In his 1979 book The Decline of Bismarck’s European Order, George Kennan wrote that the First World War was the ‘great seminal catastrophe’ of the 20th century. For Kennan and many other historians, the war is the point in which the world we live in today was born. The old globe was wrapped in a nationalist blaze, killing millions for what was essentially the pride of empires. There is no nation in the world that looks to it with pride or jubilation. So, it’s really no surprise that the war has never caught on in video games.
That might have something to do with presentation. Unlike games set in the Second World War, the First lacks the moral dichotomy behind its narrative and context. The Second World War may be the bloodiest conflict in human history, but its justifications still resonate today. The ‘great seminal catastrophe’, to non-imperialists, was unjustifiable. It’s hard to make a good game from such a giant bummer…unless you embrace its bleakness.
Tannenberg is the second game set in the First World War from developers MH2 and Blackmill Games. The latter has a long track record with portraying the war; the studio was formed from developers of First World War mods for games like Medal of Honor: Allied Assault and Battle for Middle-Earth II. Both teams, though, are behind 2015’s Verdun, the most high-profile First World War game this side of 2016’s Battlefield 1. However, Tannenberg is a different beast entirely to the duo’s last major release – not least in terms of location.
Tannenberg, as the name suggests, jumps across Europe into the war’s eastern front. Here, fighting was much less static than in the west. Battle lines changed dramatically over the course of the war, and Tannenberg makes the most of this new ground. Unlike Verdun’s core game mode ‘Frontlines’, in which players attack each other in turn for control of an elaborate trench system, Tannenberg’s main mode ‘Maneuver’ is more in line with its contemporaries. Rather ironically, the ‘sequel’ to Verdun is more like Red Orchestra as far as gameplay is concerned.
This image was taken seconds before these men were mowed down by a machine gun
Tannenberg perfectly showcased the real tragedy of the ‘seminal catastrophe’
Maneuver works not unlike Red Orchestra or Battlefield’s core modes, with each team battling over control points at the hearts of the map’s territories. Reduce the enemy team’s respawns to zero or capture their headquarters, and you win. It’s nothing revolutionary, but there’s no sense in reinventing the wheel. The game mode itself is a lot of fun, especially with a group of friends. There are two other game modes – both also seen in Verdun – but those apples still don’t fall far from the tree.
‘Attrition’ is Maneuver but without the control points – and much shorter. Simply kill the other team before they kill you. In stark contrast, ‘Rifle Deathmatch’ is a free-for-all mode where players duke it out armed with only their rifle. You can customise your kit as you earn experience, making matches progressively more insane as time goes on. While these modes have plenty of replay value, there may not be enough variety in them to satisfy all players. But that’s fine, because Tannenberg isn’t reaching for a wide audience.
Like Verdun, Tannenberg has set its heart and mind to realism. True to the eastern front, maps this time around are more open and diverse, only adding to the atmosphere that the game excels at. And ‘excel’ is absolutely the right word to use. Tannenberg’s presentation is immaculate, with attention to historical detail being its utmost priority. Uniforms, weapons and environments are chockablock with visual and audial mastery. It’s a significant step up from the admittingly clunky production quality of its predecessor.
The First World War is presented beautifully here, especially when it comes to the visceral bits. Gas attacks, limbs flying off of exploding comrades, and the scenic bodies of dead citizens and horses are part and parcel with the war’s brutal nature. But while the real war is visualized in glorious detail, the metaphorical nature of it is also presented well…and on accident, too.
The weather also differs each time you load a map
There’s a reason that this review has taken so long to arrive. Tannenberg left early access in February, which is around the time I received my review code (thanks, by the way!). Why the long gap? As somebody who also enjoyed Verdun, it’s hard to forget just how empty that game became in the months following launch. It had its dedicated fans, of course, but matches grew more bot-filled with each passing weekend.
Unfortunately, this is the case for just about every realism-based shooter. After all, it’s much more fun if you’re playing with actual people! (The bots in Tannenberg aren’t great, by the way.) Player counts never quite reached above 200 in the time I spent inside the game last month. But here’s the interesting thing;they tapered off much slower than they did in Verdun.
I want to come back to the zeitgeist of the First World War for the moment. Kennan’s famous nickname for the war isn’t just reflective of historiographical hindsight, but also indicative of the war’s contemporary perception. For Europe, the sights and the experiences of the war were apocalyptic. There had been nothing like this before, and there really was no end in sight for the majority of the war’s lifespan. But nowhere was the horror of the war more apparent than in the souls of the soldiers fighting it.
Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 classic All Quiet on the Western Front depicts a young man named Paul, who starts the war as a propaganda-inspired young man. Over the course of the war, Paul is slowly – but surely – rendered numb by the despairs of being a soldier in the Kaiser’s war machine. His friends and comrades are picked off, one by one, without warning. When he briefly returns home on leave, he finds that the world he left behind simply doesn’t acknowledge him anymore. He no longer ‘belongs’ there. Meanwhile, hapless young men like him die by the thousands…to be replaced by yet more thousands. By the end of the book, Paul is apathetic to the very idea of survival, to being alive.
Watching Tannenberg’s player base slowly dwindle, its humanity draining away with it, was more powerful than any narrative-driven game could ever hope to imagine. In these last few weeks, Tannenberg perfectly showcased the real tragedy of the ‘seminal catastrophe’; a generation of young men, and a world of empires, slowly having their love and life drained away. Even through many men survived the war, and the world certainly did, they hadn’t really survived. Like Paul’s experience with the war, there was no longer any humanity left in Tannenberg. Just fleshy robots, doing their duty for king and country without question.
Or I’m reading too much into it. Yeah, that’s probably it. Good game.
Tannenberg brings the First World War to life in incredible detail, in terms of both presentation and gameplay. Its niche status and small player base may turn off most but give it a shot when it eventually goes on sale – or comes to consoles. That’s usually when player count tends to rise, and it’s a game that’ll leave you with more good feelings than the real war did.
Reviewed on Windows // Review code supplied by publisher
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