Downloading: Valiant Hearts: The Great War

Valiant-Hearts-Logo

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.

vhtraining

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.

vhgp6

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.

vhgp1

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.

Valiant Hearts: The Great War_20140625183402

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.

Advertisements

Playing War

179892_1760799734172_551897_n

Like so many kids, I grew up playing an abstract outdoor game called War. Spend any amount of time with a group of young boys and play aggression often naturally emerges, lines are drawn and any object within arm’s reach becomes a surrogate weapon. War takes this to the next level. Through the application of ever-shifting rules , a broad framework is created within which you split into teams and then spend hours hunting down your friends. Sometimes finding a secret base in a capture-the-flag scenario is the objective. In larger group games, a tag-like game of collecting kills can determine who wins.

For my childhood friends and me, anything from sticks to hand-made weapon replicas to store-bought plastic toy arms made up the main equipment for the game, and our imaginations filled in the rest. One summer in the late 1970s, my brother and I (that’s me in the blurry snapshot above on the right) built an estimation of a howitzer from some scrap wood, bicycle tires and the side exhaust pipe from a sports car. A friend of mine had a fort built in the woods adjacent to his house, complete with a lockable below-ground prison and a series of three-foot-deep foxholes dug at the defense perimeter. Other pals checked books out of the library to study old photographs of guns they would carve out of left-over 2′ x 4’s.

I logged many hours playing War among the fields, woods and buildings in and around my rural hometown in Western New York. One weekend I spent the majority of a Saturday hunting down one of my friends on a nearby SUNY campus in a one-on-one scenario where the first one to spot the other won the war. I found a set of shrubs to hide in where I sat for an hour until I saw my friend creeping through an open plaza. On another day, I was captured and locked in my other friend’s dungeon with another comrade. While more than ten other guys ran around shouting in the nearby fields, we two prisoners spent more than two hours digging a tight hole under the plywood wall to escape. Other times there were weekend sleepovers and night games chasing each other through the woods and over creeks in the darkness lit by flashlights.

idw-poster-final-web__large

The new movie “I Declare War” from Drafthouse Films should resonate like a carpet bombing for anyone like me who can look back wistfully to hot summer days of trying to kill their best friends in a game of War. This isn’t a great piece of filmmaking, but its the sort of thing that’s sure to light up parental discussions and also conjure youthful memories of when play involved something without digital graphics.

Now in limited release and available through some streaming services, “I Declare War” focuses on a day-long game of War between two groups of adolescent boys (plus one girl). The serious intensity of the day’s game depicted in the movie captures the complexity of the time in life of being a care-free kid teetering on the edge of the ages to come.

Most of the kids in the film approach the game with the expected intensity of children whose imaginations are running full-on, transforming sticks and plastic guns into actual weapons. One boy adds a sci-fi flair with imagined lightning bolts streaming explosive death rays from his eyes. There’s also a clumsy protracted love interest that evolves with the young girl’s arrival in the game, but she too winds up being a skilled player in the game. And finally, there’s one truly sadistic kid who treats the game a bit too seriously, bordering on psychological and physical harm to a few unfortunate victims.

There’s a lot in this movie, and the game of War presents as merely a mechanic for the kids to work out their emerging pre-adult personalities. Within the group there are plotters, double-crossers, bullies, romantics, innocents and leaders. The kids yell, cry, laugh, fantasize, threaten and swear like kids do — a hot stew of thoughts and emotions most mainstream movies (and many parents) would rather avoid.

A couple of the guys I played War with in the 70s and early 80s wound up serving in the real-life military but the majority of us went off to college or started regular jobs after school. For the most part, I’d say we all grew up to be relatively decent human beings. On the balance playing War didn’t warp any of us in a negative way and it quite possibly taught us some early lessons in teamwork, negotiation, problem-solving and communication. For me, it mostly built something along the lines of friendship or strangely, compassion.

“I Declare War” captures the spirit of the kind of play which mostly exists now in an abstract virtual world for my own kids and their peers. Did my friends and I rack-up more life lessons playing War in the woods than my sons do playing war on screens with people who they’ll never meet? That question is going to be answered in a generation or so, but “I Declare War” is worth considering in how playing War shaped us a generation ago.

Loving The Evil Dead: Why Do We Like Nazi Zombies?

