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Review ~ dark horse of a Mac game ‘This War of Mine’

This War of Mine has you make life-and-death decisions driven by your conscience
This War of Mine has you make life-and-death decisions driven by your conscience (click above frame to see an enlarged version)

This game from the Polish firm 11 bit studios completely turns the modern computer game on its head. It’s a moody, slow effort that casts you as one of three urban dwellers trying to get by in a city that’s being fought over. The opening splash screen quotes Ernest Hemingway: “In modern war… you will die like a dog for no good reason.” That accurately sets the dark and gloomy scene for this thought-provoking title.

Opps, sorry mate!
Opps, sorry mate!

I made several false starts, getting a character killed through negligence (lack of food and medicine) and in one case because I had Bruno intercede when a soldier was threatening a stranger. She escaped, but the soldier angrily shot my unarmed Bruno. Losing a member of your team of three weakens your team’s chances considerably. In these cases, I chose to Start Over with three characters to try and play a better game next time.
Each ‘day’ starts with your three characters in a house. Even here they are threatened because if they hang around near windows or fallen-down bits of wall (war damaged), they’re in danger from snipers. Get them exploring and searching the rooms, cupboards etcetera to come up with handy items to consume, or maybe to trade. You can choose characters successively (which I recommend) to set them on tasks so they’re gathering simultaneously, adding to the strength of the group. Once people have wood and other odds and ends, they can build beds and chairs, handy for resting weakening characters.
But then night comes, and this is when scavenging takes place. Choose one character – a healthy one – and equip them with a few supplies, leaving them some empty slots for gathering more. The supplies you let them take need to be tradable, or tools – the shovel clears rubble faster, and a lock-pick is a real asset. Then off they go. This is when the real danger threatens.

Choose night destinations for dangerous scavenging raids
Choose night destinations for dangerous scavenging raids

The WoM world — abandoned villas, a supermarket, a detached house – all have their hidden treasures and dangers.

Beware strangers in night-time scavenge locations
Beware strangers in night-time scavenge locations

If you see a little throbbing red point, it means a lurking stranger – they might trade, they might chase you off, they might kill you. You’re sneaking around in their house, after all. When you go scavenging, you see a map. Click a location, and that side-scrolling building’s cutaway appears for you to explore. It always pays to look through doors first, if there’s an eye pictogram on it. You can scroll-wheel zoom-in or spread your fingers apart on a trackpad. Everything’s dark and gloomy, although it’s very attractively done.

Interface — It’s all click. Click to select a character, click to send them (walking) somewhere, click on action icons (a hand to search, a food icon to take food from a battered fridge, rubble to clear a pile for access to blocked parts of houses, a lock to pick to open a cabinet that might hold jewels, medical supplies or weapons…) so they explore, and pillage, the destroyed environment. People might come to your door – to threaten, to ask for help or to trade. Sometimes when your character arrives back in the morning, your told your place has been raided and stuff taken, and someone’s always sick, tired, hungry or all three.
Bleak, yes – but artistically so. The pace is slow, frustratingly so at times, but this adds to the realism. But when bad things happen, they happen in the blink of an eye. Like real life. Your two outs, if you’re quick enough, are ‘Run to Exit’ (if danger threatens; this sends them back to your own house and the dawn of a new day) and End Day, which lets you send a character out scavenging again rather than sitting around blankly in your own house once you’ve sifted through everything and made a bed or a chair for your comfort.
The houses you visit with people in them can benefit from a character with bargaining skills – then you may be able to swap some supplies for something you need rather than antagonise someone. But don’t count on it.
To trade, you drag items down on the left to offer, and drag their items down on the right – if the match is acceptable, click Deal and the exchange is made. This way you can rid yourselves of some things while gaining food and meds, for example.

Conclusion — A beautiful, if disturbing idea beautifully done. If you’re worried about someone’s addiction to violent games, you should set them ten hours of This War of Mine to show them the other side of the coin.

What’s Great — A sobering look at real-world, experienced examples of conflict’s victims. Lovely graphics.
What’s not — Slow. Sometimes I read a novel while my characters made items, or worked to remove rubble blockages. Once you have a set of strategies that work, it can get repetitive. It’s awful when one of your characters dies … as it should be.
Needs — Someone looking for a lesson about human violence, or those looking for an entirely different gaming experience to normal.
Mac NZ’s buying advice — get it.

Available on — Via a Steam account or from the Mac App Store for NZ$16.99 (currently that’s at 15% discount).

System — OS X 10.7 or later, 64-bit processor. (You must be at least 17 years old to download this app.)