In the last few weeks we've been remembering the events of the First World War, with various centenaries passing by and reminding us of the tremendous sacrifices made during those dark days of conflict. The war, which started over 100 years ago, is also the subject of the recently released Verdun, a shooter set in the trenches of Europe and that's currently a work-in-progress and available to buy via Steam Early Access.
Blackmill Games and M2H's shooter walks a slightly different path to its many, many peers. For a start, the setting is fairly unique in terms of gaming, with most titles usually opting for more recent historical battles (Valiant Hearts: The Great War visited the same period, but was a very different experience). The First World War isn't the popular choice as far as shooters go. That gives the game room to breathe, but at the same time it brings the added pressure of isolation. Does Verdun stand up to inspection and do justice to its subject matter? Well, kind of.
There's good and there's bad, and when weighed up as a whole, it leaves the game balanced between its potential, and the flaws that could well see it consigned to history as a failed foray into new historical waters.
It's in Early Access, so you know going in that it's going to be as buggy as hell, and that's most certainly the case here. It's playable, sure, but it's also clear that a lot of work is going to have to go into the game before it can be called finished. That lack of polish goes beyond simple visuals, and there's some laggy moments in there too (and we also encountered players that had a whiff of the aimbot about them). These are more frustrating, as are the sometimes ridiculous spawn points, whereby new players will be shot on the moment of their arrival into the game. It's been out in the wild for some months now, and if these things haven't been fixed yet, we're wondering if they ever will.
Perhaps more importantly, the ballistic physics aren't great. At this moment in time it feels like the point and shoot mechanics that we were used to over a decade a go. Since then we've be spoiled in this regard, culminating in the rather superb Rising Storm last year, a game that does an excellent job of painting a harrowing picture of war. in Verdun you can take out an enemy at range with very little effort, and even distant soldiers, so far away that they're mere silhouettes, are fairly easy to shoot.
However, these ballistic shortcomings actually feed into the atmosphere quite well. Death is frequent and life is cheap in Verdun. There's always a constant stream of targets, and the ease at which they can be targeted is fitting given the historical context. To further this atmosphere we'd have liked instant respawns, and teams supplemented by bots, because then the battlefield would have felt even more crowded than it currently does, which in turn would've fit in more closely with the historical setting. At the moment this synergy between game and context feels accidental, and we'd like to see this pushed even further, made purposeful.
One of the game's biggest positives is the back and forth of the game's main Frontlines mode, whereby teams attack and defend targets across expansive maps. Capture points are usually bleak trenches laced with barbed wire (deadly barbed wire no less), and a well-balanced game will see opposing forces wrestling over the centre ground. Uneven matches will see one team steadily driven back across the surprisingly large maps until their opponents are on top of them and in a totally dominant position. There are moments when this can be horribly frustrating, like when you're told to fall back from your position but are under heavy gunfire and can't move without getting shot, but a timer counts down and at the end you're insta-killed for "desertion".
Teams are made up of smaller squads, which in turn are made up of four soldiers, each with a different class. The most interesting of these is the Corporal, who is armed with binoculars to call in mortar strikes, and a short-range pistol that's rubbish when used across the expanse of no-man's land, but is very handy when up against single-shot rifles in the trenches. The trenches - and the maps that house them - are exactly what you'd expect. Long, winding corridors etched into muddy battlefields, passages that offer relative safety (most of the time), allowing movement away from the searching eyes of enemy soldiers. There's not a huge amount of variety across the different maps on offer, but they at least felt well put together and individual enough to maintain variation.
There's a free-for-all mode that's perhaps less exciting than its team-based counterpart. Here individual soldiers scurry through trenches and do their best to land that all important first hit when you encounter an opponent. It's a distraction at best; the draw here is the team game, going over the top with a squad of players and charging down enemy targets.
So, it's a mixed bag. On the one hand it offers a unique experience; a shooter that explores a different period of history than most others, and at times does a fantastic job of capturing aspects of the conflict that it depicts. On the other hand it's still very rough around the edges. The physics of the bullets (or lack thereof) removes an element of complexity that the game sorely needs, even if the current status quo does feed into the atmosphere of the game.
If you'll pardon the pun, Verdun feels like it's currently stuck in no man's land, and for us it needs to push in one direction or the other if it's going to succeed. If it wants to embrace the worst parts of the war it's based on, then the battles need to be more crowded and restarts need to be much, much quicker. Alternatively the devs could go for something more authentic, rather than the point and shoot simplicity on offer at the moment, but for that we're going to need better bullet physics. And that's forgetting the regular glitches that frequently interrupt the experience, these also need ironing out if the game's going to be more immersive.
All in all there's much to admire about Verdun, and we desperately hope that the developers can really focus their efforts in the months before launch, because if they can find the right balance then there's nothing to stop this turning out to be very interesting game. As it stands it feels like what it is, an unfinished shooter that's still in development, and that inescapable truth is certainly worth considering if you're thinking about picking this one up.