Gaming, at its core, is a matter of pitting at least two sides against each other in a test of tactics and strategy. Whether you’re playing chess or moving hundreds of miniature soldiers around on a tabletop battlefield, you have to pick a side. In most games, there isn’t necessarily a “good” side or a “bad” side. But then you get to Nazis and from there you go to Nazi zombies.

Nazis are the bad guys of the 20th-century, and Nazi zombies take their evil to another level. Maybe its because there’s no way anyone can feel badly about slaughtering a horde of Nazi zombies that makes them so appealing as a foe. There’s also a horrific visual impact of Nazi zombies, as well as some conjecture the Nazis actually had some relation to the supernatural. For whatever reason, Nazi zombies are swarming everywhere and have been creeping up on us for some time.

Nazis And The Occult

Beginning in the 1950s, a spin-off post-WWII historical narrative began to emerge involving the real or supposed fascination that Adolph Hitler and his Third Reich held for the occult. While the Nazi obsession with ceremony and iconography can’t be denied, most of the Nazi-occult conspiracy theories seem to be more about trying to explain how something as evil as Hitler’s Reich could be allowed to rise to power right in front of a watching world. Books, fictional movies and documentaries have delved extensively into this topic of Nazi fascination with weird science and magic. Numerous movies like The Boys From Brazil, Hellboy, Captain America and my favorite, Raiders of the Lost Ark, have all used Nazism and the occult as main plot points. Throwing the dark arts into the mix with the already-hated Nazi bad guys is just one more way pop culture has amped-up the inherent evil of Nazis and their doomed quest for world domination.

Nazi Zombies On Film

shockwaves     zombielake

About a decade after the first scholarship on Nazism and the occult emerged, George Romero launched the first wave of modern zombie films with his classic Night Of The Living Dead in 1968. Through a series of sequels and other Romero-influenced movies, the zombie genre slowly grew worldwide during the rise of horror and slasher films in the 1970s and 80s. The Nazi zombie movie subgenre probably arrived in 1977 with Shockwaves starring British horror screen veteran Peter Cushing in the role of a SS commander breeding Nazi zombies who attack a yacht’s shipwrecked crew. The movie began a minor trend almost exclusive to European filmmakers in the 1980s with the B-movies Zombie Lake and Oasis Of the Zombies.

outpost      dead snow

The second life of all things zombie came post-9/11 in a surge of movies, comic books, novels and the critically-acclaimed The Walking Dead TV show. Again, European movies led the way on the Nazi zombie theme with Horrors of War, Outpost and War Of The Dead. My personal favorite in the modern wave of Nazi zombie cinema is 2008’s Dead Snow, a Norwegian film that made the rounds on the art film circuit. The dark uniforms and red, white and black swastika armbands against the mountain snow makes for striking visuals, even more-so as the blood begins to splatter. The film is a tight amalgam of themes from the genre — cursed treasure, local legend and, of course, unsuspecting good-looking vacationers winding up smack in the middle of a battle to the death with Nazi zombies.

Next up on the still-growing list of Nazi zombie movies is this year’s Frankenstein’s Army, which offers a riff on the Nazi zombie theme with a heavy dose of classic horror, science fiction and even steampunk thrown in. Again, the makers of this latest entry in the Nazi zombie genre are European. I don’t think its a coincidence that most Nazi zombie movies have risen out of many of the countries once occupied by the Axis forces. Since many Europeans live most directly with the spaces and stories of WWII all around them, clearly the Nazi zombie storylines of these films are tapping into a vein of horror that still resonates today.

Nazi Zombie Video Games

As a kid, one of my earliest video game memories on my Apple II computer was Castle Wolfenstein. While there were no zombies in the game way back in 1981, the modern iterations of the Wolfensetin video game series have included zombies. Not only did the new Wolfenstein games help popularize the now-ubiquitous first person shooter (FPS) game mechanic, but they fired some of the earliest shots in the escalating video game Nazi zombie wars.  Call Of Duty has risen to become one of the most successful franchises in the FPS genre, and a big part of its success can be tied to its Nazi zombie expansions. I would argue that without Nazi zombies as targets, many more wary parents may have kept FPS games out of their children’s hands. Hurling grenades and unloading clips into crowds of Third Reich undead is something to which even the most cautious parents may very well have turned a blind eye.

