Verdun Review

Verdun promises a lot for $20—big maps, tense combat, the grueling back-and-forth of trench warfare, and impeccable attention to detail—but, two years after its initial release on Steam and almost a year after its release on PlayStation 4, does the Xbox One version of Verdun offer too little, too late?

One of my favorite things about Verdun is the way Frontlines is set up. Rather than simply picking a team, players join a squad. Each squad, which consists of four players, represents an infantry unit from a specific country—and each squad thus has different weapons, tactics, and specializations. Squads comprise of an NCO and then three other soldiers—a combination of machine gunners, infantry, assault troops, grenadiers, and/or snipers—which effectively determines their role on the battlefield.

In theory, this should make for engaging, immersive, and deep gameplay, as each player adapts to their role, and each squad adapts to its tactics. Unfortunately, in practice, the lobbies are either full or extremely sparsely populated, so a 'squad' is sometimes just one or two players with a rifle or a light machine gun. Any semblance of teamwork or communication breaks down instantly, as players lose interest (perhaps rightfully so) in sprinting for two minutes across no-man's land before being shot from who knows where.

The NCO system is another cool idea that just doesn't work on Xbox One. The system for giving orders, calling out targets, or making general requests (such as calling for backup or telling people to keep behind cover because enemies are counterattacking) is convoluted and counterintuitive. It completely fills the screen, it takes way too long to find an order and issue it, and it's really finicky: selecting from one of several points around a circle is not a great system for the imprecision of a console's controller.

On PC, with a more active player base, the NCO mechanic is probably pretty cool and could arguably be quite effective, as squads try to work together to help the whole team out. But on Xbox One, it just feels pointless. When you have ten or twelve people in the whole game, having one player running around with a handgun issuing orders to a nonexistent squad just doesn't help.

Another problem is the gameplay. It can be rather slow and dull, which is undoubtedly exacerbated by the low player count. Running the action on a bolt-action rifle takes forever—more akin to someone casually spending an afternoon at the range than a soldier fighting for his life—while shouldering the rifle to aim down sights seems to take twice as long as it needs to. Respawning takes forever—after spawning in, look forward to a two-minute sprint across no-man's land, only to be gunned down by someone you can't see. Sometimes, even when aiming carefully and holding your breath, bullets don't go where you expect; even if you're standing five feet in front of the thing you're shooting at.

Finally, the servers are atrocious, but have been a little better recently. I don't think I've been able to go a full match without seeing at least a couple of other players rubberband all over the place. (Good luck trying to hit an enemy soldier when he keeps teleporting back and forth ten feet at a time.) The generally poor connection makes the already-jagged game run even less smoothly. The lag compensation system (if there is one) seems to work by not working at all, as leading targets works rather inconsistently.

I appreciate what M2H and BlackMill Games were trying to do here: that is, create a more serious FPS that requires slower, more careful, and more deliberate playing, set against the backdrop of the First World War. The attention to detail is great, and the game has some really brilliant ideas—like characters whose uniforms change as the player's squad levels up, and XP that is shared amongst the squad to encourage playing with friends. The weapon models are beautiful and varied and represent a solid sampling of the generally-issued weapons of The Great War.

I could overlook the laughably bad character animations, the low-resolution world textures, and even some of the server issues if the gameplay was smoother and more fun. I could overlook the cheesy musical stabs when you join a server or win a match, the just-not-quite-right accents for each country, the flat gunfire, or the seemingly absent sound effects (reloading a magazine makes no noise, for instance).

Unfortunately, when all of the issues stack up—the snail's pace gameplay, the graveyard-quiet servers, the small player base, the not-very-good server connections, the flat and lifeless sound design, and the futility of trying to play a squad-based game when most people just want to go for kills—it makes it kind of hard to recommend Verdun on Xbox One.

I don't think I ever won a single fight in Soulcalibur II. Thankfully, I'm marginally better at reviewing than I am at fighting games.