Games where you play a courageous, heroic (and no doubt handsome) one-man-army are a dime-a-dozen these days. You can probably count more modern warfare FPS games than you have fingers and toes. When you’re playing that one-man-army protagonist in Call of Duty or Battlefield, though, do you ever stop and wonder what life is like for the civilians huddled in the basements and shelters around you?
This War of Mine is a game that aims to bring that reality to gamers, often in brutal fashion. Set within a non-descript country beset by separatist violence and military crackdowns (sound familiar?), the game tasks the player with guiding a group of ordinary people through the conflict to safety.
The art style of the game reminds me a lot of Deadlight. It has that same side-scrolling depth effect that helps the player focus solely on their character’s movement (which is modelled very realistically). Colours in the game are dark and washed-out but only help to add to the bleak atmosphere of a war-torn city. A constantly shifting sketch-like shading effect also adds life to the static backgrounds.
Gameplay in This War of Mine is split in two: the daytime is spent building up facilities in your home base (a ramshackle and partially-demolished apartment building) while at night you send one of your group out to scavenge for supplies. Your remaining survivors can guard your headquarters or opt to sleep the night away to regain some energy (though if you haven’t built a bed for them they’ll wake up annoyed and cranky).
Scavenging at night is a tense affair, as you try to gather the most important items without alerting any possible hostiles, whether other scavengers, the military or the separatists. Luckily This War of Mine gives you some nifty ways to creep through an area. Players can hide in doorways, peer through keyholes and create life-saving distractions.
Your survivor can only carry so much in their backpack, though, so you have to pick and choose what to take. More than once I had to stop and wonder if I really needed a surplus of a certain material, especially if I found a rare cache of food.
Combat can be brief and bloody if you are discovered. Guns are an ultra-rare economy so you will mainly be fighting with shovels, axes and knives until you gather the materials to arm yourself. When a firefight does break out (and believe me, that’s a bad thing) it can be a lottery as to who survives. Your survivors aren’t soldiers, they don’t have firearms training and it shows. Plenty of times I chose simply to run for the exit rather than stay and fend off attackers.
Once back home your scavenged items will be added to a communal cache from which you can set about rebuilding. Improvements like beds, stoves, a radio and a cooker can be added and upgraded. With some diligent scavenging a player can go from being hungry every night to producing vegetables in their home-grown garden.
Random events spice up these daytime activities. Citizens and neighbours will arrive with trade offers, quests and dialogue that may require certain items or one of your team to head off to help. The rewards can be worth the risk but losing that survivor to a sniper off-screen can be depressingly annoying.
Over time you grow increasingly attached to your rag-tag group, whose biographies dynamically update to reveal their backstory. Events out in the city (such as stealing from an old couple or witnessing a sexual assault) will depress your characters and they’ll let you know with the odd dialogue around the house. With each survivor having a specialist skill, from combat to cooking, it can be painful to lose them, especially to a clumsy mistake while out at night.
Localisation seems to be a slight problem for the developers, as I found on a number of occasions that the English dialogue and writing was stilted and jarring. Characters will sit and say “Good I have this book” or “take upstairs and roof”. At the time of writing the game doesn’t feature a save or load feature either, so as soon as you quit you’ll have to start all over again - this is something that will be implemented in future builds, though.
11-bit Studios set out to make this game as emotive as possible, and they have succeeded so far. They have created an atmospheric, tense and unique gaming experience. This War of Mine is in an early stage and requires some polishing but it’s not hard to see that it may already be a diamond in the rough.