Valiant Hearts: The Great War Review: Wars Not Make One Great

It’s hard to make a video game about World War I.

As material for casting a player as a good guy fighting bad guys, it’s not a war that really helps a developer out. It’s difficult to lay down definitively who the bad guys are in the first world war, thanks to a historical Rube Goldberg machine that matched together imperialism, jingoistic patriotism, a maze of alliances, and deadlier technology than the world had ever seen. The Great War was full of soldiers marching to their death for what isn’t hard to see as No Good Reason.

Making video games is a helluva lot easier when you have Nazis to throw in as enemies. Nobody likes Nazis. It’s easy to argue that Nazis were all evil dicks despite the fact that the German army was also full of conscripts in World War II. But in World War I, with trench warfare literally tearing Europe apart and offensives that sent soldiers up hills to die by the thousands, it’s awful hard to make a player feel heroic.

That’s what makes Valiant Hearts: The Great War so remarkable, despite stumbling on its subject matter along the way. It’s a game that’s about war without being a war game, and it spends more time tasking players with saving lives than ending them. It’s a game that’s concerned with friendship, family, survival and bravery, and not with shooting all the guys on the wrong side of some random political conflict. It’s a game that endeavors to really present war in an interactive way with intelligence and heart, and when it succeeds in reaching those goals, it is phenomenal.

Perhaps it is too much to expect a game pushing so hard against the traditional mold to get things right all the time, and Valiant Hearts does not. But it tries harder than most games and suggests how good alternative takes on war might be in video games, and that’s certainly a laudable achievement.

Valiant Hearts: The Great War
Platform: PC (Reviewed), Playstation 3, Xbox 360, Playstation 4, Xbox One
Developer: Ubisoft Montpellier
Publisher: Ubisoft
Release Date: June 24, 2014
MSRP: $14.99
Available: uPlay

Though it’s a game that takes place during an incredibly bloody, worldwide conflict, Valiant Hearts chooses gameplay and a presentation that might seem at odds with the subject matter. The former is that of adventure game-style puzzle-solving, in which players generally gather objects to exchange for other objects, which eventually let them move forward through a level; the latter is that of a cartoonish, beautiful side-scroller built in Ubisoft’s UbiArt Engine.

Valiant Hearts follows four characters through several years of the conflict: Emile, a French farmer who is called up to serve in the French forces; his son-in-law Karl, a new father and German citizen first deported from France at the start of the war, and later called to serve for the other side; Freddie, an American soldier who joins the French ranks in order to seek revenge against a certain German commander; and Ana, a Belgian student who becomes a field medic, focused more on saving lives than choosing sides. Finally, there’s Walt, a German medic dog who, through circumstances, finds himself thrown in with the heroes, and who is a constant companion as well as puzzle-solving instrument — you can order Walt to press switches and collect items from unreachable areas.

Each character has a chapter in the story that’s more or less dedicated to them, although the tales link back and forth and perspective changes repeatedly as the stories intertwine. What’s most fascinating is how rarely Valiant Hearts concerns itself with the traditional video game ideas of “good guys” and “bad guys.” Emile and Karl, for example, are on opposite sides of the conflict, despite being family in civilian life, and both find their own military hierarchies to be as oppressive as the time either spends in prisoner of war camps. Most or all of the characters have moments in which they interact with, and help save the lives of, soldiers from the opposite side.

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