World War I is a setting that’s rarely featured within video games, and it’s not hard to see why. The trench warfare of the Western Front provides the most provocative and lasting mental imagery from the years-long war, and from the grim day-to-day conditions and senseless loss of life to the lack of easily labelled “good” and “evil” sides to the conflict between European empires, it’s hardly a good fit for the well-established genres out there, and it’s just far easier to adapt WW2 and the righteous war against Nazism. Still, there are exceptions to this rule, and Petroglyph Games are aiming to be the next with The Great War: Western Front.
As the name suggests, this title delves deep into the war of inches that trench warfare became, highlighting the complexities of maintaining a vast frontline of battle and the efforts required to gain even a phyrric victory over the other side.
At the core of The Great War: Western Front is a desire to create an authentic recreation of trench warfare. The game can be played from both sides, either as the Allies or the Central Powers, and can run from 1914 through to 1919 – your actions can potentially extend the war – with a blend of turn-based and real time strategy.
You have full command of your side’s forces across the entire front, looking down on a representation of this theatre of war subdivided into hexagons. It’s a persistent campaign map that will shift slowly back and forth as you vie for each incremental victory. Across the frontline, you’ll see the disposition of your troops, how many battalions you have in place, the artillery and the tanks that are backing them up, but not those of your enemy. The fog of war here lets you see roughly where the enemy is placed, but you’ll need to use espionage in order to get a deeper understanding of what might lie in wait for any concerted assault you choose to wage.
In this view, each turn takes 1 month, with your orders for troop movements always fulfilled by the end of that time – they’ll be shuttled wherever you need them by train, but you shouldn’t leave large stretches poorly defended. You can also have various narrative moments that might ask how you’re going to deal with the new reports and diagnoses of shell shock – do you call your troops cowards, or seek to research the condition? Some of these narrative choices will also potentially impact when the USA joins the Allies.
Similarly, you have the march of technology through the war, with an extensive tech tree to work through that can give you various advantages on the battlefield. Starting the campaign in 1916 will give you a more advanced baseline of technology.
All of this comes together when you choose to launch an assault on the enemy. Shifting views to a particular section of the frontline, the lines between the hexes where you find the established network of trenches sheltering soldiers on either side of the treacherously exposed no man’s land between. It’s not just a single line of trenches, but a triangular grid that you can expand, that can be blown up in one battle and affect the next, that can be used purely for speedier communications, and more.
Taking place a month before an attack, the pre-battle phase lets you set out your forces, enhance the trench network, place machine gun nests, set up artillery bombardments to soften defences, undermine to destroy enemy tranches and more.
Then it’s go time. Sending up balloons lets you finally see exactly what the enemy is doing, and you can call in air missions to target enemy balloons and deprive them of the same benefit, aim for air superiority, or continue to bomb their trenches. Artillery can then be called upon to lay down rolling smoke barrages for cover, or target any enemy offensive moves, while advancing alongside tanks will bolster your troops. Oh, and you probably want to save your best soldiers, the trench-clearing specialists for the second wave.
Getting into the enemy trenches, the battle changes to hand-to-hand and close quarters clearing operations, running along the defined lines until you can reach set control points on the map. The eventual goal is to capture all of them, but you can call a cease fire and take a marginal victory to avoid overextending.
Victory or loss, marginal or complete, the battle concluded sees you return to the campaign map, with the forces on either side now fatigued and more susceptible to atack. it’s here that the hexagonal map really comes into play, the many sides meaning that you can then follow up an initial assault with another from a neighbouring hex, chipping away at the network of controls points and command trenches, knocking stars off a hex until control fully changes hands and you take another step toward the enemy heartland. It’s for this reason that you need to make advances in concert, as opposed to leaving isolated bulges across the lines.
The overarching war will then be decided, not necessarily by who can reach the capital of the enemy, but by the continued appetite for war on either side. Each victory boosts your national support, while each loss diminishes it, but it can also be affected by those narrative decisions and successfully completing assigned missions. Meanwhile, your ability to launch a full scale assault across the length of the frontline is determined by both your core losses and need to restrengthen your troops, and the munitions supply that you have. I could potentially still add up to quite a few battles each turn, so if you’re feeling particularly confident, you can choose to auto-resolve.
The campaign won’t be the only way to play this game, with The Great War: Western Front also featuring historical tactical battle scenarios, a skirmish mode and multiplayer head-to-head. Through it all, Petroglyph has worked with the International War Museum for a number of elements. Artillery barrages are accompanied by archival footage from the war itself, there’s been extensive research and efforts to capture authentic audio from military hardware, and there’s also the matter of ensuring that they treat the subject matter with the care that it deserves. Again, part of the reason why WW2 is more easily turned into a video game is because the Nazis are such clear-cut bad guys, while WWI’s empires might have demonised one another, but were just as culpable for the atrocities and senseless waste of life. Juggling the social responsibilities with making a game that’s ‘fun’ is sure to be a balancing act throughout the game.
The Great War: Western Front looks like a deep and thoughtful rendition of WWI, capturing the slow and cautious build up that each frontline assault would receive, before all is suddenly revealed, plans put into motion, and the lives of soldiers are thrown into the fray to try and make even the smallest bit of progress.