The era of the WWII shooter dominating the videogame landscape is about a decade behind us now, and even as developers expand into creating games around newer, more modern conflicts, World War I still remains an interesting and relatively fertile setting for games. Enter Valiant Hearts: The Great War by Ubisoft Montpellier, which I got to try out on the PlayStation 4 at PAX East. This 2D sidescroller is imbued with great comic book inspired visual flare that complements the sombre mood of the war-driven story rather well.
My demo started in the snowy battlefields of France in 1914. In a surprising twist, I began by assuming control of a cook in the French army named Emile. The soldiers in the trench-like camp were in low spirits and an officer commanded me to prepare stew for everyone. Exploring my surroundings to the left and right I eventually found a large pot that I could interact with by pressing the X button. I dragged the pot into the kitchen where I positioned it under a system of pipes that filled it with water and sausages, and heated it up by pulling a lever. When I returned outside the camp came under a surprise barrage of enemy bombs, forcing me to quickly seek shelter inside once more.
The building collapses and Emile is eventually pulled out of the wreckage by a loyal dog. With the dog now in tow I set about continuing the level by first bashing my way through rubble. Very few soldiers survived the attack but I manage to pull one body from the destruction. Pressing forwards I encounter obstacles that halt my progress. You can command the dog to follow or stay by holding down the L1 button, and you can also pick up objects and throw them as projectiles with a combination of R2 and X. One such puzzle I encountered involved using a crate of artillery shells to weigh down one side of a ramp, allowing me to scale up an otherwise unreachable platform. I then had to ensure the dog was positioned just right on a pulley system so that we could progress together.
Switching gears - as well as characters - I next played as Freddy, an American soldier on an active battlefield against German forces. The mission was to demolish a German-occupied bridge by using dynamite. I was accompanied by a fellow soldier carrying arms. My first objective was to use wirecutters to get through barbed-wire which was littered throughout the level. Eventually, I came to the bridge where my partner was gunned down by a German machine gunner. Above the German soldier was a raised ladder that I needed to lower in order to continue. I grabbed a grenade from a nearby cart, and positioned myself out of the machine gun’s range. I then carefully aimed the grenade with an arc that successfully brought the ladder down. While the soldier reloaded I quickly climbed to ladder to evade him. Once there I noticed more soldiers below, located in an area I needed to access. Unlike war games, Valiant Hearts wants you to overcome your enemies without necessarily killing them. Here I picked up a nearby brick and threw it in the other direction to distract the sentry, slipping past him as his back was turned. The demo ended as I placed a missing bundle of dynamite at the base of the bridge and detonated by pushing the plunger.
Valiant Hearts was a surprisingly satisfying demo tucked away at Ubisoft’s sprawling booth at PAX East 2014. Its combination of catching visuals, smart puzzle-based gameplay, and unique setting and tone has made it a game I will definitely have my eye on when it releases later this year on PS3, PS4, Xbox 360, Xbox One, and PC.