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This War of Mine stands battlefield games on their heads. What happens, it asks, to the people who have to scrape out a living in the middle of a war?
The result is a dark, somber, and seductive game, a sort of Sim Slums that asks you to look out for a little crew of refugees as best you can.
This War of Mine debuts today for PC (reviewed here), Mac, and Linux on Steam and GamesRepublic for $20 from Poland’s 11 Bit Studios.
What you’ll like
The day/night cycle of survivors
This War of Mine has two phases: day and night. You start with three civilians, each with different skills. During the day, your crew will hole up in your ruined multilevel house, resting, healing, making tools or food depending on the supplies you’ve gathered. You might receive visits from people looking to trade, but generally, you spend the time tinkering, crafting, and managing your survivors’ needs.
At night, most rest or stand guard, while one you select goes hunting for salvage at locations you choose. They might sort through an abandoned building that offers little risk (but little reward, as others have picked it nearly clean) or through occupied houses or buildings that offer more challenges.
You can sneak around and avoid people — or you can fight them for what you need. Just be aware that, as in real life, decisions you make do have consequences, especially on those who carry them out. You can easily make your characters depressed enough to commit suicide.
The daily cycle, with its sim-and-crafting by day, stealth-and-salvage by night, gives the game wonderful variety within the same play session.
A variety of locations
All of the places you’ll go to salvage are buildings, and developer 11 Bit has drawn them all in the same style. But that doesn’t mean they’ll feel the same. Each has its own personality based on what you find inside: different types of items to salvage and people to interact with or avoid, and differing levels of challenge.
You might target a hospital one night because you’re low on medical supplies, finding that other salvagers like you are generally either friendly or indifferent as they focus on their own needs. Or you might go to a house that has a lot of supplies because the people inside are fiercely hoarding — and are just as fierce about defending their territory.
This War of Mine gives you control of small 3D people in a large 2D setting. Most buildings have multiple levels, and the cutaway view shows what’s going on inside — at least as much as your characters can see, anyway.
The graphics are all done in a charcoal-sketch style that is beautiful to watch and brilliant at bringing contrast to those items that really need your attention. It’s a dark game, and the somber screens, all shades of gray, help to reinforce the mood.
Things you can interact with are prominently marked with an icon, so the small people don’t cause you to hunt, frustrated, for the right pixel to click. Salvage, crafting, and inventory screens feel thoughtful, designed to immerse the player in the story, and the technique works well.
Simple, immersive sound
This War of Mine has a moody synth soundtrack and some well-crafted sound effects for the actions you take. It’s not fancy — the whole game has the feel of someone with Martha Stewart-level taste and some creativity decorating a house on a Kmart budget — but it helps to set the mood.
Sound effects for salvage, crafting, and the like are straightforward and pleasant, helping you to immediately identify when someone’s gone idle and needs something else to do. When you’re out salvaging, sound waves (represented visually) help you keep track of others in the building that might be dangerous, and your own sounds can tip them off to your presence.
What you won’t like
War is depressing
I would imagine that This War of Mine is one of the most realistic war games ever made, at least from a civilian point of view. 11 Bit representatives told me for the GamesBeat preview that they designed the plot twists based in part on what real war survivors told them.
Unfortunately, that means the whole game is … a downer. Even if things go well for your collection of refugees, you can’t escape that their lives suck. You care about them, so you want to keep playing to see them survive, but it means when they don’t you care about that, too.
If you’re the kind who likes your games to have that Hollywood happy-ending promise, this is definitely not the title for you. Most of my play sessions ended in disaster, despair, and death (by shooting, by starvation, by suicide, by raid, any number of unfortunate accidents) for at least some of my characters.
A little too much repetition
This War of Mine offers a variety of things for you to do. But after a while, crafting can start to feel repetitive, whether it’s for tools or for food, and salvaging is basically the same few operations over and over with some danger thrown in to add spice.
None of the activities ever become annoying, and the repetition does have the effect of focusing your attention on the story. But you’ll spend your days and nights performing the same few actions, at a fairly sedate pace. It’s all pointing and clicking — to move your people, to make their items and to manage your game. This War of Mine would translate really well to tablet play, should the company ever want to pursue that; it’s that easy to run with a single mouse button.
Your people aren’t that smart
Generally, the paths your characters take work well, but when they don’t, it’s frustrating. When you’re trying to avoid detection and your character walks down the stairs into another person and not around an obstacle, it’ll make you grind your teeth. Fortunately, it doesn’t happen that often, but moving your people around properly always requires some micromanagement. That can add some unnecessary fiddling when you’re trying to control multiple characters during day phases.
This War of Mine makes the most of its clean, attractive graphics, its moody ambient soundtrack, and the intense, emotional nature of its gameplay. You’ll care about your refugees, and you’ll want to work hard to keep them healthy, fed, alive, and well. Unfortunately, This War of Mine doesn’t make it easy on you. Even when you keep your people alive, you’re left with the feeling that you’ve only marginally improved their existence. If the typical war-based video game is the big blockbuster movie, with tons of special effects and rockets flying overhead as brave well-muscled soldiers stand and give speeches, this game is the indie drama about the consequences of war. It’s gripping, a beautiful depiction of an ugly time, and, fittingly, depressing as hell.
This War of Mine debuts today for PC, Mac, and Linux on Steam and GamesRepublic. 11 Bit provided GamesBeat with a download code for this review.