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A water color concept image of a soldier leaving a trench in The Great War: Western Front

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Can Command & Conquer devs make a great World War I strategy game?

Petroglyph Games sets its sights on the “war of inches”

Image: Petroglyph Games/Frontier Foundry
Mike Mahardy leads game criticism and curation at Polygon as senior editor, reviews. He has been covering entertainment professionally for more than 10 years.

Speaking to the Los Angeles Times in 2019, Mark Sheftall, a history professor at Bucknell University, highlighted a trend in stories about the Great War. The vast majority, Sheftall said, “try to tell the story of an individual, when the real story of World War I is really about the mass.” If Battlefield 1, Verdun, and Valiant Hearts were stories about the individual, the upcoming The Great War: Western Front is the latter: a game about the determined yet deteriorating mass of the war to end all wars.

Petroglyph Games, a developer formed from the remnants of Westwood Studios in 2003, made its mark in the strategy space with Star Wars: Empire at War, 8-Bit Armies, and Conan: Unconquered — games that were either overtly fictitious, or stylized to the point of being cartoons. Even the studio’s most recent release, the excellent Command & Conquer Remastered Collection, centered on parallel universes. In Red Alert, Hitler never rose to power, thus allowing Soviet Russia to expand across Europe and ignite an alternate version of World War II.

All of which makes Western Front, a real-time strategy game about a very real and very bloody conflict, a bit of a deviation for Petroglyph. It’s slated for a March 30 release, but I spent several hours with the game this week, playing a scripted historical battle and the early turns of a long-form, open-ended campaign. To its credit, the latter allowed me to maneuver soldiers, tanks, and aircraft across France and Belgium as I saw fit — feinting an attack on this part of the front, only to launch a surprise assault far to the North. Like the historical titles in the Total War franchise, and the upcoming Company of Heroes 3, Western Front allows you to rewrite the broader details of a real conflict. What’s more, battalions on the overworld map look more like wooden toys than detailed individuals. In these respects, Petroglyph seems to understand the weight of the source material it’s working with here, and is taking steps to distance itself from the complications of “pure” non-fiction.

The campaign map in The Great War: Western Front, showing Allied and Central forces along the line between France and Germany Image: Petroglyph Games/Frontier Foundry

And yet, Western Front’s loading screens alternate between advertisements for war bonds and quotes about the cost of victory from military leaders. One of its historic missions zooms in on the river Somme, the banks of which became the site of a million casualties over the span of five months in 1916. As field commanders, players can launch poisonous gas into enemy lines, forcing soldiers out of their trenches and into the spray of water-cooled machine guns. Alternate history, this is not.

Of course, I’m making these uneasy observations in retrospect. During the demo, with my hand on the mouse and my fingers on the keyboard, time melted away.

In gamifying the “war of inches,” Petroglyph is wise to avoid getting lost in the mechanical weeds. As opposed to ordering individual soldiers around à la Command & Conquer, or overseeing the tactical moves of specialized squads in Company of Heroes, Western Front is about the high-level decisions made in combat. During a pre-battle phase, you spend gold and supplies to build trench networks, machine gun emplacements, artillery batteries, and observation balloons. You can also place varying battalions of soldiers along the trench network, the better to defend the stretches you think the enemy will assault. (You can improve your defenses once the battle starts, but it will cost more supplies.)

The pre-battle phase in The Great War: Western Front, in which the player can lay out trench networks, machine gun nests, and artillery batteries Image: Petroglyph Games/Frontier Foundry

Combat itself is similarly hands-off. Highlight several battalions and click on an enemy trench, and they’ll go “over the top,” into no man’s land, and leap into the trench. Combat within said trench is automated, depicted by the dwindling health bars of the groups therein. Win this battle, and you own the trench, along with its lines of sight toward the next enemy dugout.

Deciding where to send reinforcements, and whether fighter planes or tanks are worth the cost, is all part of the entrancing flow of a battle in Western Front. I imagine strategy fans who enjoy “turtling” will gravitate toward Petroglyph’s newest outing — it’s as much about slow expansion as it is daring charges on supposedly vacant stretches of the enemy line.

Yes, I saw plenty of pathfinding issues during my demo. (Instead of moving within a trench to capture a neighboring section, soldiers sometimes jumped back out into no man’s land, only to get picked off immediately.) And yes, the UI still needs some work. (The lines of sight of artillery emplacements, represented as white cones on the mini-map, sometimes refused to show up.) But the team reassured me that the demo version was a work-in-progress.

A battle plays out in The Great War: Western Front, as Allied forces charge across no man’s land toward Central forces’ trenches Image: Petroglyph Games/Frontier Foundry

Western Front’s designers, in their time at Petroglyph and Westwood Studios before it, have honed their strategy expertise to a science. They understand the satisfaction of “painting a map,” and the joy of juggling resource management, troop movements, aerial raids, and scouting runs. In those moments when I’m lost in that strategy flow state, I’m hard pressed to think of a studio better suited to depicting, on a mechanical level, the movements of “the mass” in such an unimaginably brutal conflict.

But then, one of my charges across no man’s land ends in catastrophe, because I lowered my observation balloons during an enemy air assault, and thus, didn’t notice two newly placed machine gun nests along the very trench I had just ordered my troops to capture. Suddenly, four battalions of young men are wiped out in the span of a few seconds, and poisonous gas floods the trenches they came from, and I’m left wondering, what was the point of that? I’m curious whether Petroglyph is poised to answer.