The MOBA age has made us soft.
The Dota and League of Legends genre grew out of the classic real-time strategy beatdowns of the '90s and early 2000s: StarCraft, Command & Conquer, Age of Empires. But rather than controlling an unruly hoard of chattel troops—who throw themselves against enemy defenses in a hellish war of attrition, living lives that last five minutes or less—we instead piloted these impervious champions (or whatever nomenclature you prefer), who've never feared annihilation on the battlefield. They had steep health bars and ultimate abilities, and they feasted on the lowly creeps who used to be our primary offense. But The Great War: Western Front intends to return us to that grand old-fashioned bleakness; a commander sacrificing an untold number of lives to claim the day.
As you can infer from the name, The Great War takes place during World War I—particularly the Western Front, which was the site of the conflict's most infernal trench warfare. The game operates like a hybrid between a traditional RTS and a more glacial Total War-ish experience; you won't be taking turns with your opponent when the shooting starts, but you can pause the action mid-stream to marinate on your orders, or slow the pace down to a crawl if the chaos gets a little too much to process.
I played two matches, where I was instructed to get my battalion of Allies across No Man's Land and conquer a smattering of bunkers currently occupied by the Central Powers. I had the whole expanse of turn-of-the-century mechanization on my side: mortars, bombing runs, and of course, a ton of scared young men, prepared to charge over the top and into the maw at the sound of a whistle.
The Great War will not reward technical, click-to-click unit control. You aren't going to win a skirmish in this game by, say, darting a few troops around the map like a fleet footed Mutalisk. Instead, superiority is determined by momentum. You send your battalions to charge the enemy trenches, cloaking their advance with rolling mortar shots. When everything is timed perfectly, they'll rout the opposing lines and send the units scampering backwards in a panicked retreat.
From there, you might need to pinpoint a few artillery barrages to shake up advancing counter-attacks, or launch an air mission where an autonomous fighter plane seeks and destroys the bomber overhead that's laying payloads of shrapnel on your position. Those who excel at The Great War will do so because they are agile, perceptive managers of the clash.
Case in point: Throughout a match you'll be keeping a close eye on your resource track, which determines how many reinforcements you can deploy. Bungling the economy is a great way to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
Total War veterans will be familiar with some of the rock-paper-scissors dynamics at play here. If you send a battalion into a machine-gun corridor, they will be annihilated with shocking efficiency. So newcomers should expect a steep learning curve, and a lot of losses. Troops tend to move at a speedy clip, and that means when you draw up an artillery blast on the enemy's location, you need to make sure that your forces are not going to cross into the line of fire. There is no on-screen indicator that you're about to commit a terrible mistake — no, the pace and verve of The Great War can only be perfected with enough repetition.
That said, sometimes the bleak joy of the Western Front is simply sitting back and watching the brutality play out. Bodies fly with the cannonade, troops swarm into trenches like sardines in a tin. If you too were entranced by the mythic abyss of Sam Mendes' 1917, do know that The Great War absolutely intends to replicate the somber splendor of a filmic World War I.
Will it have legs? That's my main question leaving my preview. The Great War left a cinematic impression, but I already found myself falling back on the same strategies over and over again. (Cover infantry charge with artillery shells, break a rival legion with a well-placed bunker buster, and so on.) It's clear that the game diversifies its options the deeper you get your teeth in it; eventually we'll be rolling tanks across the French border, and I didn't even touch the overarching Grand Campaign. So hopefully The Great War keeps finding ways to ask us interesting questions. We're on the cusp of a miraculous RTS renaissance. Company of Heroes 3 is on the horizon, and so are Homeworld 3 and Stormgate.
The revitalized genre could use a splash of trench warfare. At last, a chance to see how rusty the MOBA insurgency has made us.