‘Valiant Hearts’ Is a Fantastic World War I Story
It also happens to be a video game
A German immigrant, a French grandfather, an American widower, a Belgian nurse and a dog. These are the heroes of Ubisoft’s Valiant Hearts: The Great War—an excellent video game that gives World War I the digital treatment it deserves.
So many war-themed video games are power fantasies—little more than an excuse to shoot bad guys and blow stuff up. Rarely do war games enlighten as well as entertain. Valiant Hearts does both.
Hundreds of video games are set during World War II and hardly any—save a few hardcore simulations like the Victoria series—are set in World War I. Which makes a lot of sense.
One assassination set off a chain of events that killed more than 16 million people. Armies used chemical weapons for the first time on a vast scale. Soldiers lived in trenches while their friends rotted beside them.
It was a bloody, brutal and complicated era of history. What was it all for? Historians still wrestle with these questions. Video games are biased towards simple narratives, so the Great War has never been a great setting for them.
Valiant Hearts doesn’t shy away from the brutal and the complicated. Its characters are motivated by personal struggles, not national pride or a sense of duty. These are people just trying to survive a nasty era as best they can.
Their loyalties aren’t to their countries but to each other.
Emile, the French grandfather, tries to stay out of trouble and aid those he can. Freddie, an American in Paris when the war begins, befriends Emile but fights for his own, shadowy reasons.
Anna, the Belgian Nurse, is all about helping. Her levels are given over to dragging a body from debris and rendering aid. Karl, the German immigrant, is Emile’s son-in-law. He just wants to survive long enough to see his newborn son.
And helping them all along the way is Walt—the ever-loyal dog of war.
The art direction is wonderful. It often feels more like an interactive comic book or a puppet show than a video game.
The characters and settings are distinct. No two battlefields look or feel alike. It’s a nice change of pace from the standard cut and paste, bland brown and gray stages of Call of Duty and its derivatives.
The sound design is perfect. During scenes in which the characters flee war-torn regions in a car, the player must dodge incoming mortar attacks while listening to classical movements like Modest Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain. The melodious munitions fall in time to the music.
The game takes great pains to teach. A few paragraphs and photos accompany each level to fill in the historical context. Players can find hidden collectibles—including helmets, dog tags and bed pans—that reveal trivia about the era.
It’s so much information that I wondered if Ubisoft intended to market the game as educational software. However, most of this stuff is optional, nor does it distract from the gameplay.
Speaking of gameplay, it’s a mix of low-intensity action and puzzle solving combined with a rhythm game. It’s always fun and rarely frustrating. None of the puzzles felt hard or complicated and none of the action scenes felt punishing. It’s clear that Ubisoft wants the narrative to shine through.
Players move the characters through many of the major battles of the war. Anna deals with chlorine gas during the Battle of Ypres. Emile fights to survive the Nivelle Offensive. Freddie leads a platoon during the Battle of the Somme.
Players will dig trenches, fire cannons, dodge shells, sneak out of prisons, pet dogs and render aid to the wounded. All of this while learning about World War I and watching a powerful human drama unfold.
Valiant Hearts: The Great War is a testament to what video games can be. Often, critics accuse the medium of being nothing more than pablum. This can certainly be true, but games like this disprove a blanket assertion.
Valiant Hearts is available on the PC, Xbox 360, Xbox One, PlayStation 4 and PlayStation 3. It only costs $15. A small price for so rare a treat.