First thoughts: Verdun

All not-so-quiet on the Western Front.

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First thoughts: Verdun

I’ve had an interest in Verdun since the beta was released almost two years ago. World War I has always been grossly underrepresented in the gaming space, but that’s probably because it doesn’t fit into the fast-paced mainstream demands for shooters these days. Thank the gaming gods for independent game developers.

M2H and Blackmill are responsible for Verdun, a World War I-era first-person title inspired by the Battle of Verdun. I hesitate to call it a first-person shooter because that doesn’t paint the right picture. As veterans of the beta and/or Early Access content would know, tactics and positioning play a bigger part than the actual shooting. Bolt-action rifles kill with a single shot to the torso or head, while even an NCO’s sidearm can kill in one or two shots.

Regardless of whether you’re on the offensive or defensive, map knowledge is essential. Understanding where you’re taking fire from and the best spots to crouch or go prone to pick your shots is just as important as steady aim and a practical understanding of how much you need to aim above a target, or in front of them if they’re moving horizontally across your iron sights. That’s why, as a new player, the better experiences I’ve had with Verdun so far have been while defending.

It also helps to play with a competent team, as Verdun is designed to make you work together. Like Battlefield, players are separated into squads, with incentives to work together and hang around your NCO leader, but there’s also the reality that no one player or squad can hold or storm the entire length of a trench. That’s the simple but compelling logic behind the gameplay of Verdun: attack or hold the trench.

If you successfully defend the trench, the enemy players will be routed, and have to flee to the line of trenches from where they came. Whenever I was on the wrong end of this, I was often shot in the back, sometimes mere steps away from friendly lines, because the successful defendants switch to counter-attack mode and have to storm the unsuccessful attackers’ trenches. It’s a neat twist on the traditional offensive/defensive formula that, in other games, sees attackers and defenders switching at the end of a certain number of rounds or halfway through a map cycle.

Starting out as an NCO, I was heartened by how effective my Luger sidearm was at clearing trenches. Firing from the hip was an effective strategy at close range, and often panicked my bolt-action-wielding foes into missing their first shot. Once that happens, they were effectively dead unless they got within bayonet range. It also helped that my pistol had 180 backup rounds which, given the hardcore nature of Verdun, felt like an odd oversight. With fewer rounds, I would have been less likely to spam in tight situations.

Then again, you don’t tend to survive for long when you start out playing Verdun. It doesn’t help that there seems to be an even mix of new players and veterans, which sounds good on paper, but the latter category proved to be vocally impatient about the “newbies”. It’s a shame, because there’s a lot of depth in Verdun, and my hope is that newer players won’t be deterred by these sorts of players. Friendly fire isn’t on, but nor can you shoot through your teammates, meaning friendly players blocking your carefully aimed shots can happen quite a bit.

Before I could even play, though, I got lost at the war-table server browser, as my eyes searched for a list of maps to join that simply wasn’t there. Instead, you click on a zone on the map and connect from there. It makes sense once you’re used to it, but it was disconcerting at first. Oh, not all of the zones work by clicking on the name, either, with the most accurate spots being the trenches next to or beneath the region titles.

Back to the gameplay, when I switched from pistol to bolt-action rifle, the learning curve became even steeper. I died a lot before I got my first kill, as deliberate start-stop-scan movements were the best tactic I discovered for ensuring a longer lifespan while on the offensive, or when the enemies were invading our trenches. I spent a lot of time running from crater to crater, occasionally getting lost in the attractiveness of the visuals (check out the image gallery), but mostly hitting the dirt whenever a bullet zipped past my head.

Verdun is a well-designed indie title that mixes the punishment of an Arma-like simulator with the switching offensive/defensive momentum of a game of Conquest in the Battlefield series (minus the vehicles). It’s not a game I expect to be incredible at any time soon, but I will be heading back to the trenches soon to have another taste.

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