Almost every match in Verdun starts similarly – you and your war-bound compatriots find yourselves huddled together in the quagmire, the mud sloshing about your feet as you crawl and shuffle, inch-by-inch through the trampled filth as storm bruised clouds loom ominously overhead. Then it happens; the silence-shattering crack of rifle fire signalling the imminent marriage of metal with flesh as you brace yourself, almost frozen in place, in the vain hope that you are not the first to fall as the chorus of thundering artillery begins in earnest.
Certainly more than any other first-person shooter on the market, Verdun bleeds intensity out of every digital pore, and as such, it remains one that demands a much more thoughtful style of play than fans of the genre might not be used to. Broadly speaking, Verdun’s penchant for realism and haphazard mortality could be correlated with that of Ubisoft’s Rainbow Six Siege; another title which also proved to be a pioneering effort in balancing considered thinking with a quick trigger finger.
The Real Deal
Unlike Ubisoft’s more intimate take on the squad-based FPS however, Verdun expands its horizons, taking in a number of outdoor, historically accurate maps while allowing players to take control one of four different roles from a wide range of soldier brigades, pulled from the pages of history. Indeed, a million miles away from the glitzy dubstep, Hollywood-infused trappings of EA’s Battlefield 1, the development team behind Verdun have instead elected to tell the tale of those soldiers for whom the trenches were a home away from home. Devoid of the globe-spanning, adventurous conflict depicted in DICE’s forthcoming effort, Verdun instead concerns itself with the mud, grit and rotten plank-lined trenches that served as both salvation and damnation for those millions of soldiers who ran its gauntlet in the four years spanning from 1914 to 1918.
From loading screens which provide real-life photographs and accounts of the battles that you can fight yourself, to an accurate take on the Christmas Truce of 1914 where both sides put down their guns and can share coffee, play football in the snow and send postcards back home to loved ones, it’s abundantly clear that the developer of Verdun is passionate about this period of history in a way that very few developers have been.
Audibly, Verdun manages to raise the bar too, with the pained screams of your comrades attempting to free their flesh from the savage embrace of mud-drenched barbed wire, coupled with the whistling of near-miss rounds, shouted orders and pounding artillery all coming together to create an audio cacophony of war quite unlike anything previously experienced on PlayStation.
In game terms, this rigid adherence to the events of yesteryear brings tangible effects too. Because the majority of the rifles are driven by bolt-action mechanisms, it’s entirely possible for the sodding things to get jammed just when you don’t need it to, causing instant, pad-shaking panic when you’re faced with an enemy who requires a face full of hot lead. Elsewhere, the wide variety of historically accurate firearms all handle wonderfully; each possessing a distinct audible crack that deftly evokes their real-life counterparts while accommodating differing methods for reloading ammunition, with some that must be reloaded a round at a time, and others that can be loaded a whole cartridge at once. In both cases, it pays to know exactly what rifle you are using lest you get caught on the hop reloading, or worse, bereft of ammo altogether.
One other nice touch is the ability to toggle the UI on or off, the latter resulting in a much more authentic experience where friend and foe alike must be identified by sight only and landmarks act as the sole means of environmental orientation. Of course it’s extremely likely that your enemies haven’t turned off their UI, but it remains a nice concession to authenticity to be able to do so all the same.
Keep Your Head Down
Harking back to that initial comparison with Rainbow Six Siege, Verdun’s larger, more open environments still retain a similar sense of claustrophobia; helped unquestionably by the rigid, trench-based setting of its theatre of war. Just poking your head up and over any trenchline feels like a perilous gamble, since all it takes is a single round, held tightly in its metal casing, plunging its way through your meaty torso to send you to the respawn screen. It’s not just bullets and bayonets that can put you six-feet under either, there are mustard gas attacks that require you to equip a gas mask lest you succumb to the sulphur toxins, and the always deadly barbed wire strewn around the environment to contend with too. Verdun is many things, but forgiving is certainly not one of them.
