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Released: November 14th 2014
Developer: 11 Bit Studios
Publisher: 11 Bit Studios
Formats: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, iOS and Android
Format Played: PC
In a game industry filled with action focused first-person shooters, there are very few titles that place their focus on portraying war in a realistic manner. This War of Mine takes the opposite approach from most studios, putting the player in the shoes of the innocent civilians who struggle to get by as the battles rage on outside.
Taking place in a bombed-out house in the fictional city of Pogoren, Graznavia, you’ll take control of up to 12 individuals as they hunker down and wait out the war until peace comes. Based on a random count, this could be anything between a month and eighty days. Each of the characters has their own background, whether it’s a cook forced to flee their restaurant or a child separated from their parents. Rather than traditional voice acting, the game instead relays the character’s feelings through diary entries that can change based on the situation they find themselves in. There are also many different endings, depending on the choices you make throughout the journey but this is only the base of how This War of Mine presents itself.
Everything about This War of Mine has been carefully crafted to create one of the most absorbing experiences you’ll see in modern gaming. Much like real war, the action is both unflinching and unpredictable. Scavenging for supplies in rubble, taking on solely charitable deeds and avoiding the attention of other survivors is immensely difficult and when you see the consequences of nastier actions, it’s often horrifying; at one point, I was forced to kill a resident of a larger apartment block after venturing too deep into their territory; the resident’s family poured into the room and dropped to their knees, begging them to wake up. The absolute despair and grief conveyed simply through atmosphere, text boxes and the sound of weeping led me to feel a sense of guilt that no other game has been able to accomplish. Time is an important commodity; without sufficient medical supplies, characters will take many days to heal from injuries and even longer to recover from a depressed or broken state. The trauma of conflict will cause characters to become unresponsive, even to the point of killing themselves if they feel they cannot carry on. Some may even leave if they feel the house isn’t safe anymore. If all the characters in the house leave or die, it’s final and you’ll have to start the survival journey over from the beginning; much like XCOM, there is no perfect playthrough; injuries, raids and deaths are common in a war-torn environment, especially on higher difficulties where resources are exceptionally rare. The Little Ones DLC (which donated all profits to the War Child charity) added children to the mix and they have their own set of considerations. They break down under pressure much more easily and will need comforting and a place to play very often, raising the emotional stakes even higher. With all the different actions and consequences, This War of Mine is highly replayable and the game was also open to modding for additional content.
If there’s any downside to the game, it’s that the scenarios are limited; the game always makes use of the same bombed out house and it’s very grounded in its original inspiration; the atrocities committed against civilians in the Bosnian War and the Siege of Sarajevo which took place between 1992 and 1996. The game may have struck a nerve had it included scenarios based on the more recent Syrian conflict or wars in Iraq and Afghanistan but it could have brought more attention to the struggles of civilians in those regions by diversifying its overall design.
This War of Mine is presented from a 2D ant-farm perspective; controlling each character is as simple as clicking on them then clicking again on the many different icons strewn about the environments which represent a variety of actions. Characters will clear debris, search for supplies (or steal them, depending on the location), cook meals, build and manufacture items and even comfort each-other amid disaster. In the day, you’ll be working to put meals together and rest up; occasionally you may also have a visitor to trade with, assist or even invite inside to survive with the others. But at night you’ll go out to scavenge; you’ll have to choose carefully here as there are many other survivors who will not hesitate to raid your shelter and take your supplies while you’re away. Whoever goes out to scavenge must use caution as you’ll never know who is friendly and who is hostile. While outside, your chosen scavenger will sneak by default; double clicking will make them move faster but this is noisier and may attract the attention of some unsavoury residents. On top of that, any scavenger will only have so much space in their backpack for food, supplies and materials. This is where the gameplay drastically deepens as there are many tactical decisions to make; do you take most of your valuables with you at the risk of losing them forever if your chosen scavenger is killed? Do you build more beds to provide a better sleep and healing from injuries or a small furnace to keep everyone warm? Playing This War of Mine is all about micro-management and making choices that will ultimately determine where the twelve characters will end up at the elusive ceasefire. It’s simple enough that anyone can pick it up but creates an often-unforgiving challenge.
Atmosphere is masterfully crafted in This War of Mine and it starts with the black and white filter; with all the colour drained out of the game the desolation of war and suffering is conveyed immediately. The music is slow and echoing which creates a haunting ambience. The locations are suitably foreboding with structures reduced to crumbling pillars and ruined architecture. The game accomplishes so much with a minimalistic presentation, conveying all the emotion with just a few tools; it envelopes the player fully into the horrors the characters are facing.
It could have been a bit bolder by spreading its themes across different conflicts but This War of Mine is a heart-wrenching, brutal and unrestrained depiction of war and the tragic consequences of those caught up in it. Anyone who sits down to play it will feel something and amidst all the mindless war games from the industry over the years, this is a superb achievement.
Rating: 9.0/10 (Brilliant)