Downloading: Valiant Hearts: The Great War

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World War I has quickly moved from news to memory to history in the past 100 years, especially in the United States. While there are certainly plenty of grand remembrances being made of the lingering historical and political ripples of the Great War, the best parts of historical memory often continue to ring truest to us through personal stories. This is the reason why a classic book like All Quiet On The Western Front or the more recent graphic novel The Harlem Hellfighters resonate still in telling the story of WWI.

So, in this centenary year it’s a pleasure to have the distant memory of WWI retold in a vivid modern way with Valiant Hearts: The Great War from Ubisoft. Like any good war story, Valiant Hearts isn’t really about guns and glory, but more about love, friendship, connection and dedication humans strive to maintain when faced with the most hugely catastrophic events.

ValiantHeartsCharactersMain cast of characters from Valiant Hearts: Ana, Walt (dog), Karl, Emile, Freddie and George

The cast of characters presented in Valiant Hearts represents a cross-section of nationalities swept up in the European conflict. The main character is Emile, a French farmer who is pressed into service at the outbreak of the war. His daughter is in a relationship with Karl, a German who is exiled from France at the beginning of the war and subsequently compelled into service with the German army. Just after completing basic training, Emile meets Freddie, an American ex-patriot living in Paris and volunteer in the fight against Germany. Once in the trenches, Emile befriends a military service dog named Walt. A fast-driving Belgian nurse named Ana completes the main cast of characters, although a British pilot named George does make a cameo later on in the game.

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Emile completing basic training in Valiant Hearts

With a minimal amount of introductory back story of the outbreak of WWI, the game begins with Emile marching off to some quick basic training which introduces a player to the basic climbing, attacking, picking-up and throwing actions. Once at the front, the game quickly moves into the more familiar trench warfare settings which were the hallmark of the war.

For gamers looking for WWI first-person combat wielding a bayonetted rifle or driving a clattering tank through No Man’s Land, there will be disappointment. Although death and destruction surrounds the game, there is surprisingly little direct combat experienced by the player. The entire WWI setting and all its trappings of planes, tanks, artillery and machine guns become tools to propel the characters to action, more like a violent ghostly hand lurking in the background than the main focus of the action.

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A typical puzzle challenge in Valiant Hearts

As a game, the main focus of Valiant Hearts is at its core a platform, puzzle and adventure game. It is a game set within the war, but the playable characters are not working on racking-up body counts. More typically, a character will work their way through completing a series of tasks to progress to the next level– break down a wall, crouch in a trench, dig a tunnel, climb a ladder, crank a wheel, set a charge and blow up a bridge.

Different characters in the game also work in combination to get puzzles solved and sometimes work with non-player characters. For instance, the burly Freddie is good at smashing down walls, doors and barriers with his bare fists while Emile is handy at digging and Ana provides care to wounded soldiers on and off the field. Characters can also order commands to Walt to move and fetch objects from areas unreachable by the other human characters, such as crawling under clouds of poisonous gas.

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Richly accurate artwork of the Western Front and equipment such as tanks and biplanes set the scene in Valiant Hearts

Beyond the entertainment of the puzzle adventure gameplay, Valiant Hearts is rich in historic detail. A number of short behind-the-scenes developer videos on the game’s website show the depths to which the team at Ubisoft went to paint a vivid picture of WWI using primary documents. Even within the cartoonish game animation, there’s a ton of detail in the flags, uniforms, weapons, vehicles and settings throughout the game. The diversity of nations participating in the war is well-represented, so we not only see the typical British, German, United States and French soldiers but also those from countries like India. To keep the nationalities with their mix of languages consistent, dialogue among characters is limited to emotive symbols and vaguely accented but recognizable foreign mumbles.

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Historical photos and background fill out the detail in Valiant Hearts

As Valiant Hearts progresses, gamers and would-be historians will find a wealth history laced within the action. Brief cut-scenes do well to set chapters within regional maps and shifting events throughout the war. Pop-up screens provide historical facts and beautifully color-tinted period photographs of life, equipment and stories from WWI. Players who complete puzzles within the game also collect historic artifacts such as identification tags, a whistle, a helmet or actual letters from soldiers of multiple nations. Again, additional pop-up windows takes a player back to the primary sources from which each object is drawn.

Both my 14-year-old son and I have spent time playing through Valiant Hearts this week. As a hardcore gamer, my son found the play pretty rudimentary by modern standards but my greener fingers did find at least some initial challenge to the puzzles. What we both equally delighted in was the art and historical documentation which was wrapped up around the simple human story unfolding throughout the game.

Far away from the politics, grand plans and horrors of combat, every war throughout history has come down to humans and relationships torn asunder or brought together in wartime. This is the journey of the characters in Valiant Hearts: The Great War and one well worth the trip back a century in time.

Valiant Hearts: The Great War is available for PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One and Windows PC.