Verdun’s unashamedly reckless approach to player mortality also seeps into the tactical core that lurks beneath its shooter stylings, and it is here that the Frontlines game mode excels. Arguably the beating heart of the game, Frontlines represents a neat spin on the traditional territorial control game type where players join one of a quartet of four-man squads that have to defend positions for three minute intervals before attacking enemy locations the next.
Where this mode differs from other similar affairs though, is that rather than merely contesting small plots of land, Frontlines instead has you attacking and defending an entire front lined with trenches and other strategically placed holdouts, with the goal to wipe out the enemy soldiers and occupy the regions in question. Once in full-flow, each round of Frontlines quickly falls into a cyclical rhythm of defence and attack, with deft strategizing and pinpoint execution proving crucial to a victorious outcome as attackers seek to secure footholds in enemy territory, while defenders furiously chase away aggressors en route to their unleashing their own counterattack.
Every inch of territory lost or gained feels like a properly significant endeavour in Verdun and with it, brings a real intensity that other shooters struggle to match. What you get as a result then, is fertile ground for some wonderfully player-made emergent stories, as tales of last minute comebacks, deft flanking manoeuvres and heroic charges over the top through a storm of incoming fire all endure in memory long after the controller has been put to rest. In this sense, Verdun engages the player quite unlike any other shooter available on PS4 right now.
As much as Verdun feels like it is at its best when the player is being engulfed in these storied moments, so too does it reach a zenith when tactical decision-making pays off and nowhere is this more notable than how the officer command structure works. With one member of each squad nominated as the NCO, this player is capable of calling artillery strikes down on enemy locations and suggesting focal points for other soldiers to either attack or defend. Instead of being relegated to the realms of abject gimmickry, following these player-driven orders actually ties directly into the proceedings, since those troops who both stick close to their commanding officer and follow their orders, will gain precious experience points as a result.
Speaking of experience, though Verdun seemingly eschews the status quo of shooters for the most part, it still shares a fair amount of design DNA commonality with other genre efforts. One such example is the wide range of progression systems that the game encompasses, as players can earn experience through kills, following orders and capturing objectives that can unlock specialisms, equipment and more besides.
Of course, other game modes are available in the game, such as the self-explanatory Rifle Deathmatch, Attrition (which is the same as Rifle Deathmatch but allows all weapon types) and the horde-mode styled Squad Defence which has you and other players defending the trenches against waves of dunderheaded AI foes, but really, Frontlines is where it’s at and presently, the online player numbers certainly reinforce that assertion.
In spite of how perilously engaging Verdun would seem to be, it won’t be for everyone. The steep learning curve, coupled with the difficult task of remaining attached to your mortal coil, will prove to be insurmountably frustrating for a few folk. Equally, something else that will put off players who have become accustomed to the high-end spectacle of Call of Duty and Battlefield is the fact that Verdun’s visuals are a little rough to say the least.
A notable step down from the PC version of the game, Verdun is by no means an ugly affair on PS4 but it could certainly do with some extra polish as we get scenery pop-in, jagged edges and, perhaps most concerning of all, a wildly fluctuating and uncapped framerate that during busy scenes can make proceedings feel a little less responsive than they otherwise should.
Another fact to bear in mind is that if you’re a bit of a Johnny/Jenny No Mates, than Verdun will do very little for you as the only game type you can play offline is the Horde-style Squad Defence mode. Make no mistake; this is an online multiplayer effort and lone wolves, be they offline-only soldiers, or, those who go online to do their own thing need not apply, such is the emphatic onus that Verdun places on cohesive team tactics and execution.
Built with online multiplayer in mind, Verdun’s emphasis on tactical squad-based shooter beats and rough visuals will struggle to find an audience with those who find themselves more partial to the easier going and spectacular thrills of more franchised blasters. Those who persevere however will discover a shooter quite unlike any other, where its environments set a peerless stage for recreating some of the most important battles in history, and where armchair generalship and twitch-trigger skill beautifully coalesce into one of the finest examples of the genre.