Death can greet you in a heartbeat in Verdun. Set on the grim battlefields of the Western Front in the First World War, it’s what you would expect a game of this era to be like, a callous and fickle affair where you can die in a split second, where guns are awkward but utterly lethal. Having released in the middle of last year on PC, it arrives on console just a couple of months ahead of the more populist Battlefield 1.
Verdun aims to be as realistic a representation of WWI as possible, and to that end, you’ll feel lucky to be alive and not slumped dead on the ground after a bullet hits you. Of course, you’re spared actual death by virtue of this being a videogame, but it still feels so random, almost inexplicable as you try and figure out where the bullet came from. Sometimes it’s obvious, an enemy soldier tucked in waiting for you to round the corner in the trench he’s defending, but when it’s at long range, you’re might as well be trying to find a needle in a haystack.
As I play, I do actually miss the niceties of less realistic shooters. Though so very, very different games, the setting alone means comparisons between this and Battlefield 1 will be inevitable, and where I feel Verdun could learn from DICE’s more action packed take on WWI is in informing the player. You don’t have your killer highlighted when you die, you don’t have any indication the direction from which you were hit, don’t have the ability to spot and mark enemies for your squad mates. By giving you those tools, Battlefield overcomes the hurdle of working as a team without knowing each other or being trained soldiers.
Yet Verdun does do a good job of encouraging teamwork in a relatively free and flowing fashion. You’re divided up into squads of up to four, with each player given a different role. As a group, you get to pick from a number of squad types – or simply sit at an impasse of non-voting – each taking inspiration from their real world military counterparts for their loadouts and equipment. There’s always an NCO, able to give out orders and call in various forms of artillery, and then three other complimentary classes, but you’re only able to have one of each in a squad. The roles are predetermined, each with three specific loadouts that you can choose from.
It’s worth sticking together as you earn extra points for doing so and for following orders. These points also feed your squad experience levels, letting you level up and become more powerful. Though you can’t choose, the game will also try and spawn you alongside your comrades.
You’ll almost always want people alongside you anyway, as Frontline, Verdun’s main game mode, evokes the imagery of soldiers going over the top, rushing across no man’s land in a do or die assault on heavily fortified enemy trenches. For a few minutes at a time, you have the goal of doing just that, trying to find a weakness, get into their defences and push them back, before repelling their counter attack and then pushing forward once more. They’re quite clearly defined phases, and the battle can swing back and forth, as one team gains or cedes momentum to the other.
In certain situations, the game can look fantastic, though the Unity engine is hardly cutting edge. There’s a good variety to the maps, each based on the actual topography of the battlefields of Verdun, the Somme, Champagne and so on. Some are still relatively verdant and green, others might as well be carved into the grey rock of an alien world, and there’s the hugely imposing manmade fortifications of Douaumont at the heart of another.
Verdun is a fairly ambitious game in trying to recreate all of this, but it’s all too often disappointing, uninspired or downright clumsy. Beyond Frontline, you have a free for all deathmatch, a team deathmatch variant and an uninspired horde mode that has dumb AI sprinting towards you en masse. The player counts are low enough that these other modes will likely be unpopulated within weeks.
The menus and in-game interface feel like that of a PC game from a decade ago, and the squad upgrade path is shrouded in fog and mystery until you get half a dozen levels in and start to unlock upgrades. For some reason I had a wealth of Career Points right from the outset, which I used to unlock new loadouts and weapons for my class.
The jump from the PC release to PS4 has seen no or very minimal aim assist added, and that makes control and combat feel clunky, too easy to overcompensate for a minor inaccuracy. It’s particularly galling when I feel like I should have hit the enemy, and it’s not helped by varying degrees of lag and an inconsistent frame rate. You’re very often using bolt action rifles, which make every miss more keenly felt.
Yet, there are the moments where the game clicks. A night time assault, running from one crater to the next before managing to make it into the enemy’s trenches and flanking their defensive positions. It can be deeply satisfying to pull those manoeuvres off successfully, especially given how precarious you grip on life is.
Verdun’s goal is an admirable one, to capture the feel of warfare on the Western Front, on occasions it manages to do that and be fun. The rest of the time, it’s an unintuitive slog. It might be a better game on PC, but on PlayStation 4, it’s almost certainly not going to be this year’s most fun or engaging WWI shooter.
Version tested: PlayStation 4