Anyone who’s familiar with the Western Front of World War I would probably not be inclined to think it would make for a very enjoyable game. Bolt-action rifles, trench warfare, mindless human wave attacks repelled in the face of machine guns, gaining precious few yards of ground in exchange for tens of thousands of casualties – none of these sound like ingredients for a fun game. But, we here at the Big Steaming Pile are here to explore concepts that you’d never think would be molded into video game form, so let’s go into the trenches with today’s piece of The Pile, Verdun: 1914-1918 by Blackmill Games and M2H, released in 2015.

Verdun is an online-only multiplayer FPS that takes place on the Western Front of the Great War. The main mode of the game, Frontlines, attempts to recreate the brutal deadlock of trench warfare by having players engage of a series of attacks and counterattacks for land held by one side or the other. Each force has a limited amount of time to capture an enemy trench by clearing it of enemies and occupying it themselves, with the wait time decreasing if the attackers outnumber the defenders currently in the trench. If an attack runs out of time, the roles are reversed, the attackers retreat to their own trench and the defenders go on the offensive. If the attack succeeds, they will defend their newly won territory against an enemy counterattack launched from further back. If you’re looking for more traditional FPS action, there’s Attrition mode, which plays like a classic deathmatch, Rifle Deathmatch, where you only fight with rifles, but can unlock upgrades like scopes and bayonets over time, and Squad Defense, where a single squad tries to hold off as many waves of CPU invaders as they can.

Now, before we go any further, there’s something you should be made very aware of: if you attempt to play Verdun like Call of Duty or Battlefield, YOU ARE GOING TO DIE. A LOT. FREQUENTLY. Well, to be fair, you’re gonna die a lot anyway because this is trench warfare, but still, you’ll die a lot and with very little to show for it. If you think you’ll be able to run gung-ho alone against a well-defended trench line and soak up bullets like rainwater and survive, or that you’ll be able to bunnyhop and no-scope your way to victory, or you think that kill/death ratios are the be-all, end-all, this game is not for you. This is a much slower-paced kind of action here; one good shot from a rifle is enough to drop you here, so the proper use of cover, both when advancing and defending, is imperative here. The slower firing rate of WWI-era weaponry also means you won’t be spraying and praying here, instead, you have to make sure your shots count, and to that end, you’ll also have to adjust to using old-school iron sights, which can take quite a bit of adjustment if you’re used to modern aiming aids. This is even a game where a bayonet is a viable weapon instead of a novelty.

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German troops prepare to defend a newly-won trench.

The other biggest habit you’ll have to learn to succeed here is that teamwork is essential. Each side is broken up into four teams, each with four roles available. Teams are modeled on participants in the Western Front, so if you’re playing as the Entente Powers, teams include the British Tommies, the U.S. Marines, the Canadian Corps, and the Scottish Highlanders, to name a few. On the German side, team choices feature various branches of the Kaiser’s army, from the front-line Landser units to the nimble Stosstrupp and the fearsome Pioniere engineers. Each team has four designated roles that complement each other, for example, The French Poilu team features a Grenadier that is good for softening up enemy trenches before charging in, a Mitrailleur (machine gunner) who can anchor a defensive line, a Fusilier who can lay down aimed rifle fire at a distance, and a Caporal, the squad leader who can activate each team’s special ability and lay down waypoints for his teammates to attack or defend. Each role also comes with its own specialized loadouts, and three loadouts can be unlocked for each spot, although not all of which are ideal; the Canadian Raider’s final loadout is a trenchclub and a handful of grenades and that’s it. He doesn’t even get a gun, so he has to rely on his teammates to get him in close enough to do his damage.

Communicating with your fellow soldiers is also very important, whether it be telling defenders that there’s been a breach somewhere in the line that needs reinforcements, or telling attackers to hold up before pushing for a trench because artillery is being called in. That machine-gunner that’s holding off your advance? Call his location in to a friendly sniper and let him open the door for you. Recon showing a cluster of guys waiting for you to stumble into the trench? Ask your buddy on the flamethrower to help thin the herd before going into the breach.

