When Ignatius, my hard-to-please shoulder gnome, says All Quiet in the Trenches “lacks teeth” I know he’s thinking about the gruesome sawtooth Seitengewehr 98 that we occasionally handled as youngsters. Why my father owned a WW1 ‘butchers blade’ I couldn’t tell you. Although interested in military history, he wasn’t a weapon collector. Maybe it had been bought cheap from some local bric-a-brac emporium. It certainly wasn’t an inherited souvenir. My great-grandfather didn’t bring anything back from the Western Front, not even himself.
Ignatius has a point. AQITT is fresh, engrossing and – because of randomised squad compositions – even now, a couple of weeks into a two-year Early Access period, fairly replayable, but there is timidity at its heart that Erich Maria Remarque wouldn’t have approved of.
One of the reasons the 1929 novel referenced in the title of Totally Not Aliens’ debut was so distasteful to warmongers like Hitler, and still has the capacity to shock today, is that it pulls zero punches. All Quiet on the Western Front transports the reader into the man-made hell that was WWI trench warfare then forces them to gaze upon the myriad horrors found there.
“Anti-war”AQITT, in contrast, makes for the same destination only to pussyfoot and veil on arrival. Yes, the individually taskable men in your squad can ‘suffer’ and ‘die’ during the course of a typical 3-4 hour playthrough*, but almost always the graphics, writing, and gameplay unwittingly conspire to make the suffering and deaths as palatable as possible.
* Currently the campaign only runs for one year.
Playing this “narrative turn-based strategy RPG” don’t expect to encounter soldiers (all the following quotes are from AQOTWF) “without mouths, without jaws, without faces”… footless warriors staggering onwards on “splintered stumps”… people “living with their skulls blown open”. In AQITT no-one goes to a dressing station with hands clasped over bulging intestines, or holds “the artery of his arm in his teeth for two hours in order not to bleed to death”.
Rats scuttling across the faces of sleeping troops… maimed horses tripping over their own entrails… stretcher bearers so smashed by artillery “you could scrape them off the wall of the trench with a spoon and bury them in a mess-tin”… corpses in no man’s land that “hiss, belch, and make movements”… partially because the devs can’t bring themselves to document grotesque truths like these, we wind up with a game without the power to startle or appall.
Neither me or Ignatius would deny that AQITT has the ability to excite and absorb, entertain and challenge. We both enjoyed our ten-hour playtest. The campaign’s combat phases went down particularly well.
Every thirty minutes or so your focus switches from juggling mundane daily chores in the front line or at a behind-the-lines camp to orchestrating offensive or defensive actions on 3D battlefields hiding networks of invisibly-linked, occupiable nodes.
Send your men SW towards that corpse-strewn hollow and they’ll get the chance to scavenge for ammo and supplies, and deliver flanking fire next turn! Send them S to yonder crater and they’ll be in a slightly safer spot, but will need to do a bit of wire-cutting if the advance is to continue! Is now the time to switch everyone from ‘suppressing’ (one of the standard ways to employ troops during a scrap) to ‘taking cover’ (the safest and most restorative order option)? Can you afford to pause your retreat so that unlucky, immobilised Kummerbunt can receive first aid, or, with Frenchies closing in, should you just forget him and get all your able men to safety ASAP? The simple combatant assignment system meshes nicely with the hidden dice mechanics that determine things like enemy movement, fire results, and straggling (members of your squad can get separated and lost) producing a form of navigable chaos that wargamers partial to a bit of Clausewitzian friction are sure to relish.
When you’re not trying to keep your band of Brüder alive and together on the battlefield, you’re generally trying to keep them happy, rested, and well fed in less lethal surroundings. Away from the front, the game is a thinly (perhaps too thinly at times) -disguised balancing act. Every turn there are camp chores and tasks set by your commander to be attended to. Neglecting the former can eventually lead to health and morale issues amongst your men. Neglecting the latter will aggravate your boss, a stickler prepared to demote you, effectively ending the game, if you disappoint him too often.
Picture the scene. Your squad arrives at the camp exhausted, dispirited, and probably denuded after a brutal spell at the front. What they really need is a few weeks of rest with the odd pub visit and slap-up feed thrown in. Instead, because you’ve got a Teutonic walrus breathing down your neck, and don’t fancy finding out what happens if latrines aren’t emptied and uniforms laundered regularly, you end up working them until they drop or are so incredibly unhappy they desert.
Finding the cigarette paper-thin line between under-utilising and over-utilising what are, in effect, your resources, is hard but possible. I was still an Unteroffizier at the end of my second playthrough, and a couple of the men I’d started the game with were still alive, which felt like a small win. Presently, because the game doesn’t do scores or even judgmental debriefs, you find yourself making your own victory conditions – no bad thing. For me and Ignatius, hearing that one of our MIAs had ended up in a French PoW camp was far more gratifying than learning that we’d helped repulse an enemy attack. I reckon that shows AQITT is getting something pretty fundamental right.
What would we change about the current EA build if we had the chance? For starters we’d redesign some of the unnecessarily confusing icons and UI meters. The worst offender is probably this ringed gizmo. It shows both the mood of your boss (left-hand bar) and the mood of your squad (right-hand bar), but does it in such an unintuitive way I still find myself mousing it regularly for clarification. You’d think, wouldn’t you, looking at the above, that I was in my commander’s bad book, yet the leader of a happy band, but no, actually everyone hated my guts when that jpeg was grabbed.
We’d also streamline some of the over-fussy camera transitions. We’re convinced AQITT would have worked equally well, perhaps better, with 2D graphics. Having to wait while the view swoops pointlessly between walrus, quartermaster, cook, and nurse at the start of every camp turn, only reinforces that conviction.
The game could really use some sharper writing or translation too. What’s provided is functional at best, jarringly clumsy at worst. Anyone familiar with AQITT’s literary touchstone* is unlikely to be impressed by the leaden language employed on the battlefield and in the IF passages in camp.
* AQOTWF isn’t just searingly honest, it’s beautifully written
Judging by this roadmap (A lengthened campaign, MGs, gas, new soldiers and soldier traits are just a few of the coming improvements) Totally Not Aliens have no plans to introduce player avatars. Ignatius and I can’t understand this omission. By casting the player as a disembodied squad leader, a character that makes all the important decisions yet can’t be wounded/killed in battle or lead by example, the devs arguably miss a trick the size of the Lochnagar Crater.
Timid, lacking in literary finesse, and featuring inexplicably incorporeal Unteroffiziers? Thank goodness All Quiet in the Trenches (£21) also happens to be strikingly different from the thousands of wargames that came before it, a dab-hand at serving-up tactical and HR dilemmas, and at the very start of its EA journey.