Battlefield 1 is just around the corner, taking us back in time to the trench warfare of World War 1; with plenty of the reviews suggesting that this latest installment might be the finest in relatively recent memory. Despite its deconstruction in other creative mediums, games aren’t always the best for ruminating on man’s historic inhumanity to man; but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any dazzling titles out there that take a long hard look into the heart of darkness. In fact, here are five of the best…
5. XCOM 2
XCOM 2 might seem to be a strange inclusion on this list, but it’s here because it’s one of the few games that not only manages to encapsulate the terror of a global-level conflict, but also charges you, the player, with making key decisions that will invariably shape the outcome of the conflict. Although XCOM is certainly a series about consequences on the battlefield, it’s also one of the few series that touches on the experience of being a military leader and strategist, and the pressures that come with making semi-informed choices. The clock is always ticking in XCOM 2; time is always against you, with the game helpfully updating you on just how close the aliens are to completing their superweapon, and highlighting when people die or territories are lost as a result of your poor actions.
4. Valiant Hearts: The Great War
Valiant Hearts: The Great War is a beautiful game. Presented via an UbiArt engine that has wowed us with the cartoonish antics of Rayman in recent years, the stunning visual tools are used here to illustrate fields and forests laid waste by the machinations of men at war. A game filled with character-driven personal stories, Valiant Hearts exposes the greatest tragedy at the heart of World War 1 – that for many of the soldiers, they were simply fighting for the chance to return home to see their loved ones again. This is a game that deconstructs the notion of ‘the enemy’ and notes the expendable nature of soldiers, tossed into the abyss for political purposes and wretched ambition. Its puzzle sequences can be a little annoying, but Valiant Hearts is a heart-wrenchingly human look at how war affects families.
3. Spec Ops: The Line
I mentioned Heart of Darkness before, and it serves as the basis for Spec Ops: The Line – a mediocre shooter, but one that’s elevated enormously by a cracking story and some wonderful, emotional performances, not least from Nolan North as Martin Walker – the increasingly conflicted ‘hero’ at the centre of a recon and rescue mission gone wrong. Underpinned by a Vietnam-era soundtrack that assists in this deconstruction of war, Walker begins the game as your regular ooo-rah soldier type, but as things progress and the atrocities he witnesses and perpetrates pile up, he begins to unravel. By the end, it’s hard to say whether you feel sympathy for this broken, raving individual who has left so much death and destruction in his wake, such is the phenomenal performance from North. As I say, it’s a so-so shooter, but an experience that demands attention.
2. Cannon Fodder
Cannon Fodder was one of the first PC games I ever played, and I’ll be honest, most of the anti-war stuff flew straight over my head as a young boy. I do remember when things started to click, right around the time the number of men I had started to dwindle, and the grassy knoll became ever more peppered with gravestones. In similar fashion to XCOM, Cannon Fodder really made it easy for you invest in your soldiers by the simple virtue of naming them. In fact, it’s a game that belies its snarky name by treating its characters as anything but Cannon Fodder. Playing it in later years, with an education steeped in the Great Wars of the 20th century, I perceived the subtle conscientious brilliance beyond its exceptional design, perhaps encapsulated best in its scornfully skanking theme tune.
1. This War Of Mine
We’ve mentioned consequences on this list already, but This War Of Mine from 11bit studios goes where few games dare to tread – not only does it tackle the brutal reality of what it means to be a survivor during wartime, but it makes mental illness and PTSD a fundamental part of the experience, treating such subjects with sensitivity. Taking on an armed camp to scavenge supplies might get someone injured or worse, but robbing the elderly couple at the end of the road might cause one of the characters to have a nervous breakdown, rendering them incapable of action for a long while. This War Of Mine reminds us that things don’t happen in a moral vacuum, that the survival of one group might mean death for another, and that making it (whatever that means) can come at great cost and leave scars, even if they aren’t always visible.
Those are a few of my picks, but how about you, folks? Hit me up in the comments with your thoughts, and I’ll be back same time next week with another Top Five!