Aside from the specialized roles, the other method Verdun uses to emphasize teamwork is the system of Co-Op XP. Y’see, when you play repeatedly with the same players on your team, you earn Co-Op XP for your squad, which allows the squad itself to level up. As the squad levels up, the team members earn bonuses, like quicker reload time or the ability to sprint for longer, as well as a more powerful squad special weapon, such as the Stosstrupp’s gas attack going from weaker chlorine gas to phosgene and eventually mustard gas. Not only that, but as a nice bonus, squads with high Co-Op XP unlock uniforms from later in the war, so a Poilu squad starts with képi hats and red pants and builds up to the all-blue uniforms with Adrian helmets. Now, granted, none of these upgrades are game-breaking, but I did like the idea of incentivizing players to form lasting partnerships with other players and reward people who like to play with friends often.

Speaking of other players, you might very well be wondering what the community is like. After all, there’s nothing that kills any potential fun you might have with a multiplayer game than loading it up the first time and finding that most of the people playing are abusive trolls. Thankfully, and I am VERY happy to say this, the Verdun community is actually quite welcoming. Yes, there are more than a few “edgy” team names and user handles, so if you’re tired of Harambe jokes and Trump memes, well, they’re still found here, but for the most part, most everyone I’ve encountered while playing tend to be very civil and sportsmanlike, and if you ask a question, you’ll usually get a straight answer instead of being decried as a noob or worse.

Verdun is also available for PS4 and XBox One, but if you’re playing on Steam, odds are, you’re using the good ol’ keyboard-and-mouse combo, and on a positive side, the controls here are pretty simple. Aside from the basics like shooting, jumping, and reloading, there aren’t a whole lot of extraneous buttons to remember. You can hold your breath while looking down your sights, which steadies your aim and gives you a little bit of zoom for a limited time, you can don your gasmask, which protects you at the cost of your peripheral vision and makes close combat even more claustrophobic, and squad leaders can call in gas attacks and artillery strikes and the like at a push of a button. I myself play with a gamepad, and I don’t feel this puts me at a disadvantage compared to traditional PC players, either, so if you’re playing on Steam but still want the feel of a controller in your hand, you’re still mostly on even footing.

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Let’s go, boys! Their hole is our goal!

Perhaps the most striking feature about Verdun is the presentation, most notably, the historical accuracy. The maps are based on sites of actual battles of the war, from the wooded hills of the Aisne to the frantic close-range battle for Fort Douaumont. The uniforms for each side are very nicely rendered, down to the Highlanders’ kilts or the iconic spiked German helmets. The weaponry also shows the extent of the detail, as you’ll even be able to read the manufacturing marks stamped into your rifle if you’re crawling along on the ground. Characters shout back and forth in their native languages, also, which, aside from being cool, can also be a useful tool; if you’re sneaking along a trench as a German and hear someone around the corner shout something in English, you can be sure that’s not a buddy. The trenches look appropriately dismal and gloomy as well, especially in the rain of Flanders or the night shadows in Champagne.

I do have a few complaints about Verdun. One, as I said, it’s an online-only multiplayer game, so there’s no single-player mode, and Squad Defense is the closest thing to a practice mode, and if your internet connection is wonky, you’re probably not gonna want to plunk down for this. Two, I would’ve liked some more customized loadouts, at least amongst unit types from the same country. My favorite weapon in the game is probably the Canadian Ross rifle, and only ONE loadout (Level 3 for the Specialist) features it. Even other Canadian troops can’t use the Ross, which is a little disappointing. Three, and this is no fault of the game itself, while the community here is quite good, it’s also not exactly huge, and Battlefield 1‘s release kinda saturated the market a bit, so there might be some times where you’re up for a game at three in the morning and there’s not enough people on to form a full 32-player game. Although, I should say, Verdun is clearly the superior choice for someone wanting a more realistic version of World War I combat than Battlefield 1.

If you’re looking for something to scratch the fast-paced, frenetic itch between big-name FPS releases, Verdun isn’t it. If you’re looking for something a bit different, something more grounded in realism, more focused on teamwork, that emphasizes marksmanship, and put in an interesting historical setting, Verdun might just be what you’re looking for. It handles smoothly, looks and sounds terrific, and the community is great deal more tolerable than the average online gaming pool. The learning curve might be a bit steep, especially if you’re used to the way other shooters play, but if you take the time to get into Verdun, you’ll find an experience quite unlike most anything else being brought to the table, and I recommend it, especially if you’re into this period of history. Even if you’re not a World War I buff, it’s still worth a look if you’re looking for a new way to put steel on target.

Current Price – $24.99

Is It Worth It? If you’re absolutely sold after reading this, yes. If you’re still somewhat on the fence, wait for a 50% off or more sale. This isn’t for everyone.

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