World War 1 is a risky setting for a game with well over 37 million military and civilian casualties (of them around 16 million being killed). It was a bloody war that shocked a generation which they, rightfully, named The Great War. Unlike World War 2, which has some romanticism to it and such has been explored in gaming in great depth; World War 1 has received no focus. As it is the 100th year anniversary of World War 1, Ubisoft has decided to leap into this dark and bloody conflict with Valiant Hearts: The Great War. Does Ubisoft do the setting justice?
The first thing you notice is the incredible art style which isn’t the realistic look that has plagued World War 2 games. It is slightly cartoony but this isn’t a weakness but more a strength of the game. It is a respectful and a mature direction that perfectly complements both the dark and dreary trench warfare and the prewar naivety. The levels look amazing with the high level of detail that has been put in. Valiant Hearts: The Great War is a side-scrolling game but it introduces depth in a clever way. Each background feels like a layer on top of another which gives the illusion of 3D. This effect is most prominent in the trench levels where the illusion makes the battlefield feel chaotic and deadly.
Though I generally love the art style, Ubisoft have made one major error. The character models are poorly thought out. Every male character is a built, Gears of War style, hulk of man. For a game that prides itself on providing factual information (through the pause menu) to see a generic, unrealistic look in this setting is saddening. What was truly depressing about World War One was the boyish looking soldiers who enlisted to fight. Seeing Ubisoft brush over this in favor of unnaturally strong looking character models (which are all based upon the main protagonist) is a little bit disrespectful to the setting.
Initially the story is a bit strange. The game is about three male characters, one female character and a dog. Each character has their own unique reason to be there which impacts the feel of their story. At first I thought this design choice was doing a disservice to the context. Initially the game feels like an Allied love story with very little emphasis being put on the German struggle (with the latter being an issue in itself since the game never mentions or hints at the other members of the Central Powers). But it becomes clear towards the end of the game that this is one story amongst many. In fact the ending to this game (even though if you know anything about World War One atrocities you know what will happen) fixed any misgiving I had with story. It was so beautifully and perfectly executed that the rest of the storytelling in Valiant Hearts: The Great War made sense. I still would have liked to have seen more average German soldier but I was extremely pleased with what I got to experience.
I have talked at great length about the style and story and not much on the core gameplay. That is because there isn’t really much there. This is by no means a major criticism of the game as the lack of gameplay works in Valiant Hearts: The Great War’s favor. It is a simplistic puzzle game where you must do certain tasks to get certain items to progress. The puzzles are by no means hard which is great as it means the story can take center stage. The worst parts of this game are where there is too much game being put in it. On three occasions there is a driving level which really does not suit the game as a whole. They feel a bit tacked on and the music choice (all be it perfectly synced with the bombs and obstacles) changes the mood too much. You go from some harrowing somber mood to a Benny Hill sketch. I can see why they have implemented these parts into the game (to avoid the inevitable “this is not a game” review) but it would have been far better without it.
One thing Ubisoft got so right is the score. It faultlessly helps set the mood of the game and adds to that gritty and sad atmosphere that haunts the First World War. It was such a perfect choice for this game and should be set as an example of how to score a game. The rest of the sound design is equally noteworthy. The battles sound hectic and desperate while the less chaotic moments sound peaceful and relaxing (both aided by the score). There isn’t much voice acting apart from the odd word here and there but the narrator (though sounding a bit too American History Channel) keeps the plot moving.
Overall this game falls short in a few areas but the overall package is a joy to play. There is very little replay value when it comes to a game of this nature but I felt like I got what I paid for and I am coming away extremely satisfied. One thing I haven't talked about is there are a few, random, bugs which do require restarting the level. These are a nuisance and do ruin a perfectly good game. At the beginning I asked if Ubisoft had done the First World War setting justice. Despite some shortcomings they have but I would like to see them expand and show more sides to the First World War because they have done a good job with this one.