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This War of Mine Review: Rats Among The Ruins
Platform: Windows PC
Developer: 11 Bit Studios
Publisher: 11 Bit Studios
Release Date: 14/11/2014
As I’ve said before, games haven’t exactly proven themselves to be the most nuanced medium when it comes to exploring the realities of war. Plenty of games pride themselves on placing players in the shoes of those on the frontline but very few seem to explore the subject outside of the usual ‘black-and-white’ or ‘war-is-hell’ approaches. On the whole, games seem much more interested in depicting what it’s like to be a commander in a war room than recreating the experience of the many civilians caught in the crossfire of armed conflict. This War of Mine aims to be the exception here – taking this perspective and spinning a compelling, though-oft harrowing, survival sandbox around it.
War is at the best of times, unpredictable – but each playthrough of This War of Mine starts in roughly the same fashion. Players take control of a small band of survivors sheltering together in an unnamed city thrown into anarchy by a vaguely referenced civil war. The game never really asks you to understand the reasons behind the war, it only tasks you with surviving it. You start the game with three survivors – each with their own strengths, weaknesses, survival skills and backstories – and while there’s a chance that others may join, it’s just as likely that that number will dwindle over the course of the game.
The bulk of your time in This War of Mine will be spent inside the abandoned house your survivors have taken up residence in and the gameplay here is fairly straightforward with you clicking on survivors to select them and then clicking on objects throughout the house to interact with them. Each of your survivors has stats like hunger, fatigue and health (as well as physical and mental well-being) and much of your time during the day sections of This War of Mine will be spent managing them. Interactions between your survivors is also important here as if survivors become too fatigued, wounded or depressed to function, you’ll lose control of them and have to rely on your other survivors to ensure they make a speedy recovery.
Your first couple of days in the house will usually involve scouring it for supplies but your focus quickly becomes more constructive – with players working their way up the game’s tech tree and establishing defenses for its nocturnal challenges. Though the routine of each can feel sometimes tedious, this often ends up contributing positively to the overall tone of game by making you and your survivors feel all the more powerless in their plight.
These daytime segments will sometimes also include random events that challenge you in different ways. Sometimes these random events are as straightforward as a new survivor seeking shelter or a travelling merchant with vital supplies to sell but other times they offer more morally-complex outcomes – how will you react when a pair of starving children show up on your doorstep asking for medical supplies?
At night, things become more dynamic as players elect who of their survivors will sleep, defend your supplies from intruders or leave the safety of home to scavenge for supplies. Managing the food, materials, defenses and mental-health of your survivors all has to be considered and it makes every night a nail-biting bout.
These nocturnal missions carry with them a number of risks and also throw a bunch of stealth elements into play. The search for necessities like food and medicine can take you from abandoned houses and supermarkets to makeshift hospitals and brothels. As with the daytime sections of the game, there’s a lot of interesting moral choices at play here – you can be ruthless in your hunt for supplies or take a more diplomatic approach and sustain your household through bartering. What’s more, many of the locations you can visit at night change over time as the greater civil war takes place – one night might see a priest housing survivors and offering food in his church, the next might see a group of bandits take the church over. There’s a cool rhythm and uncertainty to the way that the setting evolves over the course of a playthrough – and it certainly helps build a cool sense of place to the game’s nameless war torn backdrop.
The many moral nuances that make This War of Mine so memorable wouldn’t hit nearly so hard if it weren’t for the game’s minimalist but cohesive presentation. The game’s visually have a graphite texture to them and the survivors are animated well. Combined with the constant soundtrack of far-off gunfire and sorrowful guitar melodies, This War of Mine does a great job of capturing the desperation your survivors feel and communication this to the player.
At its best, This War of Mine is like a much-darker and morbid version of The Sims – and while I’d maybe hesitate to call it outright fun due to the subject matter, it definitely put it down as one of the most interesting and engaging games I’ve played this year. It does a great job of adding both texture and gravitas in its approach to the survival-sandbox formula that’s become all too popular in the wake of successes like DayZ.
The high difficulty curve and pessimistic tone may turn some off the game, but This War of Mine fully succeeds on its promise to experience and explore war from a different perspective. It’s different, rewarding and well worth a recommendation.