Valiant Hearts: The Great War Review

Lest we forget.

War never changes.
War never changes.

There aren’t many World War One games out there. Part of that is probably because the war doesn’t lend itself well to anything other than grand strategy, and watching lines of men get ripped to shreds by artillery fire and machine guns over a few hundred meters of terrain isn’t much fun. It’s also probably harder for people to understand. World War 2 is a fairly easy war to grasp; the Nazis were almost comic-book villains in a way, except all too terrifyingly real. They were the unquestionable bad guys of that war, they were the antagonists. But WW1 is much harder to explain. The war started because of an assassination,ma complex web of alliances, nationalistic fervour, and a military buildup that was begging for a quick conflict. The most horrific factor was the massive industrialisation and leap in technology without a leap in tactics – the world had new ways to kill on a scale previously unheard of, but tactics didn’t change until the invention of the tank and the use of aircraft, heralding the birth of modern warfare.

What started as the “war to end all wars” and a quick patriotic jaunt for king and country ended as a hellish quagmire of trenches, mud, blood, and disease. For most, there was no glory – just a cold, wet hole in the ground, and the threat of death at every turn. Imagine being told that the best course of action was to run straight at the enemy trench, machine guns blazing, and hope for the best. Even when tactics were combined, like creeping artillery barrages, poor communication could render the whole lot useless. This nightmare traumatised a generation… and set the stage for WW2.

Behold, the pale horse made metal.
Behold, the pale horse made metal.

As an Australian, WW1 has always been immensely important – it’s seen as a watershed moment in Australian history, where Australian troops fought under the Australian flag following Federation in 1901. Although most still fought for Britain (as part of the British Commonwealth), Australia’s entrance into the war is still seen as our first outing on the world’s stage. But the war has less importance in the USA, where the bulk of games are made these days, despite the fact that the US participated in that war. It’s easier for developers to make a game about WW2, where the US and Allies were the unquestionably good guys liberating the world from the evil Nazis. In WW1, everything was total shit. Any notion of ‘good guys vs bad guys’ was short-sighted, the reasons weren’t well understood to most soldiers. To quote Blackadder Goes Forth – “It was too hard not to have a war.”

Why do I mention this? I mention it because it’s remarkable that Ubisoft have released a game about this war – Valiant Hearts: The Great War. Read on for the review.

The reward for duty.
The reward for duty.

Overview

Valiant Hearts follows a series of characters from the commencement of the war in 1914 through to 1917, when the US enters the war. The characters include a French soldier, his German son-in-law forced to fight for Germany, the daughter and wife of those two, an African-American who enlists in the French army, and a woman who acts as a medic. There’s also a medical dog, who serves as a sort of device to tie everyone together.

Valiant Hearts is a platformer at heart – you’ll be tasked with running from side to side while solving fairly simplistic puzzles, mostly consisting of navigating difficult terrain, watching for patterns and timing things right, and performing various actions. The controls are simple. There’s not a lot of actual combat involved in this game – what combat does exist is mostly cartoony in nature, but we’ll get to that in a second. You’ll also indirectly order the dog around to help you. On the odd chance that you do get stuck, there’s a hint system.

A victor vindicated.
A victor vindicated.

Although Valiant Hearts is a platformer, by and large this serves only as a device to drive the story, which is where the real meat of the game lies. It serves to get you moving through the world and making you participate in the events going on around you. While you are the focus of the attention in most of the game, there’s always a sense that what you’re doing is largely inconsequential for the larger war. Indeed, in the background faceless soldiers fight and are torn apart – faceless probably by design, to hammer home how impersonal war on this scale ultimately was.

Gameplay

I won’t say too much about this because it’s not really much more than a device to drive the plot, pushing it uncomfortably close to “not-game” territory. To be fair, you can die and fail sections, although failure is only a minor setback. It’s a fairly standard platforming affair without jumping. Nothing particularly challenging. There are also lots of collectables to find, each with their own little story, which is a nice touch.

The face of modern warfare, 1915.
The face of modern warfare, 1915.