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Flames of War: Fielding the 92nd Infantry Division Buffalo Soldiers

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Although African-Americans have fought in every war in US history, their fight has often come on multiple fronts of prejudice and acceptance at home and abroad. Segregated units such as the famed 54th Massachusetts during the American Civil War and the 369th Infantry Regiment Harlem Hellfighters in World War I have received their due in popular culture in recent years, as have the WWII pilots of the Tuskegee Airmen.

On the ground, African-Americans in WWII were most often relegated to support roles early in the war as truck drivers, stevedores and cooks. By late in the war with reserves of Allied soldiers dwindling throughout the European campaigns, black soldiers were pressed into service at the front lines of the Battle of the Bulge and the Italian Campaign. It was in the actions in Italy where the famed 92nd Infantry Buffalo Soldiers added another chapter to their service history.

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Shoulder insignia of the 92nd Infantry Division ‘Buffalo Soldiers’

The Buffalo Soldiers in the Italian Campaign

The name “Buffalo Soldiers” dates back to the frontier Indian Wars of the 19th-century when post-Civil War free blacks volunteered for service in various US army capacities in the West. Later, these units continued serving in various capacities through the Spanish-American War and into WWI. Reactivated in 1942, the Buffalo Soldiers of the 92nd Infantry Division finally made their way to the war via Italy in the fall of 1944.

Video of the 92nd Infantry arriving in Italy in October 1944

As part of the US 5th Army, the 12,000 men of the 92nd Infantry made up part of the multinational Allied coalition of US, Brazilian, British and UK Commonwealth forces which sought to break the Gothic Line. Cutting across Italy, the Axis hoped to hold off any further Allied progress north to meet with other Allied forces pressing through Europe from Normandy inland toward Berlin.

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A 92nd Infantry Division mortar crew firing near Massa, Italy

Led by senior white officers in otherwise segregated units, the 92nd Infantry made up a key element of the left flank of the Allied push up through the Italian peninsula. Crossing the Arno River and proceeding north, the 92nd made its way up the Mediterranean coast  through Lucca, Massa and on to La Spezia and Genoa by the time of Axis surrender in May 1945.

The legacy of the contributions of the 92nd Infantry Division’s effectiveness in Italy has been much-debated. A paper from the 1950s does what I read to be a good job in explaining the challenges the Buffalo Soldiers faced — delays in reinforcements,  shortages in re-supply and a lack of training for the kind of terrain encountered in Italy. I believe much of this can be chalked-up to the ingrained organizational racism against the segregated units. Post-war, the members of the Buffalo Soldiers also returned to a United States still entrenched in racial discrimination. It was not until the late 1990s that two members of the 92nd were recognized with Medal of Honor commendations, some fifty years after the war’s end.

Spike Lee’s Miracle At St. Anna

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As a wargamer and film fan, I often turn to the movies to cross-pollinate my interest in a period. Spike Lee’s Miracle At St. Anna from 2008 tells the story of four soldiers from the 92nd Infantry who hide out in a small Tuscan village and bond with its residents amid the oppression and danger of German occupiers. Lee’s movies often run hot and cold, and Miracle at St. Anna met with mixed reviews, poor box office results and a fair amount of criticism over the lack of historical accuracy. All that said, the Italian locations and strong individual performances makes the movie worth a view for a rare glimpse of African-American soldiers in WWII cinema.

Modelling the 92nd Infantry Division for Flames of War

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In late February 2014, the revised Flames of War Road To Rome and Fortress Italy compilation was released as an updated and expanded guide to the Italy campaign of 1944 and 1945. The Fortress Italy book covers the German and Italian defenders, and Road To Rome outlines the Allied US, British, Polish, French and lesser-known UK Commonwealth forces from Canada, New Zealand, India and South Africa. A third book, Italy Battles, provides special mission rules, battle scenarios and campaign notes for Anzio (aka “Operation Shingle”) and Monte Cassino.

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Having dedicated years of my FOW modelling and gaming to Western Europe, these books provided a great opportunity for myself and other members of Metropolitan Wargamers in Brooklyn, NY to dive into a club-wide Italian project. I’ve also been wanting to put together a unique company for my FOW collection, and I was pleased to find the 92nd Infantry Regiment outlined in the Road To Rome book. With all our focus on the Italy theater, we’ve decided to dive headlong into a multi-month FOW Infantry Aces campaign, and there will be more to come with updates on our new Infantry Aces blog.

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For my 92nd Infantry I decided to snap up the two sets from the Plastic Soldier Company – Late War US Infantry 1944-45 and US Infantry Heavy Weapons. At about $26 a box from my favorite online dealer The Warstore, the PSC kits are a huge value in fielding an entire infantry company along with bazooka, machine gun and mortar supporting weapons. Assembly involves lots of small parts and bases must be purchased separately, but getting a whole company on the table for a fraction of the costs of FOW models can’t be beaten.

