Sunday, October 15, 2017

The Great War

In the immortal words of Jedi Master Yoda, "Wars not make one great."  It is an adage that has never been more true than during the First World War.  As far as military conflicts go, it was only surpassed in terms of death and destruction by World War 2.  Compared to WW1, the losses incurred in the Korean War or Vietnam War, at best equate to a single battle on the Eastern Front.  The Gulf War death toll probably would end up being an unnamed "skirmish," "raid," or simply chalked up to unavoidable attrition...and yet despite the sheer amount of bloodshed The Great War is often passed over by game developers in lieu of other armed conflicts.  The reason for this is, I think, very simple.  The opportunity for badass heroics were few and far between.  Casualties were so high that British Expeditionary Force in France burned through its initial strength of 120,000 highly trained soldiers after just three months of deployment.  As bad as that is it got worse with 57,470 killed or wounded in the opening day of the Battle of the Somme roughly two years later.  Many miles away from the front, Generals could hardly be called heroic either...even the few that tried to use innovative tactics still wracked up horrific losses with little to show for it.  Still, despite the demoralizing carnage there are some examples of video game developers that tried to make a game about the war to end all wars.

My first exposure to a World War 1 themed video game was the somewhat oddly sounding The Ancient Art of War in the Skies.  The third and final entry in the Ancient Art of War strategy game series by the now defunct MicroProse.  Essentially, the player took control of the air war while ground battles were handled automatically by the AI.  It was possible for the player to influence what was happening down below through bombing runs, but the aerial viewpoint provided to the player depicted trench warfare as two squiggly parallel lines that would flash and rumble with distant explosions and gunfire.  The trench lines shifted slowly this way leaving blasted, cratered terrain in their wake.  It wasn't a particularly good game, but it did come with a thick instruction manual that also included a lot of history about the actual conflict.  Ever since then I've taken a great deal of personal interest in the time period.

Over the years there have been many other attempts to adapt the air combat aspect of the First World War.  Aside from the one I just mentioned, they have been without exception flight-sims of varying quality.  Then, there are a couple of RTS games which conceptually sound like a deliberate exercise in frustration and futility.  Perhaps it's true to the spirit of The Great War, but it's not exactly fun to play (especially when numerous bugs and bad AI are factored in).  A couple of FPS titles have also come out over the years, the most recent of which - Battlefield 1 - deserves praise simply for showing that WW1 was truly a global conflict rather than focusing exclusively on the Western Front (which already tends to get the lion's share of attention).  One other title that happens to be my personal favorite is a little flash game called 1917.  It plays a bit like a tower defense game, but has enough polish and style to separate it from the pack.  On a side note there's also a rather odd indie horror game called 1916: Der Unbekannte Krieg that puts the player in the shoes of a German soldier who is being stalked by velociraptors in trenches too deep to climb out of.  In fact the whole objective of the game is to find a ladder so that the player can go over the top...with depressingly predictable results.  On the opposite end of the spectrum there is the light-hearted Toy Soldiers, which allows the player to take control of a variety of units that must repulse wave after wave of windup infantry, cavalry, vehicles, aircraft and even a Tsar Tank in all its impractical glory.

One final take on The Great War, I want to mention is a mod for Hearts of Iron 4 that begins with the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand or four years prior depending on the player's choice.  I opted for the latter and decided to give the Ottoman Empire a try.  As fate would have it, I got caught up in the First Balkan War between myself and an alliance four lesser powers consisting of Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria and Montenegro.  After about an in-game year of fighting, I emerged the victor with Serbia and Bulgaria conquered while Greece and Montenegro sued for peace.  Imagine my surprise when 1914 rolled around, but The Great War didn't begin.  I guess it's hard for Russia to declare war on Serbia when it no longer exists.  A happy ending?...not likely given what a powder keg European politics were at the time, but as far as alternative history goes it's a more plausible turn of events than trenches becoming overrun with carnivorous dinosaurs.   

I feel like I forgot about something...

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