Throughout the game, you’ll uncover actual facts and photos regarding World War 1 – most of them suitably horrific or informative, and relevant to the level you’re playing at that time. It serves as a brutal reminder that this cartoony depiction is still freely based on a real friggin’ war. Those lines of soldiers torn apart by artillery are a representation of real people. It stops being ridiculous when that sets in.

Graphics and Setting

This is the most important part of the game, and also its most inconsistent. If Valiant Hearts were a storyteller, I’d imagine it to be a kindly old man, regaling you with a vaguely comical story… who suddenly kicks you in the balls while screaming obscenities before just as quickly resuming his light tone. Valiant Hearts at times feels cartoony and occasionally slapstick, but it turns on a dime into something that comes uncomfortably close to capturing the horror of the war.

One of my predecessors, circa 1915 and on the wrong side.
One of my predecessors, circa 1915 and on the wrong side.

For example, early on in the game you trot off on an infantry charge following a ridiculous, prancing French officer. Other faceless French soldiers bound off with you. It’s absurd. The hills are green, the sky is blue, the clouds are fluffy white. Everyone’s in neat blue uniforms. It’s hard to take it seriously. But suddenly artillery fire opens up, and that prancing French officer is literally blown to pieces in front of you, complete with cartoon representation. Suddenly the green hills vanish and you’re dodging a barrage of shells, smoke obscuring the scene, and countless soldiers being blasted to pieces around you. Limbless torsos and dead soldiers litter the field until you are alone, stupidly carrying a flag, only to be gunned down by a German machine gunner.

These moments are almost heartbreaking. Maybe it’s because I feel a personal connection to the war through my family, but these sequences are incredibly dark and violent, completely at odds with the cartoon style. The juxtaposition in that first scene works remarkably well – the charge was absurd but now it’s absurd in a tragic way. However this creates a problem later on where the game can’t seem to decide if it wants to be silly or serious. While the serious tone predominates, there are some curious omissions. Most of the time, you can’t kill anybody – soldiers comically throw up their hands and run from your thrown grenade, and when you attack them you basically knock them out. I find this a curious choices when the game graphically displays artillery bombardments complete with traumatic amputations, and scores of people getting gunned down by sustained machine gun fire. Clearly avoiding violence wasn’t part of the design here, so why isn’t the player actually fighting the war?

Tell me it was worth it.
Tell me it was worth it.

Look at some of these screenshots! Just look at them! It breaks the immersion to suddenly turn off the violence for an apparently arbitrary reason – arguably, forcing the player to do violence upon the enemy is poignant, particularly if the characters are reluctant to actually kill (and most of them are).

The overall story is kind of implausible in many ways, but I’ll give it a pass since it’s mostly a device to expose the horrors of WW1 and reintroduce it to the public psyche. It’s a fairly classic tale of camaraderie under fire and the ties that form between people in such extraordinary situations. It’s almost Hollywood in its approach, but it serves as a vehicle to deliver the message.

Overall: Good

Valiant Hearts was always going to be a tough game to do – World War 1 started a century ago, and in the US culture-dominated Western World today, it doesn’t loom anywhere near as much in the public’s mind as World War 2. It’s a kind of horror that’s largely incomprehensibe for all of its absurdity and the apparently incomprehensible reasons for why it even started. And yet that war ultimately set the stage for World War 2 and shaped the modern world we live in today. For a war from a century ago, its effects are still felt today.

While Valiant Hearts is remarkably successful in delivering the message that this war was a nightmare, it has a somewhat inconsistent approach which I think spoils the effect somewhat. When it’s on form, it does its job well. When it isn’t, it breaks immersion and leaves you a tad confused. The actual gameplay is fairly easy and more about solving puzzles or getting timing right than anything else, but it serves as a good vehicle for the story.

It’s definitely worth checking out, although if you’re a bit put off by any of this, it may be worth waiting for an inevitable sale to pick it up. It’s a timely reminder of the horrors of a war that is overshadowed by its successor barely two decades later. It doesn’t glorify war, like so many World War 2 games ultimtely do. It’s a poignant reminder that war is horrible, a reminder of what happens when diplomacy fails, and a caution against sabre-rattling for the sake of fighting. To that end, I think Valliant Hearts succeeds.

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