As I am writing this, the wikipedia article “List of World War II video games” includes over 1000 entries. But the prequel to end all prequels, World War I, doesn’t even have 200 games to speak of. The Great War: Western Front might, in fact, be the first World War I RTS worth mentioning in the modern era. It’s not especially pretty, but neither was the Battle of the Somme. And the ways it models early 20th Century warfare feel surprisingly authentic without dragging everything down to a snail’s pace.
When I think about World War I, particularly the Western Front, I immediately think of trench warfare. And, indeed, that is a key component of how The Great War’s battles play out. Each engagement begins with a set-up phase where both sides can place and upgrade trenches, position artillery and machine gun nests, and deploy troops along the line. This draws from a common pool of supplies that are also used once the clock starts to order bombardments and call in reinforcements.
The Great War Western Front Screens
The interesting trade-off here is that troops are cheaper to deploy in the set-up phase, but placing them early means they might take damage from the enemy’s strategic-level siege artillery before battle is even joined. There’s also the important consideration of how many supplies to spend on set-up and how many to hold in reserve to use throughout the battle. When I tried to really turtle up as hard as I could from the start, I often found that I would run out of shells for my artillery long before I had achieved a convincing breakthrough and have no choice but to call a ceasefire.
And appropriately enough, that is how a lot of engagements will end – with the attacking side deciding they can’t make any more progress with the resources they have and settling for a stalemate. Each territory on The Great War’s strategic map has a certain number of stars that must be removed to capture it, and removing a star requires a decisive “Great Victory” from one side or the other. So you will most likely be fighting a lot of battles where the outcome is inconclusive. But every little win does sway the course of the campaign.
Play the Fife Lonely
Territory is important, and taking the enemy capital is one way to win as either the Allies or the Central Powers. But each side also has a resource called National Will that represents how willing the home countries are to keep up the fight. If you keep taking horrifying casualties in every battle, even if you’re gaining ground, you may bleed National Will faster than your opponents do. And if either side runs out, they lose the campaign. Thus, it might be wiser to wait for the enemy to come to you in most cases, since the attacking side will generally suffer heavier losses.
And make no mistake, a head-on assault with infantry is universally a bad idea. I watched entire regiments melt in the course of seconds, even up against conscripts manning a trench when we had vastly superior numbers. Thus, most battles (at least until you unlock tanks much further down the tech tree) will revolve around smart use of artillery. Smoke shells and rolling barrages can provide cover for advancing troops. Targeted bombardments and airburst shells can soften up a trench before you attack. Even light artillery can lay down suppressing fire to stop a trench from being able to effectively fire back as you approach.
And once you get a foothold in your opponent’s trench network, it’s a much more straightforward fight. Bloody, hand-to-hand combat will favor the side with better training or simply more numbers, wrapping up the final phase of the battle as you make your way through the maze of ditches and bunkers to capture victory points and, if you’re lucky, the enemy’s command staff. Even a partial victory or a stalemate can serve a larger, strategic objective, though. Attacking from multiple sides, for instance, will leave the enemy fatigued. So a smaller, probing attack followed up by a larger assault from the next province over can be quite effective.
Green Fields of France
I didn’t make it far enough in the campaign to really get a feel for how it all comes together in the long run. It seems like the supply system will be key, since simply being able to keep up artillery bombardment longer than the enemy was often the decisive factor in my handful of battles. I did get to check out a scenario set much later in the war, though, in the spring of 1918. And the advancements in technology make a big difference.
Fully upgraded trenches unlocked later in the war can’t simply be cleared out using standard artillery anymore. Dealing any significant damage at long range comes to rely on more expensive airburst shells and gas attacks. Observation balloons can grant vision over great swathes of the battlefield, but are vulnerable to aircraft attacks, meaning you’ll need to protect them with your own flying aces. And of course, once tanks come into play, everything changes. They can’t take ground on their own, and just parking them in front of a trench will leave them extremely vulnerable to grenades. But they serve as great cover for infantry and make frontal, combined arms assaults quite viable.
From what I’ve seen so far, The Great War: Western Front is shaping up to be a very competent World War I RTS with an eye toward authenticity and a campaign that revolves around making the most of even the smallest victories. You’ll be able to check out the demo I played as part of Steam Next Fest starting next week.