Nazi Zombies Tabletop Games

suicide squad

With the 21st-century rise of all things zombie, tabletop games have also become infected with the undead. Zombicide, Zombies!!! and Last Night On Earth are among the host of gamer favorites pitting the living versus the unliving. Naturally, Nazi zombies have found their way to the tabletop, too. Two popular games — Dust Tactics and Incursion — take an alternative history approach to incorporating zombies into Axis powers. Among all the futuristic technology available in the miniatures game Dust Tactics are squads of zombie soldiers which prove to be fast and incredibly deadly in the game. Similarly, the game Incursion include zombies in the living arsenal created by evil Nazi scientists.

zombieminis

Beyond packaged boardgames, wargaming has followed the zombie trend. The “weird World War II” genre of miniature and RPG games offers some monstrously fun modelling and play possibilities with such things as bizarre zombie battlescapes, fantasy technology, magic-using stormtroopers and lycanthropic soldiers in a WWII alternate universe. Weird War II: Blood On The Rhine from 2001 was one of the early RPG systems incorporating zombies and occult alternatives to the WWII time period. Nazi zombie miniatures in both 15mm and 28mm scales are now mainstays in online gaming forums and at regional conventions. Rules systems have been written to accommodate the Nazi zombie craze and players regularly create house rules for other regular WWII-themed games such as Flames of War and Bolt Action.

Nazi zombies have their own history now, rising out of theories of Nazi-occultism and then mined as the nightmare bedtime story for European horror filmmakers for nearly four decades. As the ultimate in evil, Nazi zombies now lurk in every corner of popular culture, much of it overlapping with the gaming hobby onscreen and on the table. Debates will continue to rage between the historical gaming purists and those who love their Nazi zombies. Honestly, playing with Nazi zombies has become just too fun to ignore and the horde just keeps coming.

New Game Weekend: Spartacus

Back in the 1970s and 80s, many popular TV shows — from Happy Days and Welcome Back Kotter to Mork and Mindy and The Six Million Dollar Man — cranked out cheap, simply-designed board games. While these games were based on shows and characters we loved, in hindsight the majority of these games were horrendous in terms of gameplay. I think there’s still a copy of the Dukes of Hazzard Game at my parents’ house, but I hesitate playing it again lest I ruin my fond childhood memories.

Modern shows continue to market themselves through games, although most of these come in the form of versions of Monopoly, Operation, Life, Trivial Pursuit or other established board game brands. I’ve never seen the incredibly popular Spartacus TV show on Starz, but I’ve read about the intense levels of swords-and-sandals-themed sex and violence which make the show a must-see for a certain demographic. About a week ago I had the opportunity to play the board game based on the show with three of the guys at Metropolitan Wargamers in Brooklyn, and this is definitely not a TV board game like most others.

The game is played with 3-4 players with each player representing a “Dominus” or a “house” in the ancient Roman city of Capua where the show’s drama unfolds. The quest for ultimate control through growing your “influence” is the goal of the game through three basic turn phases — Intrigue, Market and Arena.

The “Intrigue” phase allows you to play schemes and reactions via cards that grant positive or negative effect combinations on you and/or other players. The “Market” phase provides a auction-like environment where the players secretly bid for slaves, gladiators, guards and equipment.  The “Arena” phase is where two players face-off in a bloody gladiator tournament where victors bring “favor” to themselves and “influence” to their Dominus.

Spartacus is definitely a game with pretty simple some straight-foward rules, but the rambunctious thrill in the game is in the free-wheeling buying, selling, bribery and double-crossing among players. Your slaves maintain your house resources and often grant additional side-bonuses like the ability to heal wounded gladiators or to earn extra gold by providing, ahem, special services. Combinations of gladiators and acquired equipment makes for stronger opponents within the arena. Guards provide protection from the havock that schemes can rain on your house. All along, players are trading and buying their way through the game. You might bribe a player to allow your gladiator access to the arena for a chance to score victory over a weaker player’s gladiator. Other times, you might share the rewards from a scheme with another player in exchange for  use of that’s player’s influence strength to your benefit.

