For such a momentous period in human history, the First World War has been relatively under-served by video games. Mostly because the defining theatre of the conflict—the nightmarish trench warfare of the Western Front—is almost impossible to recreate in the medium.
I mean, you can recreate it, loads of games have, but the problem is that—and I’m sorry for the ghastly reduction of the source material here, but we’re talking video games, so I have to do this—it’s boring. Most other forms of warfare, throughout the entirety of human history, have been turned into fantastic strategy games because there’s some degree of mobility to them. That’s what makes them games. You can flank, drive, encircle and withdraw. There are immediate and actionable tactics you can apply.
The Western Front, on the other hand, was a meat-grinder. Attacks involving thousands of men could result in gains of just a few yards. There was an enormous strategic effort under-pinning the war, from recruitment to manufacturing to global supply lines, but in a tactical sense there’s very little for the player to do, which is why nearly every game based on the conflict has been slow, bad or both.
Which brings us to The Great War: Western Front, a new strategy game from Petroglyph, the studio behind Star Wars: Empire at War and Universe at War: Earth Assault. It tries to tackle the subject matter from a slightly different approach, which I can best break down as “Total War meets Tower Defence”.
The game is split into two sections. There’s a strategic aspect, where you move armies around a map in a turn-based system, and then when two forces meet the action zooms in to a real-time battle. This RTS element itself has two stages; there’s a planning and construction phase, where you get to design a network of trenches and firing positions, and a battle phase where you deploy units on the field and control them in real time.
The strategic stuff is fine. It works, it’s simple enough. It’s the RTS side of things that is most interesting, though, and it’s where the game both shines and ultimately falls down.
The design and construction stuff is, in the grimmest way imaginable, the highlight. Imagine a historical murder machine built the same way you’d put a LEGO set together. You’re given a map and can draw trench networks across it, picking the kind of trench, mapping out its supporting supply trenches, placing machine gun nests, agonising over the location of artillery batteries. If this was the game, and battles decided afterwards like some kind of flood management/tower defence title, I think it could have been the best First World War game ever made.
Sadly, the moment a battle actually begins—perhaps as a nod to the actual conflict—everything falls apart. You control individual units, not entire lines of men, and a lot of the game involves moving them around the map, trying to time your devastating artillery support just right. The issue is that these units are weirdly sticky, having trouble entering or staying in trenches properly and making control of them a nightmare, while the AI’s own tactics are often somehow worse than those employed on the actual battlefields 100 years ago.
This sucks the life out of the whole thing, which is a shame! There are a lot of good ideas here, and the presentation is surprisingly earnest. There are loads of informative Company of Heroes-style 2D cutscenes, and the developers toe the line between respecting the horror of the conflict and expressing its brutality in the form of a video game as well as any other WW1 release I can remember.
The Great War: Western Front is out now on Steam and the Epic Games Store.