Digging Deep into the Trenches in Valiant Hearts: The Great War on PS3 and PS4

September 15, 2013

Ubisoft broke new ground in 2011 with its innovative UbiArt Framework game engine, a technology which allows artists to easily create assets and embed them into interactive environments. We’ve already seen it used to brilliant effect in the recent Rayman games, and since then people have been crying out for it to be leveraged in more titles. Seemingly acknowledging these requests, Ubisoft unveiled a couple of new titles built around the engine at its Digital Days 2013 event – including Valiant Hearts: The Great War.

Set between 1914 and 1918 during the First World War, you follow the story of five characters from completely different backgrounds that are all connected by one common trait: love. There’s Lucky Freddy, an American volunteer, George, a British aviator, Emile, a French prisoner of war, and Ana, a field medic. All of them are on a journey to help a German Soldier named Karl find his soul mate – and that happens to be the daughter of Emile.

Acting as a faithful companion throughout the horrors of war is a dog. This unnamed canine features in each of the stories told by the characters, helping them with puzzles and making the horrific scenes around them a little easier to cope with.

Unfortunately, we weren’t allowed to get our hands on the release, but we were treated to a snippet of the title in action. The demo opened with Emile in shackles at a German camp, where the poor prisoner of war was forced to cook up a bratwurst for his merry captors. After steering the incarcerated Frenchman towards the kitchens, a German soldier stood in the way, shouting after some water for his dog. To the right sat a water tower and a bowl. After turning a crank to fill the bowl with water, the soldier moved away from the kitchen door, allowing the hero inside.

In the kitchen there were a series of instructions designed to help the playable character concoct dinner. Fiddling with the machinery in the correct order saw water and sausages added to a cauldron, before finally cooking over a naked flame. We were assured that, as this was a very early section of the game, it was just introducing players to the game’s mechanics, and that the later challenges would require substantially more thought.

After pulling the cauldron of meat outside, comic-strip style boxes appeared at the top of the screen, explaining that British forces were about to launch a shelling attack. As soon as the first shell fell, the dirt around it erupted upwards, with each hand-drawn particle visible as Emile was showered in debris. He then had no choice but to retreat back to the kitchens, but the shells didn’t stop.

Emile awoke to find the German soldier’s dog digging him out of the debris, and, upon stumbling outside, a scene of desolation greeted him. While there could have easily been blood and gore everywhere, the mere fact that we’d seen this bustling camp not seconds earlier was enough to drive home the terrible fate that had befallen these soldiers. After tiptoeing his way through the smouldering remains of the prison, the dog’s uses were made evident. At a physics-based seesaw puzzle, the companion barked at one end of the screen, alerting Emile to the location of a room that he hadn’t seen containing a counterweight.

We were also shown a level from the perspective of Freddy. Far more rough and ready than Emile, the American comes equipped with a pair of wire cutters and makes short work of any obstructions that he comes across. His demo featured throwing grenades into strategic places to dislodge objects, running for cover between the reloads of an enemy’s weapon, and blowing up a bridge to prevent the advancement of German forces. He appeared to be a far more action-orientated character than the others, and while we weren’t shown any footage of them, it’s clear that each will be augmented with their own unique gameplay style and puzzles to contend with.

One thing that developer Ubisoft Montpellier was eager to stress is just how authentic the title is, with each stage occurring in the genuine locations of real battles. The narrative is based upon authentic letters between a handful of people caught in the hellish war, and the characters themselves are derived from real people as well. The studio even looked into its own history, including dog tags based upon family members who served during the deadly period.

One of Valiant Hearts’ biggest assets is that it’s visually striking. Adopting somewhat cartoonish visuals might seem a little insensitive given the horrors experienced during this war, but it definitely works. The art style has a grungy, early 20th century style to it that seems right at home in this setting. We were stunned to discover that every piece of art in the game was designed by just one person, and given the incredible workload, the amount of detail is truly impressive, with skirmishes being fought in the distant background of each level.

Characters don’t talk, but bark orders and grumble unintelligibly with an image-filled speech bubble above their heads for you to decipher. From what we saw, it wasn’t too difficult to understand, and the approach saves the game from potentially atmosphere-killing voice acting. But it’s the music that completely sold us on the title’s presentation, offering a sombre collection of piano pieces that inform the gameplay, building the emotional experience.

Valiant Hearts: The Great War was definitely the most impactful game announced at this year’s Digital Days event. It’s not only tackling a time period rarely touched by the industry, but it appears to be doing so in a manner that’s respectful of those that were affected by it. With a fantastic art direction, magical music, and intriguing characters, this is one that we’re willing to hang our medals on already.

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