I played the game with three other players which made for a great dynamic of shifting alliances. One player quickly acquired Spartacus and a full compliment battle equipment making him unstoppable in the arena, so the rest of us cut whatever side deals we could to block going up against him in hand-to-hand combat. While we were busy keeping Spartacus out of the arena, another player quietly bought, sold and traded his way into a series scehemes and slave acquisitions in the market which eventually shot him to the lead and winning with the most influence in the game.

Spartacus plays in a couple hours and has a great design with characters pulled directly from the TV show. Themes and play can be a bit raunchy and graphic at times, and while it’s not designed as a role-playing game, players may naturally gravitate toward taking on the snarling personalities of their Domini. Fan of the show or not, strap on your shield, grab your trident and head to the arena for some wild fun in ancient Rome.

Gaming In Challenging Times

Most people know H.G. Wells as one of the modern inventors of science fiction literature with such masterpieces as “The War Of The Worlds,” “The Time Machine” and “The Invisible Man.” Wells is less well-known as one of the first popular writers on the subject of miniature wargaming. Published just before Great Britain entered World War I, Wells’ “Little Wars” outlined one of the first widely-available English sets of rules for miniatures wargaming. Using cast metal toy soldiers and artillery, Wells and his Edwardian friends created elaborate wargames on their parlor floors and English gardens. Using wooden projectiles fired from small model canons, these proper English gentlemen waged war on opposing sides of tiny infantry and cavalry armies. Many of the concepts of movement, effects of model terrain and chance still present in 21st-century wargaming were set down in print by Wells.

Wells was also a socialist, pacifist and supporter of the concept of a world-governing body to preserve peace and avoid increasingly large-scale warfare that would eventually come to haunt much of the 20th-century. In “Little Wars,” Wells lays out the idealistic aspiration that men, young and old, would someday permanently remove themselves from the real killing fields of modern war and instead settle great international conflicts through wargaming and boardroom diplomacy. “The tin soldier leaves behind no tin widow, and no tin orphan,” said Wells.

I’ve spent well over half my life gaming, with countless hours spent locked in play violence. I’ve also made the study of history and warfare one of my educational and personal pursuits. I’m fascinated by why people make war on each other, and I wonder at what makes one human decide to do violence against another. With this, I too hate war and violence, questioning even when attempts are made to choose what fights are historically just.

The modern pervasiveness of video games, movies and news media makes violence real and immediate in ways Wells and his contemporaries could have never imagined a century ago. Even as a kid just 30 years ago, I couldn’t imagine for myself a culture so covered in virtual blood, real or fictitious.

I have two sons now, and like most parents, I wish to share and pass on some of my interests to them. For some parents, it’s baseball. For others, it may be a love of camping or cooking or knitting. Me, I want my kids to play wargames. I want them to do this because it is an incredibly rewarding hobby, combining artistry, historical research, complex decision-making, math, teamwork and management skills. I also want them to take up my interest in wargames because I think, when done right, wargaming can
still teach why war and violence is a horrible, horrible thing to be avoided at all costs.

“Doing it right” is the rub. Like so many worthwhile things, wargaming takes time. Lots of it. You need to have a real interest and a real commitment in not only yourself but in your fellow players in order to play wargames. Wargames are for people who care.

And here, I will expand beyond miniature wargames to include video games in the discussion. Just as Dungeons & Dragons was accused of being the realm of loner weirdo teenage Satanists with a penchant for violence and anti-social behavior in the 1970s and 80s, video games are the target now. Yes, the video gamer community and industry is far, far larger than the D&D community ever was. Yes, video games depict violence in a far more realistic way than tabletop wargaming can. But the problem is not inherent in the games. The problem is a lack parental involvement with their children’s gaming pursuits.

A parent who is fairly tuned-into their kids’ playtime is a participant and a partner. I’ve spent hours watching my kids play video games, playing video games with them, reading about video games with them and discussing video games with them. I am willing to bet most parents’ level of involvement with their children’s gaming begins with buying their kid a game they know nothing about and ends with the kid vanishing into their bedroom to start logging dozens of hours in a game. The same parent who will re-arrange their schedule and devote hours to their son’s baseball practices and games will probably not make a similar investment in the same son’s hours devoted to racking up kills on Call of Duty or levels of progression in Skyrim.

Play – parentally-invested play – is an indispensable part of childhood that can provide a lifetime of healthy and creative thinking. Maybe he is outdated, but I’ll stick with Wells and his utopian hope that games can and do provide the path to a better world.