War’s a brutal affair, running and gunning against waves of enemies is the traditional war game experience. 11 Bit Studios turn the sub-genre on it’s head and created a game in it’s own niche that is overwhelmingly powerful. This War of Mine is not only a mechanically strong survival game, but also provokes emotional connections while poking and pulling at your morality levels. The concept on display is unique – war isn’t all about the fight, it is also about the turmoil of social and economic strife with citizens descending into looting – doing anything and everything to survive, whatever the cost.
Often in survival games there is always the question of consequence, and there are plenty of consequences to fret about in This War of Mine. The consequences range from death to emotional turmoil. There came a point in the first few nights where I had my moral compass span round and round. The risk of scavenging a barracks is too high early on, especially with weapons hard to come by so with the other options either previously scouted or too dangerous still, I was left with a small house. The small house was occupied by an old man and his wife, an innocuous setting – safe and calm.
The level loaded and I felt fine, I scavenged the outside area for some material but knew I needed some medicine and food. As soon as I opened the door, the old man rose from his chair to confront me – leaving me to question his hostility status. What would transpire over the next five minutes would be one of my soul crushing moments in gaming. Using the crowbar I gave to my survivor, I struck out at the old man knocking him back, causing him to flee up the stairs. I felt anguish as it became clear he had no intention of hurting me, he begged me to leave but I knew I had come this far I couldn’t go back home empty handed. I stole some medicine and some bits of food, with my backpack filled I checked the surroundings. The man still upset and hurt sat in a corner with his ill wife, saying I had stolen her medicine. Once the day started back up my survivor slumped into the house, distraught over his actions. The whole affair had left him mentally scarred, he was now depressed and couldn’t eat or sleep without thinking of the poor man and his wife. This War of Mine is full of these moments where anguish and regret reign, painting a distorted picture of war and the consequences.
Scavenging is only half the battle, resource management and conservation is key to building a successful base of operations. Not only is the amount of material and food important, as is the quality of those resources. Uncooked food satisfies a sliver of the need for hunger, but to cook food you need building materials to craft new equipment. The aforementioned management and conservation is vital, bearing a need for balance in what you scavenge and craft each day. Hold too many materials and your survivors will struggle for hunger and suffer to sleep, defend or scavenge each night. Every action has a consequence within This War of Mine, making it even more of a evocative experience.
Starting your run randomly chooses your three initial survivors, with the potential for them to have useful abilities. These abilities can range from being a fast runner to being a skilled scavenger. Each survivor keeps things interesting and gives a few different ways to play. A good trader will allow you some more bargaining power, gaining extra items for less valuable ones. Through trading, scavenging or looting, the first few days boils down to clearing your house of any potential materials and making a slight plan for what your survivors need. Stockpiling food and medicine should help when trying to collate materials for crafting while your survivors stay healthy. Crafting beds, chairs, radios, and luxury items like cigarettes are a good way to keep your survivors happy but don’t do a great deal for the stability and sustainability of your long term survival.
During the days you have the micro management of delegating tasks to your survivors in real time. Random events can occur during the days, like traders coming to the door, but it’s more about getting crafting done and making sure the survivors are healthy and happy. When the night time rolls around, the delegation of your survivors is slightly different. With the option to sleep, defend or scavenge (with only a maximum of one scavenger a night), there’s a balance between risk and reward for guarding and sleeping depending on the survivors feelings. At times, you might have to make one of your survivors stay tired while they defend as raiders will often look to loot your base of operations. The scavengers role is where the combat and action comes in. You choose which setting you want to scavenge in, with more buildings and areas unlocking each night, and your scavenger goes to loot. Some of the buildings could be highly hostile, while others are docile – each coming with different consequences. You can’t do multiple scavenges a night so making sure you pick the appropriate location is vital.
Combat seems a little stagnant, with no control on what happens. Equipping a weapon prior to the scavenge gives you a good chance to get some close quarter hits in but if the enemy has a gun, you might be in trouble. When attacking there is no indication to when your hit will land or theirs, and with perma-death being a feature there certainly is a huge amount of risk when in combat. If you choose to take the more sneaky approach you need to be overly careful of the sound each step makes. Due to the way the point and click controls worked, I often double clicked in a rush, which caused my survivor to make noise and attract some of the enemies in the building I was skulking around in. Although this can cause a minor annoyance, it serves as a gentle reminder to be cautious and patient, just like you would if you were in the situation yourself.
Graphically, This War of Mine is striking. It has a pencil etched background which changes as you move across it’s 2D plane. Although the game is 2D in nature, there is some slight depth of field which helps when navigating up to stairs and up balconies. Both the art style and lighting are dark, matching the tone of the game to the ground. Furniture, character profiles and the interface lacks color or vibrancy, but that is what 11 Bit’s depiction of war is. Texture quality is strong, with holes in the buildings allowing wind to blow cloth around and fire burns bright, ironically being the only light left in the darkness.
Apart from the traditional crafting and scavenging mechanics, there is a needs system for your survivors slightly similar to Sims. Although the AI does a mostly good job of assigning tasks, activities like sleeping and eating are under your direct control. Balance and conservation once again comes into play as you may neglect feeding one survivor, in favour of another, depending on the situation. The survivor portraits in the bottom right give you a clear indication of what your survivors need, but there are also icons above their heads for you to directly interact with – with this being particularly important if they need a good talking to about the war.
Although I love 95% of This War of Mine, there are the occasional issues, such as the combat issues mentioned earlier. The other bug bear I had was with the user interface. The majority of this is fine but there are occasions where there are extra clicks to craft certain items or leaving you a little in the lurch of what you have in your stash. There is a screen showing you what you have but the is a small disconnect between using this screen to then plan what you need to raid next, however I understand if that’s just me.
Ultimately, This War of Mine is challenging, thought provoking, beautiful and is one of my top games of the year. It does something new and refreshing, turning a traditional setting and flips it on it’s head.