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Bomb-shattered buildings and debris-strewn roads are hardly an uncommon game setting. They’re the familiar blood-soaked playgrounds for a million one-man onslaughts of fire and metal against hordes of anonymous ‘others’ whose only purpose is to die unmourned for. Such games don’t give you the time (or particularly want you) to reflect on the realities of that world or on the plight of the scared, brutalised, ordinary people who still treat those blasted streets as home.
This War Of Mine doesn’t shy away from the horrific realities of war. Forget boots on the ground: TWoM is about grubby, tear-streaked faces in the rubble.
Developed by 11 bit studio, TWoM now on NVIDIA SHIELD Android TV puts you in charge of a small band of civilians struggling to stay alive in the midst of a raging urban war. Although the aesthetics have an East European tone, there’s never any mention of how the war started or who its factions are – the only politics this game is concerned with are those of human survival.
The game has a compelling metronomic day/night rhythm, with the daylight hours spent in the relative safety of the ramshackle communal dwelling. Here the game feels a little like a nihilistic version of The Sims, with your people eating and resting before being assigned tasks such as fashioning tools, building furniture, upgrading equipment and so on.
Food and raw materials are scarce, so deciding where and how to allocate them is a constant concern. As your people grow hungrier, more exhausted and more depressed (and despite your best efforts, they will) the longer even the simplest tasks take. As the screws tighten you need to start making hard, painful decisions… So do you starve the deeply unwell negotiator Katia to feed handyman Marin so he can construct the radio? It’s your funeral – and possibly Katia’s too.
As darkness descends so the gameplay changes too, as you dispatch people to search neighboring buildings for more raw materials. Stealth is the order of the day – or, rather, night – here, as you sneak through other people’s home, picking locks and listening out for tell-tale sounds of nearby activity.
These raids can be unbearably tense, especially as combat is often short, brutal and lethal. And even if you survive an encounter, the outcome can leave deep emotional scars – and not just on the in-game characters. During a raid to find medicine for the poorly Katia we discovered a love letter between Emil and his partner Jagoda; only moments later were forced to kill Emil in self-defence, leaving him to be wept over by the distraught Jagoda. It’s a tragic moment we won’t soon forget.
If this all makes TWoM sound unbearably grim then… well, it sort of is. But it’s also hugely enjoyable to play, thanks to its elegant gameplay systems and finely-tuned challenge. Indeed, if there’s any criticism it’s that the play mechanics are so much fun that the message can get slightly distanced and overshadowed. Even so, it’s rare to encounter a game that so successfully combines visceral thrill with emotional resonance.
It’s easy to understand why TWoM ended up on so many people’s Games Of 2014 list when launched for PC and Mac, and with a new version launching for NVIDIA SHIELD Android TV its popularity and reputation is only going to grow.
So the next time you play a war-themed FPS and rush past a handful of cowering locals cynically employed as emotive set-dressing, just pause and take a look at them: they could be you. This War of Mine is now available on Google Play for $14.99.