What are the chances that two first-person shooters, each themed around World War I, would invade the PlayStation 4 on the same day? Considering the scarcity of those appalling years in video games already, the odds seemed astronomically low. So, was it an accident or a devious ploy that knocked the wind out of Verdun’s console launch?
You could gamble either way. With little more than a month left before Battlefield 1‘s imminent release, Verdun had time to expand its fan base, to score several uncontested sales before EA bolstered its juggernaut of a portfolio.
Then the beta happened.
Last Tuesday, misfortune paired these peers as competitors. Battlefield 1 believers flooded the multiplayer servers to sample the demo’s antique firearms and vehicles. Although some are too reliable or precise to be period accurate, Verdun emphasizes authenticity in its rival’s stead.
The allure’s obvious. Players confront the claustrophobia of foreign trenches, the weapon sway that impairs one’s aim, the trauma of bullets shaving metal slivers off life-saving helmets. You’ll hunker in the muck with equally green allies while your adversaries brave the bromide gas and barbed wire of No Man’s Land, waiting for a shrill whistle to permeate the air. Is that the signal? Are those friendly reinforcements, or is death knocking at your door?
And so goes Frontlines, Verdun’s primary mode. Players join the Central or Entente Powers in this contest of territory control, where you alternate between attacking and defending, trying to seize the other faction’s trench and advance your forward line. Inch-by-inch scuffles became a symbol of the First World War. Every meter seemed like miles, and M2H and Blackmill Games replicate those hard-fought push-and-pulls to a proper extent. Verdun provides structure to the era’s helter-skelter tug-of-wars, encouraging strangers to work as a team, but cross into hostile terrain on defense and you’ll get shot for desertion.
The developers did their research, in other words, to make Verdun an engaging history lesson. You could wield Winchester’s revered Trench Gun, a Model 1903 Springfield, the 1914 Lewis Machine Gun, or dozens of others. From Picardy to the Marne to Fort Douaumont, the loading screens recount the horrors that unfolded on the Western Front, too. The Battle of the Somme produced one million casualties and wounded within four months, while the Forest of Argonne witnessed the first gas attacks, forming scars that visitors can still study today.
It’s those details that originally attracted me to Verdun. The developers set about simulating the Great War’s settings and tactics prior to Battlefield 1’s announcement, an honor that amassed curious fans during the game’s formative years on Steam. Those followers, however, have not invested in this shameful console port. Worldwide, the servers average 200 to 300 sorry saps.
The developers delayed the Xbox One version of Verdun mere days before release, and now I see why. Verdun comes with a litany of technical sins. Between the head bobbing and the way that characters appear to limp, not sprint, this solemn eyesore could use a few extra frames of animation – or, well, more frames in general. The gameplay rarely achieves the 30 frames per second that its PC counterpart does. Clouds of toxic gas reduce firefights to a slideshow, and soldiers blink from trench to trench, utilizing lag spikes to their advantage.
The PS4 version should not be your introduction to Verdun. It chases the footsteps of shooters that strive for added realism, with rifles putting victims down in a single round. You mustn’t act reckless despite several compromises. Although friendly fire is absent, I felt myself aging while waiting for my character to reload, and infantry blend into their poorly textured surroundings – players can only distinguish allies from enemies when targeting them. The Rambos among you could fire a warning shot at every soldier in sight, if you enjoy depleting the ammo you’ll need to survive.
Bullets are a hot commodity on the Western Front, but so is teamwork. Players choose one of several squads to join before a match, and if there’s room, you can change classes within said squad. Whether it’s the US Marines or the Canadians, each group offers unique weapons and perks – perks that remain a mystery to me. I can’t tell you what those abilities do.
That’s par for the course in Verdun. Aside from a seven-page tutorial, the developers withhold information that could improve your team’s chemistry. Players acquire experience points as an individual and squad member, but what blessings does ranking up with a group provide? More perks whose details I can’t view? Why act coy in regards to some gameplay mechanics and not others?
For example, squad compositions provide tangible buffs. The German Alpenjägers can radio in recon planes to mark their adversaries, the Tommies declare artillery support, and the Belgians possess heavy siege weapons. Verdun has a role for everyone, I guarantee it. You may lead a blitzkrieg on the enemy’s foxholes, lay down covering fire with a machine gun, or counter-snipe the scouts picking off comrades. Whatever your style of play, it fulfills a purpose here, and that’s not a statement I make often.
In any situation, squads contain one commanding officer as well. Outfitted with their pistols and binoculars, NCOs are the backbone of one’s assault. You’ll receive additional experience while fighting in their circle of influence, allowing you to acquire more “career points” and unlock new equipment faster. And that’s not all. Verdun spawns squad members on their superiors. When securing a foothold on the enemy camp, imagine how vital three extra rifles are.
I shy away from the administrative role in shooters if I can, but in Verdun, I warmed up to the responsibility. As my allies around me dwindled, I felt invaluable. I staged ambushes, retreated when necessary, and controlled my breathing to keep misses to a minimum. I had to survive, if only for a few more seconds. My reserves would storm over that hill any moment, right? That sensation – that anxiety – is exclusive to sub-genre simulators like Red Orchestra 2 and Day of Infamy, and it’s a tension I cherish.
It wasn’t until the weekend, however, that I shared a full Frontlines match. I needed to see the experience M2H and Blackmill intended to sell. But with lethal bolt-action rifles trained on your spawn and respawn timers that exceed 20 seconds, is it any wonder why people hide in their bunkers and wait for the rebels to come to them? With only a couple people daring to venture above the trenches, we seldom had the manpower to secure the objective. Instead, both sides sparred over our starting zones for 30 minutes.
The other three modes are populated by a dozen people on the best days. Attrition serves up another uninventive dose of team deathmatch (reduce the opponent’s tickets to zero first), and Rifle Deathmatch removes the team element – players will thrive in these free-for-alls on their marksmanship alone. Of course, shootouts lead to awkward moments, like me and my targets emptying our rifle clips in a string of misses, forcing us to fumble several new rounds into our weapons. Horvath’s death from Saving Private Ryan paints those sad exchanges fairly well.
Squad Defence is the least interesting excursion, given its status as another Horde wannabe. You and three others stem the tide of computer-controlled bots, but using “intelligent” in the same sentence as Verdun’s AI is an insult. Watching a battalion of armed infantry charge my team’s position should have been a tense proposition, and yet the onslaught loses its shock when the bots forget they have guns. They pour into your trench, ambling towards you with a gait of the walking dead, swinging their rifle butts fruitlessly instead of pulling the trigger. Although Squad Defence is playable offline, I haven’t seen a mode with this little polish in years.
But I guess that describes the PS4 version of Verdun pretty well, huh? Brilliant premise, awful execution. Spastic frame rates and irrational bots mar this shooter’s magic, with so few people searching for online matches that classes result in wasted potential. I tested a couple battles of Verdun during its early access days on the PC, and now I lament not playing more. Frontlines sounds glorious on paper, but without a larger fandom, the game’s time on consoles appears to have come and gone, leaving a smoldering crater that no one’s wallet should fill.
This review is based on the PS4 version of the game, which we were provided.
If Verdun had adopted a free-to-play model on consoles, I could see the beauty in its unrefined animations or crudely rendered environments. But with a superior PC version on the market, it’s best to forget this PS4 port even exists.