It's always commendable when a game tries to do things differently to everybody else. In the case of strategy games, these often portray warfare as a series of decisive decisions and battles, inevitably leading to total victory for one side. However, Petroglyph Games' The Great War: Western Front takes a different and arguably more realistic approach. As current events unfortunately show us, wars are often pointlessly bloody and drawn-out events, where men are nothing but cannon fodder in a sinister contest of national will. As I found out during a preview session earlier this week, The Great War: Western Front aims to deliver a more grinding and inconclusive experience of warfare on both the strategic and tactical levels than most games do.
Obviously, The Great War: Western Front's title leaves little doubt as to when and where the game takes place. The game drops you into the First World War's Western Front as the British, French or Americans on the Allied side or as the Germans on the Axis side. Millions of men died here in a war that stalemated into trench warfare most of the time. On one hand, players play strategically on the turn-based Theater Map. On this hexagonal map, offensives can be launched to capture regions, finances need to be managed and research points can be distributed to research new technologies. On the other hand, whenever a battle takes place and the player wishes to take personal command, you zoom into the Battlefield Map. Here it's all about constructing trenches, calling in artillery strikes and defending or attacking with a variety of units. Victory on the Theater Map can ultimately be achieved either through direct conquest or by bringing down the enemy's National Will to zero.
The Great War: Western Front has a different pace to its gameplay and that became clear to me quite quickly when I started playing the game's campaign. On the surface, the Theater Map is similar to the strategic element of, for example, the Total War and Civilization series. However, there are a number of key differences. When I wished to go on the offensive right away, I was eagerly looking for a button to create new units, cause that's how I usually go about in turn-based strategy: create a big full-stacked army and start plundering and capturing nearby regions. In The Great War: Western Front that's impossible, because you cannot simply train new infantry units. Instead, the mainstay of your army can only be expanded through campaign progression or events. You can purchase tanks, aircraft and siege artillery though, but these are merely supporting units. This means you really need to consider where you're putting your infantry corps and which areas will be heavily or poorly defended.
The way capturing or defending regions works also reflects the indecisiveness of the actual battles of the First World War and the importance of National Will. In order to capture a region, you need to bring a region's stars down to zero. Some regions have four or five stars, meaning they require a series of successful battles to capture them. Moreover, they only lose stars when the attacker scores a major victory, on a scale of nine options that range from great victory to stalemate to great loss. Scoring a minor victory will do nothing to capture another region, but it will bring down the enemy's National Will and boost yours. After my gameplay session, that to me felt like the biggest ingenuity of The Great War: Western Front. Victory or defeat is found in the combination of balancing supplies, finances, espionage and winning or consciously losing battles to come out on top with your National Will. I do imagine this makes it a game for more patient players, as you won't be able to score any quick victories.
I also had the opportunity to play several battles on the Battlefield Map. Here the game's UI looks similar to other games, with unit cards at the bottom, some special attacks on the right and a big mini map in the upper right corner. In the initial phase, you have time to construct and upgrade trenches, lay barbed wire fences, install machine gun nests, position reconnaissance balloons and position your artillery. Holding on to and capturing strategic points on the map is what battles are essentially about. When the battle starts, it's time to micromanage your infantry units and decimate the enemy with barrages of your artillery. Like in reality, you will lose many units and will need to send in wave after wave of infantry units, supported by artillery barrages.
During the historical Battle of the Somme I played at the end of my preview session, I had the objective to repel a number of assaults at first, playing as the Germans this time. Then, after a big explosion caused by underground mines to blast open the British defences, it was my time to go on the offensive. I had a good time playing this battle, because you're constantly kept busy. Any successful offense or defence requires a good synergy between your infantry and covering fire by artillery. Blasting away an enemy infantry squad with a well-placed heavy artillery barrage feels good. I also used gas attacks and smoke barrages for cover at times, but they didn't seem as impactful as some good old explosions.
Over the course of the battles I played, I did observe some things that might need polishing. It was quite difficult sometimes to get my infantry units to move through the safety of a trench, for example. They often ran out or failed to enter and subsequently got mowed down, but that might just be inexperience on my part. On the other hand, I also observed the AI's infantry units walking in illogical directions on occasion. Taking your unit for a stroll parallel to my trenches isn't the brightest of moves I can imagine, so hopefully the AI gets a little smarter in that regard upon release. Another thing is that the game's UI and atmosphere could have been a bit more dark in my opinion, to reflect the horrors of the First World War a bit more. Right now there's a lighter vibe to the game, although I do like the music that suits the game's time period.
Commenting on the game's looks, my opinion is that the graphics quality and gameplay in a game need to strike the right balance: it either looks really good and I'm forgiving lacking gameplay, or the gameplay should be great and in that case, I don't care that much about the visuals. The Great War: Western Front leans more to the latter case. I tried zooming in on my boys in the trenches every now and then, but they're just a bunch of clones without too much detail. Your artillery hitting the enemy also looks and feels better when zoomed out, because up close there's just not that much to see. That doesn't mean there aren't any details in the environments though, because the battlefield's décor is filled with trenches, ruined houses and shell craters. However, visually speaking, the game isn't going to amaze you, but the gameplay keeping you engaged makes up for it.
In all, my impression is that The Great War: Western Front is a well-thought out game that offers a fresh take on strategy gaming, due to its emphasis on how grinding warfare can be. I also think there's plenty of historical immersion to make you feel like a Foch, Ludendorff or Haig sitting behind your computer. There are interesting details like morale penalties for the Allies when different nations fight in the same battle, historic events that influence the campaign and a variety of authentic units and weapons to command on the battlefield. A final thing I haven't been able to experience, but seems great to me, is the fact that battlefields will 'remember' what has happened in previous battles: you and your enemy's trenches will remain in the same location between battles, and also battlefield scars carry over from one battle to another. I'm also curious for the game's multiplayer, which will come available when The Great War: Western Front launches on March 30 on PC via Steam and the Epic Games Store.