—via the efforts of each squad member—the uniforms advance to include the sky-blue French uniforms and steel helmets.
This is mainly an aesthetic change and doesn’t affect the game, but take note that the French are easier to see on the battlefield with the early uniforms.
The game has come a long way and the developers continue to make marked improvements. Verdun: 1914-1918 has done something this long-time reviewer thought was an impossibility: making a compelling game about World War I that truly captured the essence of combat in that war.
While there are improvements to be made, the next hope is that other units and locations will be added, or perhaps a series of games could be developed that explore the frontlines between Austria and Italy in the Alps, the Allies in the Balkans and the British and Commonwealth troops as they face off against the Turks in Gallipoli and Palestine. There are a lot of possibilities with World War I, and now BlackMill Games & M2H Studios have show that these possibilities are not only possible but could be excellent settings for shooters!
About the Author
Peter Suciu has been collecting militaria and playing military simulations since he was a child. He’s been reviewing computer games for nearly 20 years, and when he’s not waging battle from his desktop he is a business reporter for several magazines and websites. His work has appeared on CNBC.com, Fortune.com and Forbes. He also collects military helmets and runs the MilitarySunHelmets.com website.