On Sunday, I went to Nomansland. I didn't know I was going to Nomansland, in fact I didn't know it even existed as anything other than a concept. And yet that's where I went, as the family and I hunted out a local village fete. Upon arrival, it was fairly clear that there were actually plenty of men in Nomansland, and women too. And cheese rolling. We even saw someone catch an egg that had been thrown over twenty metres. It was a strange Sunday.
Nevertheless, it was only a few days after this unusual trip until I went to No Man's Land, courtesy of M2H and Blackmill Games' WWI squad shooter, Verdun. I'm pretty sure I know which one I preferred.
Yes, on the same week as the Battlefield 1 beta, this tactically astute bit of retail scheduling promises a similar level of century-old combat, but Verdun offers an altogether more grounded, grim and grass-roots take on the Great War. Set in an and around the major theatres of France, here two teams of 16 players battle for control of trenches, as they slowly push the frontline into enemy territory, scrapping for every inch of ground.
While Verdun's timing is smart in some ways - capitalising on the whole World War I hype train, for want of a less ridiculous collection of words - it's impossible not to compare it to DICE's multi-million dollar behemoth. And while it's unfair to place the two side by side, as Verdun not only has a fraction of the budget but also costs a fraction of the price, it's very difficult to convince yourself that wading through a low-res trench for thirty minutes is worth your time when you could be slicing off heads on a horse.
Everything on its own merit, though, and Verdun must be praised for its ideas if not for its execution. The primary game mode, ignoring FFA and Team Deathmatch for a minute, is Frontlines. As mentioned, this pits two teams of 16 (split into four squads of four) against one another, in a to-and-fro tug of war, where one team must attack an enemy trench and then hold it for a period of time to advance, while the opposition tries to dig in, and then launch their own counterattack.
At first, this is utterly baffling, as the seven-slide tutorial seems far more concerned in talking to you like an old English officer caricature (think Stephen Fry in Blackadder Goes Forth) rather than actually tell you what you need to be doing. Often you'll have two conflicting markers on screen, one yelling 'Attack Here', while another, behind you, says 'Defend'. Pick the wrong one and you get executed for deserting. After doing this four or five times, I was seriously considering deserting myself, straight into the warm arms of Battlefield 1.
It takes a good five or six matches (each over 30 minutes, remember) to get your head around Verdun, and that's because it just doesn't play like other shooters. For starters, it's incredibly difficult to tell who the enemy are at first. Everyone looks the same, and teammates are only highlighted when you literally aim-down-sights at them, so expect to be shot at constantly by people on your side (there's no friendly fire, at least).
Compounding that madness is Verdun's deadly double-hit combo of one-hit-kills and no killcam. Expect to die hundreds of times by peeking your head out of a trench and immediately dropping dead with no idea how or why. The finishing blow comes from dealing with the game's ropey technical elements. Low resolution and detail aren't necessarily problems, especially in a low budget game, but an aim that stutters and jumps really is. You can click the left stick to hold your breath and steady your rifle, but so often your sights will skip straight past an enemy's head, and you'll be a crumpled heap on the ground once again.
A terrible first, second and third impression, then, but Verdun does eventually start to make sense, and a kind of loose, mediocre kind of enjoyment starts to creep in. Not unlike the cheese rolling, actually. For starters, it becomes pretty clear that getting out of the trenches is a terrible idea. This does mean you're often sat, in a brown ditch, for minutes at a time, doing almost nothing, but life is about winning sometimes and this is what you have to do to win.
Once you stop dying (or should I say, once I stopped dying) every five seconds - complete with its twenty-plus second respawn timer - some of Verdun's more nuanced systems come into play. Every squad has different roles, which you are automatically assigned when you're dropped into a match. Some are obvious, like the sniper or the single-shot marksman, while others, like the NCO, are more complicated.
The NCO runs about with a pistol, which might as well be a nerf gun, but he has the ability to issue orders and also order in smoke screens and mortar strikes. If your squad performs well during a match, it can be promoted, adding new abilities for the NCO and new loadouts for the rest of the team. It's a system that echoes Battlefield's own squad perks, as well as the MOBA tradition of single-match levelling.
Supposedly, a truly coordinated team will have all four squads performing different roles, some focusing on recon, others laying down suppressing fire etc., but the reality of Verdun - on PS4 at least - is altogether more chaotic. Players run around looking confused. Bullets fly all over the place and if they hit anything, they kill it. You often get stuck and then killed by ankle-high barbed wire. Players on your team will ask to change roles with you, which creates a quarter-screen filling pop up message that will not disappear until you manually respond.
Hopefully in a few patches time, the technical shortcoming will sort themselves out, and Verdun can find an audience for shooter fans craving something a little more authentic than Battlefield 1. 'Realistic' wouldn't be the right word, but there is at least a concerted effort from the developers to remove the bombast and pageantry from its simulation of war.
And while almost any multiplayer game is enjoyable when you're winning, there's no escaping the truth - Verdun is a bit of a mess. Much like the Allies' own military strategy of running across the real No Man's Land, hoping to get to the other side, Verdun is miscalculated, poorly executed, and ugly. Last year's PC version may be a better fit, with smoother aiming and a considerably higher screen resolution, but even so, there is only so much M2H's shooter can offer. The Great War almost certainly has a Great shooter representing it in the very near future, and Verdun is left scrabbling down in the dirt.