This week, Zero Punctuation reviews Enemy Front and Valiant Hearts: The Great War.
Now that video gaming's twin cheerleaders of military intervention, Battlefield and Call of Duty, have pledged to start modelling themselves respectively on The Italian Job and Battlestar Galactica, I think it's fair to say that gaming has grown weary of contemporary warfare. The days of straight-faced, ripped-from-the-headlines, right-wing wish-fulfilment giving Johnny Terrorist what-for in the dusty ruins of Suicide Bomber University are waning. Maybe because the house of cards that is stability in the Middle East just refuses to stay up no matter how many times we set fire to it. Or perhaps there's a growing sense that our personal safety is less at risk from jabbering extremists inspired by 72 virgins, and more from frustrated white loners inspired by one virgin, namely himself. I think conservatives in America have been hoist by their own petard. They just kept knocking down any chance of gun legislation and effectively forced America to accept that a massacre is something it's just gonna have to put up with now and again. And then they wonder why no one seems to care about taking revenge for 9/11 anymore. But I digress.
Small wonder that war-based games are running for the comfortable security blanket of World War II, a time with none of that troublesome ambiguity. Yes, we definitely are fighting bastards and yes, they definitely will come over and burn all our stuff if we don't. To this setting comes Enemy Front, yet another candidate for the Shitty Title award. What, as opposed to those nice friendly fronts they have in wars, where two allies dig trenches opposite each other and have bake-offs?
Our hero is a war correspondent named Hawkins. I didn't register his first name, because he's about as generic as protagonists get, so I'm just going to call him Brenda. The game opens with Brenda giving an inspiring broadcast to occupied Europe that leads us into a flashback of him aiding Resistance fighters, which leads us to another flashback of him aiding some other Resistance fighters in France. Steady on, Christopher Nolan! How many levels deep are we going? Enemy Front gropes in vain for a unique selling point. It mines lesser-known battlegrounds like Warsaw and Norway, but I can't say that adds much; slit one Nazi throat against a background of bombed-out historical buildings, slit them all.
But Enemy Front makes an interesting comparison with another new release, Valiant Hearts, a game by Ubisoft. So even though I installed it on Steam, of course it had to open uPlay to actually start it. This is our fault; we didn't complain enough when games started opening with twelve different unskippable idents, so now they're taking it even further. Five years from now, we'll have to open up seventeen front-ends before they even let us enter the fucking CD key! But I digress, again.
Valiant Hearts is set in the First World War, rarely touched by popular culture for lacking the clean, "us vs. bastards" fairytale narrative of its sequel. World War I was just Europe being such a fluster-cuck of grudges and alliances that when Serbia turned the little crank of Austro-Hungary, it set off the whole Mouse Trap machine of alliances, and by the time the little plastic man jumped into the pool, everyone was fighting everyone else. So Valiant Hearts can't rely on stirring our sense of duty and pride towards our country's role in a psychotic game of political backsies, and instead focuses on the personal struggles of a small group of individuals more devoted to each other than their respective countries, which is thankfully a hell of a lot less depressing than the war.
Enemy Front's gameplay isn't exactly letting itself stress too much about blowing our minds with innovation, and once it's established that Nazis come out here and bullets come out here and things get interesting when the two intersect, the game is content to put its feet up and take a relaxed attitude to life. An open-ended level, some Nazis, some weapons, do it however you choose. Oh, so I can go in dressed as a Bavarian milkmaid and turn the officers to the side of good with my mind-blowing tit-fucks? No of course not - "However you choose" means the same thing it usually means: go in guns blazing or laboriously sneak around giving other people wedgies.
Unfortunately, Hawkins is unfamiliar with the traditional clean neck-snap or throat-slash and his stealth kill involves lying on top of the poor bastard and stabbing him fifty times, making it likelier you'll be spotted once you're locked into it. But it hardly matters, since if you are spotted, you can just run around a corner and put up a little "queue here" sign. See, the challenge of multiple gameplay options is not to make one of them a million times quicker and easier than the others. Don't see why I should have to pick your head lice out with tweezers when there's this perfectly good blowtorch here. Oh, stop crying, you wanted them out!
Valiant Hearts, meanwhile, takes a more scattershot approach to game design and provides what can best be described as a series of diversions. Half the time, it's an adventure game in a sort of Lego Star Wars sense, searching for the right shaped pegs to jab into whatever hole is available (which is one way to relieve the monotony in the foxhole). The other half of the time is spent playing Guitar Hero. No, really. Oh it comes in many forms, like moving around during a charge to ensure that you are not where the bomb lands, or driving around obstacles that appear in time with the background music, or when it's at its most blatant, pressing button prompts throughout a medical procedure, 'cause apparently we learned medicine from Professor Dance Dance Revolution. Not that it's completely bad. The musical car-driving I found actually rather delightful. But I think we're falling into the trap of crowbarring in token gameplay when the story gets away from problems requiring violence. Actually, since you mention it, I don't think there's a single moment when you pick up a gun and shoot it at someone. Rather a noteworthy absence for a war game. It's like Tim Burton making a film without casting Johnny Depp.
The thing is, Enemy Front is a game about war, but that's all that it's about. Every character is a cipher representative of their entire social group: Brenda the brash American on the fence about getting involved with it all, sexy French Resistance Lady being all resistant and French. And sexy. And a lady. And the realistic graphics and dramatic score is utterly straight-faced and utterly dull. What is its message, that the Nazis were shits and smacking them down was a really good idea? Yeah, we've been stirring that pot for seventy years, thanks for contributing!
Contrarily, Valiant Hearts is a game about people, where the war is a monstrous background thing they have no power to avoid, like a big black dog closing in on the unsupervised Jaffa Cakes. But because it seems more facetious with its silly gameplay and cartoonish ligne claire art style (Mmm, yes, I read a book once!), it actually carries some impact when things turn serious. While it has flaws, the "come on lads, let's give those monkeys a damn good spanking" sense of adventure in the first half followed up with gut-punches and despair in the second recreates the memory of the war it depicts a hell of a lot better than Enemy Front does, which mainly seems to be recreating a Whac-a-Mole machine that plays "Ride of the Valkyries".
- What is he good for: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- I served a Nazi some nice valiant tarts but he spilled them all down his enemy front
- War is a whore that always wants more