Thursday, November 20, 2014

PC Review #112: This War Of Mine

Title: This War of Mine
Developer: 11 Bit Studios
Platforms: PC, Mac, Linux
Price: $19.99
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A popular franchise once stated "War. War never changes". Maybe so, but for the people caught in the midst of the conflict, everything changes. This War of Mine explores the horrors of war from a perspective not explored in the medium till now and delivers one of the most tense, gripping, and bleak experiences I've played this year.
Games like Call of Duty and the like tend to use war for the spectacle, creating big action set pieces from the chaos. You'll never see the war ravaging the country where This War of Mine is set, but its effects are ever present. A gutted war-torn city, all pencil-sketched shadows and ruined structures, reeking of desperation and hopelessness, as explosions thunder and flash ceaselessly outside.
This War of Mine is not fun. It's grueling. Unrelenting. Oppressive. You start each playthrough with three survivors. Sometimes one or more might already be sick or wounded. Sometimes it might be winter at the start, meaning fuel and heat will be utmost priorities. The game is divided into two phases: Day, where you're confined to your base because of snipers outside, and Night, where you can venture out and scavenge for supplies, The daytime hours are when you can maintain your survivors and home, crafting new tools and workshops, building defenses against looters, or simply keeping your group alive by making sure they rest, recover, eat. You're always on the back foot, always just barely eking out a miserable day-by-day existence; even when your group finally is healthy and has a good amount of food stored, there's always the sense that it can't last long.
Once night falls, you're free to travel to other locations with one survivor, while instructing the others to rest or guard against raiders. These places range from homes and apartment buildings to schools and hospitals, and each scavenging run is a slow intense affair. Similar to 2012's Mark of the Ninja, environments are cloaked in shadows, only areas in your line of sight being visible. New unexplored areas are foreboding, never knowing who resides within or if they're friendly or not.
Even when you're equipped with a knife or gun, combat and violence in general feels like a last resort. Not simply because guns and ammo are a rarity or because you're untrained, but because you don't want to kill people or steal from them. A lot of games have moral choices or meters telling you if you're good or bad, but honestly, they've always felt artificial to me. In This War of Mine, there are only murky grey choices. Your actions matter, not just at that moment when you're desperate enough to kill and steal from people who are just trying to survive, people trying to keep their group alive just like you are, but also in the long term, as doing morally questionable things weighs on your characters. Building a radio or finding books and cigarettes can only distract and keep them occupied for so long. Survivors grow depressed, listless, broken, perhaps even suicidal.
If anything, that's War of Mine's greatest achievement: the way it makes you feel bad for crossing that moral line or makes intruding onto another group's home feel weird and wrong. You don't want to turn away children asking for help, or steal medicine from that elderly couple, or kill those people for their food. But your group is sick, and starving, and you desperately need fuel to stave off the winter cold, so you must.
The days go by. Winter comes and goes. As the war worsens, places that were once safe havens might be overtaken by bandits. Barter, scavenge, do what you must to endure. This War of Mine is the kind of game you might only be able to play in short sessions, due to the overwhelming bleakness and depressing nature. It can be slow and tedious and monotonous, but that only works in the game's favor, establishing a grim "We just need to last another day" tone. This War of Mine is not a fun game, but it is one hell of an engrossing, compelling, and atmospheric experience.

You can purchase This War of Mine from the game's official site, Steam, GOG, and Humble.

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