After spending hours walking the dirty front lines and trenches of one of mankind’s most brutal and depressing conflicts, the first question I ask myself as I gather my thoughts to write our Great War review :Western Front is “how am I supposed to have fun? The dark theme itself makes this the kind of strategy game you play with a frown, but there are design and technical issues that conspired to make it an unpleasant and frustrating experience as well.

One issue that will likely make The Great War a tough sell for most real-time strategy players is its clumsiness. It’s not the kind of game you can just play and play, and no wonder: World War I is a unique conflict that represents the hair-raising “peak” of what military historians call the War of second generation. The heroic cavalry charges of the Napoleonic era were followed by the artillery barrage, the line of trenches and the kilometers of barbed wire stretched between France and Belgium from 1916 to 1918.

The Great War: Western Front is an attempt to represent all of this, and it necessarily involves a radical departure from the real-time strategy games for which Westwood’s Petroglyph veterans have become famous. Each battle involves establishing trench systems and setting up field improvements like machine gun nests, artillery batteries and spotting balloons before sending companies of toy soldiers to observe across no man’s land waiting for the next wave of attack.

These battles become more complex throughout the campaign as I unlock new technologies like poison gas, bombers, and devastating siege artillery. I can upgrade my trenches and research better helmets for my infantry, giving them, on paper at least, a better chance of surviving the mad dash across the field before jumping headfirst into enemy trenches to engage in close combat.

There’s also a wargame-style campaign on top of all that, where I take command of the Allies or Central Powers and try to advance the front line wherever I can. There’s a lot to deal with here too, including espionage, supply logistics, and ultimately the national will, the depletion of which is the campaign’s losing condition.

There’s a big part of me that admires the commitment to principle displayed in The Great War: Western Front. Real-time battles often result in frustrating stalemates that accomplish nothing more than burning supplies and killing many men. Even successful attacks aren’t enough: every tile on the map has a star rating similar to a fortification level in a more traditional war game like Gary Grigsby’s War in the East 2. A tile with three stars, such as Ypres, requires three “Great Victory” battle results to capture. Key locations like Luxembourg, Calais, and Verdun have four or even five stars, and if I interrupt the attack in one location for a single turn, it will restore one of the stars I removed. There’s little room for strategic expression here: the only option is to keep throwing men through the meat grinder and hoping for the best.

It’s an admirably accurate way to describe the Western Front, and for better or worse, it’s an absolutely exhausting gaming experience. The battlefield fortifications I make anywhere persist and are present when I inevitably fight there again, which I do a lot. I’ve watched the same battlegrounds countless times, as winter turns to spring and spring to summer, and the maps themselves become pits of mud stripped of vegetation, structures, and everything of terrain higher than an artillery crater.

The centerpiece of The Great War is the real-time tactical battles, and I struggled to enjoy those too, if I’m supposed to enjoy them at all. Again, the theme comes into play here: sending three companies of soldiers to near-certain death in the vain hope of gaining a foothold in an enemy trench is depressing, but at least it’s true to the nature of the conflict.

A virtual battlefield with soldiers in the snow charging into a trench during an attack

However, it’s more frustrating when I can see that things aren’t working the way they’re supposed to. I will frequently see men who are not under fire marked “suppressed”, meaning they have their heads down and cannot return fire to advancing infantry. It’s also odd, since the only thing that seems able to hit them while they’re in the trenches is artillery – no rifle fire will hit them, and tanks don’t even bother to try.

Then there’s the enemy AI, which is smart enough to use corny tactics like sending a corporate parade around the far edge of a map to breach my trench networks, and okay, I guess I should have sealed that. the preliminary phase, but it was enough to break the immersion enough to reload a save.

For players extremely interested in World War I, The Great War: Western Front has some compelling insights, and I think it’s a valuable lesson in the nature of that war, both tactically and strategically. The problem for me, however, is that none of this makes for a fun game to play. Maybe that’s how it should be.

The Great War: Western Front

The dark dedication to history has produced a rules-heavy RTS that is rarely fun or strategically rewarding: a very accurate depiction of WWI, in other words, and a success in that sense at least.

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