This War of Mine - Review
Many games have us kill virtual people. And, especially in more recent years, many games have had us question our ease at killing virtual people. Yet, despite the good intentions, it's often been difficult to marry an anti-violence/anti-war sentiment to actual gameplay. This War Of Mine, if nothing else, does manage to give this a try, all while remaining an engaging game to play.
The setting of This War Of Mine is never fully explained. Inspired by the Siege of Sarajevo during the Bosnian war, it's morose, almost monochrome art style, immediately tell you what kind of game this is. After being unceremoniously handed your collection of survivors, you're likely to spend the first half hour or so doing nothing more than shuffling away rubble.
Mechanically speaking, This War Of Mine plays out like a mix or The Sims, along with some rudimentary base building/tactical elements thrown in. At its core however, it's simply a game about choices. Do you raid the local supermarket tonight, or head to the abandoned apartment block? Do you send the elderly man with no discernible skills into harms way, or the much more valuable handyman who's capable of fixing up your house?
Different areas become accessible and inaccessible as the game progresses. Given your only able to scavenge once per night, there's a huge emphasis on ensuring you gather up as many scraps as you can. Here again, there's decisions to be made. Food will keep you alive and stave off hunger, but it's wood and spare parts that'll enable you to craft new resources back at base.
Likewise, your characters' have their own wants and needs. Some will crave cigarettes and coffee, which are otherwise useful bartering items. Trading plays an important role in the game, with many of the available locations having at least one character who's willing to swap items with you. All in all, it makes for an interesting tweak to the general scavenge-survive style of game we've seen in recent years. It's a zombie apocalypse game, but one without the zombies.
The fact that you make all the decisions means that you'll be the one to feel like a heartless monster should you choose to steal or kill for supplies. It's possible to make it through the entire game without harming a soul, which makes those kinds of horrible decisions even more painful. Raid an old couple's home and they'll be powerless to stop you; their fridge crammed full with food, and their cabinets full of medicine. Their only response will be to beg you to stop and leave which, provided you're not completely devoid of empathy, will hit you.
What's most impressive is that 11 bit studios achieves all of this without ever resorting to tired old morality meters and good/evil points. Your behaviour is never charted by some abstract moral calculator within the game, it's instead reflected straight back within the gameplay. Characters that are forced to kill are likely to break down upon returning home, ignoring your instructions and simply collapsing in the corner of a room, in some cases for several days.
Likewise, your characters are physically fragile. Enter a more dangerous area and it'll only take two, maybe three, gun shots to down a member of your group. This War of Mine doesn't necessarily do this in order to make itself difficult, again, it's possible to avoid almost all direct confrontations with some savvy planning. Instead it reemphasizes the game's core themes; that life is indeed, incredibly fragile.
Whilst overall the game is a solid achievement, it's not completely without its flaws. Much like the games it lightly draws upon, such as X-Com, there's sometimes the case that you'll simply suffer from some bad dice rolls as it were. Given the random nature of some of the game's events, it's sometimes the case that you'll never get the chance to build up any positive momentum, and simply shuffle from one bad scenario to another until you end up dead. It's possible to start the game in the middle of winter, adding another challenge to your survival, by ensuring you have to constantly heat the home with limited fuel in order to keep warm. It's likely that a quick restart will be in order as bad luck (and bad choices), quickly begin to compound on one another.
Similarly, whilst the game's theme and style are arguably some of its strongest aspects, it's sometimes so relentlessly bleak that it risks descending into a quasi-parody. Its atmosphere is so thick and heavy that it can get somewhat repetitive, tonally speaking. It does make those moments you find some much needed food that more rewarding, yet sometimes, light touches of happiness could have made the game's depressing moments that much more unsettling.
Still, these complaints are minor in a game that, on the whole, does what very few have managed to do. It explores the issue of killing in games, without resorting to cutscenes. Moreover, its morality is one that's linked directly to its gameplay rather than being some abstract experience system. As a scavenge-survive breed of game, it still remains incredibly addictive in its own right, but the story and themes make it that much more rewarding.
This War of Mine was released on November 14th for PC, Mac and Linux.
This review is based on the PC version.
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