We'd played Verdun back when it was a rough and unpolished Early Access title, and so revisiting this World War I shooter didn't fill us with much enthusiasm. Thus it was a pleasant surprise to find a finished game that had improved much since we looked at it last, with the developers using their time in Early Access, not to make superficial changes, but to genuinely improve their game in a variety of different ways.
Verdun takes players to one of history's most desolate theatres of war. On the fields of France an entire generation of young men fell in the face of a war that ushered in a new brand of industrialised combat. WWI marked the transition from the old world to the new, where progress was dragged forward by the need to innovate, where technological advancement meant survival. It was a bleak, uncompromising and wasteful war, and it makes an uncomfortable setting for a shooter.
There's two modes here, and we like both for different reasons. Rifle Deathmatch puts players in a free-for-all. The large maps (that we'll talk about more later) are split up into smaller chunks, and players must pick a rifle and go to work in search of the most kills. The respawn points can be hugely frustrating on some matches, with instant-death a semi-regular occurrence. It's a good way to get your eye in ahead of the team-based game, and while it doesn't have longterm appeal, it does offer up some exhilarating moments.
The real heart of Verdun is the team-based mode, Frontlines. The developers have tried to create a mode that captures the essence of the conflict, with teams rolling back and forth across narrow maps, capturing objectives, charging over No Man's Land, repelling attacks, and dealing with a variety of enemy tactics.
The maps themselves are long and thin, with capture points located in the trenches that provide much-needed cover. A match is split into phases of attack and defend; one team will attack another's defensive position and if they take it, they then have to hold it while the other team mounts a counter-attack. It's all about building up momentum for your team, and shutting down your enemy when they have the initiative. Games are on a timer, and the team that has the most captures at the end are crowned the victors, unless one team can roll the other back to their HQ. Either that, or it's a draw - like the war this game is based on, there's a lot of stalemate.
It's a very prescriptive mode, you can't just go off and do your own thing. For example, if you're on the defensive and you stray too far forward a countdown appears, at the end of which if you're not back in position, you're killed for desertion. You have to play within the fairly strict confines of the rules, but as it's a well-thought out mode, it's not a problem. There's a script that each team has to follow, but rather than hinder the action, it facilitates some memorable set-pieces. It does, on the other hand, give the action an element of predictability, and in-between the phases there are regular lulls.
There's several things that heighten the atmosphere, further entwining the action with its setting. There's mustard gas that forces the player to put on a gas mask, and mortar strikes exploding all around. Biplanes fly overhead. The ground shakes. Near-misses and non-fatal hits rattle the colour out of a player's vision. The maps are dirty and crater-filled. You could accuse them of being dull to look at, but it'd be better to praise the authentic atmosphere. The graphics, while not perfect, have improved considerably throughout development. There's some pop-up when scanning the horizon, and a few rough edges, but all in all it looks good.
In Rifle Deathmatch there's nothing particularly exciting going on behind the scenes; you pick a gun that you can unlock upgrades for using the points you earn as you rise through the ranks. However, there's a much more interesting meta-game bubbling under the surface of the main mode. Players sign up for a unit, and each unit consists of a maximum of four players. Different countries have different units that fulfil different roles on the battlefield. Each player has a role to fill within this small team, of which there can be several on either side of the battle. Working with your squad is important, and players who adopt a team-mentality will have a better time of it over those that try and go lone wolf.
The roles are quite varied; if you're a rifleman your game will be different to that of a non-commissioned officer. NCOs increase the point hauls their teammates when they're in close proximity (there's an area of effect marked on the mini-map) and can call in mortar strikes or gas attacks, while a grenadier - as you might expect - goes into battle with grenades. As players level up different classes they can unlock loadout variations; they don't significantly alter the experience, but they certainly give more opportunity for player expression.
For the most part the gunplay is solid. Sometimes the hit detection felt off, but then again, that might have just been our aim. There was certainly some lag issues, and on more than one occasion we had nailed-on bullseyes count for nothing. The first time we tested the game there was no bullet drop, and unless we're mistaken, that's something that has subsequently been added. Refined combat mechanics have made for a more involving experience, and with it being mainly a one-hit-kill affair, poking your head up out of cover is always tense, and fighting in the trenches can be claustrophobic.
There's not a huge amount of variety when it comes to the arsenal of weapons on offer, with the focus on more subtle variations rather than injecting unrealistic options. It's all done with one eye on authenticity. The crackle and pop of the gunfire might have been a touch more potent, but the soundscape of the wider battlefield is certainly evocative and atmospheric. Even the music that greets you when you boot up the game has been chosen because of the mood it creates.
One of the most impressive things about Verdun, but something that we can't really take into account in the score, is the developer's plans to support the game post-launch via free content. There's ambitious plans to overhaul the gore-system, add new maps and introduce different modes. In an age where most developers would produce this content, but then charge you again and again for it, it's refreshing to see a studio commit to serving their community this way.
The longer we spend with Verdun the more we appreciate it, and given the content planned for the game in the months ahead, we're expecting it to continue maturing. As far as historical shooters go, this is aiming at the top spot currently held by the excellent Rising Storm, and while the WWII shooter has in our opinion retained its crown, this is still a good shooter with plenty of potential. It's come along way since we first discovered it, and by the looks of it, it has a way still to go. There's room for it to grow, and with more maps and some different modes thrown into the mix, there's no reason why Verdun can't continue to improve and evolve.