There are around a million games about the Second World War for every one about the First, and The Great War: Western Front serves as a pretty good illustration of some of the reasons for that. The brutal, grinding, attritional conflict spanning from 1914 to 1918, as interesting as it is from a military history standpoint, is difficult to turn into a fun video game with any sort of authenticity. This RTS adaptation tries to find a satisfying balance point between historical reality and enjoyable gameplay. And while I think it did about as well as anyone could have hoped, it can’t fully smooth out the challenges of gamifying these shell-pocked battlefields.
The Western Front, with its teeming trenches and relentless artillery bombardments was an excruciating stalemate that took years to resolve, only breaking with the advent of new technologies and tactics much later. And The Great War: Western Front doesn’t do much to sugar-coat that, both for better and for worse.
The Great War Western Front Screens
The first big adjustment I had to make was to the sheer deadliness of even a modest defensive position. One regiment of standard infantry stationed in a trench can hold off three times as many attackers, and maybe double that number again if they have the support of a machine gun nest. This is certainly historically accurate, as so much of the early war was spent with commanders on both sides fooling around and finding out. And of the ways Western Front errs on the side of history, this one didn’t bother me so much.
If you want to play a bit more offensively, artillery can be used to suppress enemy trenches, rolling barrages can kick up smoke and earth to give your advancing troops concealment, and if you have enough supplies, you can casually shell the living daylights out of an enemy position from complete safety until there’s no one left to defend it. This latter strategy could sometimes feel a bit cheesy, since the AI will keep trickling men in to replace the ones blown sky high. But again, it’s not necessarily inaccurate to how this war played out.
Put together, this encourages thinking about each battle as a very precise concert, which I came to mostly enjoy. Coordinating my advances to minimize casualties felt great when it worked. It can be very frustrating when it doesn’t, though, as even a small mistake in timing or routing can lead to entire regiments evaporating before your eyes. And it’s not helped by sometimes wonky unit behavior. Especially when entering and exiting trenches, it’s not uncommon for your doomed soldiers to stall or shuffle around a bit before going where they need to go, with deadly consequences.
Green Fields of France
The First World War certainly wasn’t a pretty affair, and Western Front isn’t always visually stunning, either. In particular, the infantry models are fairly low in detail, and you can’t really zoom in enough to get a sense of what they’re feeling down there in those muddy, bloody trenches. At times it’s more like you’re watching a bombastic ant farm rather than dealing with the lives of real young men, as the well-narrated cutscenes are quick to remind you.
That isn’t at all to say that these battlefields aren’t eye-catching and effective in other ways, though. They’re very readable, which is a huge plus in the heat of a complex engagement. Vibrant colors and high contrast between units and terrain make it easy to keep track of troop movements. The sound and visual effects for different shell types are distinct and easy to spot. And the devastation left across the battlefield, with smoldering craters and charred forests, effectively tells the story of a conflict that tore the world apart in more ways than one.
The interface also does a good job, both in battles and the campaign, showing me the information I really need without ever feeling too busy or cluttered. So it’s a shame that the controls don’t do you any favors. Even going through and rebinding all of the keyboard shortcuts, which I found to be absolutely terrible by default, I could only do so much. To give one representative example, you can’t bind Pause and Unpause to a single toggle key. I ended up having to assign each of them to one of my mouse thumb buttons.
March of War
The Great War: Western Front features an in-depth dynamic campaign that begins in December 1914, and here more than anywhere the realities of gamifying this particular part of this war become obvious. The basic idea is that each space on the map has a number of stars that must be depleted to capture it, and only an overwhelming tactical victory can remove a star. Practically, this means that the front lines don’t move very often. The object of many battles simply becomes to bleed your opponent more than they bleed you, as losses subtract from each side’s National Will. It’s a clever and historically resonant set-up: you can win without ever getting near the enemy capital simply by depleting their side’s fighting spirit. All the while you have to manage cash reserves and supplies, making difficult and meaningful decisions about where to reinforce the line and how many shells it’s worth using to break a dug-in position.
At least, in theory. In practice, since even modest victories can top up the other side’s National Will, it often feels like your gains in one area are undone by setbacks in another. This is a pretty accurate portrayal of what the war was like on the Western Front, and to a large degree, I can respect that. But as I mentioned before, it’s not especially rewarding from a gameplay standpoint. It’s hard to feel accomplished or triumphant when you’re fighting a war of inches. The more you make The Western Front feel like, well, the Western Front, the more it turns into a total drag.
There are mechanics that kick in later to alleviate this, like gas attacks and air support – the latter of which I feel is a bit too effective, by the way, with the ability to wipe out entire infantry regiments with one biplane making strafing runs. These aren’t Stukas, for crying out loud. And, of course, tanks change things dramatically later on as head-on assaults suddenly become much more viable. Still, I never so much as brushed up against the enemy capital. It was a slow grind to sap their National Will, and I ended up fighting a lot of similar or nearly identical battles to do so.
You do get to see some neat dynamic elements as trenches you build and terrain you destroy between two hexes will persist every time you fight there. But defending Ypres for the tenth time can get tiring. There is an auto-resolve option, but I was usually nervous about using it unless the forecast showed my side with an overwhelming advantage, as there’s a pretty wide range of random results.
I also found the Allies faction to be significantly more fun to play than the Central Powers, as they need to balance morale penalties from the language barrier with the huge variety of interesting perks infantry of different nationalities can bring to the table. British troops are crack shots with a rifle, for instance, while the Americans are adept at advancing with armored support.
The Central Powers have two main advantages, the first being conscripts – weaker infantry with worse accuracy and morale who cost almost nothing. This allows for some very cost-effective strategies, but just isn’t as fun as the multinational menagerie the other side gets. They also have access to their iconic stormtroopers in the late game, but these guys don’t really fight like modern infantry, and I’m not sure the battle engine is really set up for them. At best, they’re specialists at trench fighting, lacking the ability to quickly take ground using cover and suppressing fire that historically made them so game-changing.