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Pvt. Fred “Radio” Rogers and Lt. Daniel McFeeley

To fill out my force, I picked of the FOW Infantry Aces set for about $12. The pack gives you nine stands of character models to create special Infantry Ace command stands for use in the Infantry Aces campaign. The blister pack includes general US, British and German models with special Fallschirmjäger, Japanese-American Nisei, Kiwi and turbaned Indian characters. I shared the models with my fellow players at our club, and modelling these guys really adds some nice personality to the game. For my Command Ace stand, I’ve modeled the fictional Pvt. Fred “Radio” Rogers and Lt. Daniel McFeeley leading the way for my company.

IMG_3670One of my three rifle platoons for the 92nd Infantry Division

In the FOW Italy campaign, the 92nd Infantry Division is rated as Confident-Trained making my force cheap and numerous. To start, I’ve constructed three rifle platoons with two rifle squads each plus a platoon command and bazooka in support. Along with my rifles and McFeeley and Rogers leading the way, I’m also bringing a weapons platoon in support. The platoon packs a punch with three 60mm mortars and four M1919 machine gun crews.

IMG_3671My Buffalo Soldiers mortar and machine gun weapons platoon

For all my models, I glued the PSC soldiers and equipment onto FOW bases and then hit them with an army green spray coat base. Boots, equipment, rifle stocks and flesh got a dark brown. Pants were done in a tan paint and leggings got a brownish off-white color. Guns were finished off in a metal coat. Basing involved a layer of fine gravel and larger rocks coated in a brown wash and then dry-brushed in a grey-white. Finally, tufts of brown-green grass completed the Mediterranean look of the models.

The beginnings of my platoon will be hitting the tabletop shores of Italy this coming weekend in their first round of our club’s Infantry Aces campaign. In the coming weeks I’ll be adding additional infantry weapons support with additional mortars, machine guns and more infantry. Even before these guys see their first action, I’m pretty thrilled to have put in the time to create some pretty unique models that I haven’t found modeled anywhere else at this scale. As in WWII years ago, I think the 92nd Infantry Buffalo Soldiers have been too often forgotten by mainstream history and many gamers alike. With my soldiers hitting the field again, I hope to bring a bit more glory back to these men who not only contributed to the fight against Axis fascism but also stood bravely against the tide of so much history against them.

“The Harlem Hellfighters” by Max Brooks

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My interests in American history, graphic novels and little-known accounts of war have recently intersected with gripping The Harlem Hellfighters by Max Brooks. Written by Brooks — the well-known author of World War Z — and illustrated by Caanan White, The Harlem Hellfighters recounts the struggles and victories of the 369th Infantry Division as the first African-American regiment to see combat in World War I.

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Period poster for the 369th Infantry Regiment

The 369th was composed of a volunteers from many backgrounds reflective of the Harlem Renaissance era’s diverse black population crowding the streets of northern Manhattan. The volunteers included Caribbean and African immigrants, migrants from the American South and native-born New Yorkers. As a green fighting force, the urban laborers, artists, musicians, farm workers and students who fought as the Harlem Hellfighters went on to distinguish themselves in the late stages of WWI and became among the first American Expeditionary Forces to push over the hard-fought German lines.

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James Reese Europe (left) and members of the 369th Infantry Regiment marching band

Brooks has a long-held interest in the Hellfighters, and he had tried unsuccessfully over the years to bring a script to movie or television production. Following on the international success of World War Z, Brooks decided on the graphic novel format to bring the Hellfighter story to a mass audience. Based on real characters in a fictionalized story, the book traces the regiment’s path from basic training in a Jim Crow American South to the trenches of Europe under the command of the French army. Even after winning distinction in early engagements, the members of the Hellfighters ran up against racism which followed them to Europe.

The story of band leader James Reese Europe forms just part of the tale, but is illustrative of both the acceptance of the arrival of black US troops and their rejection by the laws and traditions of white Europeans and their countrymen at home and abroad. Reese is largely credited with introducing jazz to European audiences, and although he would survive the war, he died soon after his return to the States at the hand of fellow band member. The mix of challenges, triumphs and tragedies on and off the field of battle makes the story of the 369th an incredibly compelling story every American should know.

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Troops from the 36th Infantry Regiment in the trenches

The Harlem Hellfighters is illustrated in a jagged, dark style by African-American artist White amid pages crowded with rich individual character stories and broader narratives of an era marked by the horrors of modernized warfare as well as lynchings and street-beatings. To the interested reader, there are many jumping-off points into a deeper story of the 369th and their ripple-effects on 20th-century American race history still being wrangled with today.

The 369th arrived back to the States and were celebrated with a heroic parade in New York City. The 369th Infantry Regiment Armory in northern Manhattan still stands today as one of the few monuments to this often-forgotten chapter in a war which is also largely-ignored in our teaching of US history. For the veterans of the Harlem Hellfighters, their fight in Europe would continue back home through the labor and civil rights movements in the decades to come.

Just ahead of the book’s publication in early April, Sony Pictures announced it had acquired the rights to bring the story of the 369th to the big screen with production backing from Will Smith’s Overbrook Entertainment. With the The Harlem Hellfighters and the promise of a movie adaptation, hope springs anew that 100 hundred years on the American men of the 369th get the recognition they earned in spirit and blood.