World War II is a particularly tricky theme. On the one hand, it's ideal to create a less (Wolfenstein) or more (Call of Duty) realistic "simulators" of soldier, or just good strategy games – on the other, developers completely avoid talking about things like the Holocaust (which, many would argue, isn't a theme for video games). When I visited Destructive Creations I had a general idea that the creators are going up the stream again, but I couldn't have suspected just how literal the devs had decided to be. In the studio, in which the view outside the window was dominated by a radio tower reaching almost 400 feet, I saw War Mongrels – a game that might as well be called Commandos 4, if the owner of the rights to this iconic franchise would agree to publish a game, where Jewish prisoners are executed over a mass grave, and one of the levels includes a visit to a concentration camp.
War Mongrels surprises from the first minutes on. We would expect that in this kind of a game, based on the famous Commandos, would let players take control of soldiers who specialize in clandestine operations behind enemy lines, but it's the exact opposite. The eponymous Mongrels are a collection of random people of different nationalities, who at first glance do not display a knack for special tasks and, well, go together like ice cream and pickles.
The story begins with Ewald Faber and Manfred Raufer, two Wehrmacht soldiers sent on duty to a penal battalion for disobeying orders. During a mission that has them mining the area, their unit becomes the target of shelling by Russian artillery, which, after breaking the German offensive, continues westward. Both men take the opportunity to escape and, with the help of deserters, begin a perilous journey to Gdansk, Manfred's hometown.
In the studio, we saw the second of the twelve missions of the single player campaign, which takes place in the village of Ponary, today one of the districts of Lithuanian capital city, Vilnius. Ewald and Manfred stop there to get fuel for the motorcycle and thus be able to reach the great escape from the Eastern Front. However, when they arrive, it quickly turns out the city it is overrun by German forces, who perpetrate the atrocities described in the introduction – this is where the game really begins.
If ever read about Nazi German war crimes, the name Ponary certainly rings a bell. For over three years, the village was used as execution grounds for the Jews from the nearby Vilnius. The exact number of people killed there is not exactly known, as during the last phase of World War 2, the oppressors opened mass graves and burned the bodies. Estimates suggest between 80,000 to 100,000 people of different nationalities may have been slaughtered in Ponary.
The mission in Ponary actually consists of several different, though strongly intertwined, episodes. In the first one, Ewald and Manfred focus solely on obtaining supplies. Shots can be constantly heard in the background, which the gentlemen point out in their conversations, but it doesn't make them lose any sleep either, because getting fuel and food is the only thing they care about. Hunting for separated groups of soldiers, they finally reach a barn where Lukas – a member of the Vilnius branch of the Home Army – is locked in an ambush. After the guerilla fighter is released, we are given access to another piece of the map, where we finally learn the cause of the constant shooting. A train stands near the village, and Jews are led out of cattle wagons, and moments later executed at the threshold of a mass grave. With a bullet in the head.
Destructive Creations isn't famous for taking prisoners, to put it mildly, and War Mongrels further solidifies this statement. So the game portrays German war crimes, and that the developers from Gliwice would not be themselves if they didn't show these crimes in detail, and we can expect similar explicit imagery more often than once. The crime in Ponary is just a prelude, as the developers want to also include a visit to a concentration camp in the game, during a mission that requires extracting a Jewish prisoner. I won't tell you anything else, but believe me, this game has loads more.