It has proven a fruitful historical setting for video games — but will we ever tire of World War II games? The tragic, brutal, occasionally heroic stories of the war have sparked the imagination of dozens of developers creating games across a multitude of genres.
Despite the consistent potency of the setting, it has over time become frustratingly overused. In the past it has produced a variety of experiences and come to define more than a few popular series, but there’s no doubt that over time World War II as a setting has fallen from glory and waned through careless repetitions.
As the real events of the war become distant, certain stories, images and myths which our culture produces become more prominent whilst others are forgotten. Real history can sometimes be overridden by these flashes on the screen, and so it’s important to discuss depictions of the past in both video games and other media — and to push them towards wider and fuller portrayals.
The ancestral first-person shooter Wolfenstein 3D popularised a strain of quick and violent revenge fantasies, where cartoon Nazis became memorable baddies to shoot at, on par with mindless demons and zombies. Whilst the Wolfenstein series continued to play loosely with World War II iconography, Dreamworks Interactive wanted to explore the war from a more serious perspective.
The original Medal of Honor, produced by EA Games, was more of a spy adventure than war drama, but its plot was partially outlined and written by Hollywood director Steven Spielberg, which automatically gave it a certain gravitas. The game saw limited success, but it was in fact Spielberg’s own war film Saving Private Ryan that played the more influential role in gaming, inspiring and shaping shooters to come.
It was one of EA Games’ other studios, 2015, Inc. and their Medal of Honor: Allied Assault that would define the World War II shooter. 2015’s impressive battle scenes were taken from both the big and small screen, its bombastic opening on Omaha Beach a kind of “Saving Private Ryan: The Video Game”, whilst the cinematic skirmishes amongst French farmyards and small towns were reminiscent of Spielberg’s television project Band of Brothers.
In 2002 a group of developers split from EA’s 2015, Inc. in order to form Infinity Ward, whose Call of Duty series would prove to be immensely popular. Infinity Ward continued their pursuit of the gritty, cinematic shooter with Call of Duty, which looked to create a greater sense of authenticity through things like AI squadmates, simulated shellshock and greater weapon mechanisms (firing modes, ironsights etc.).
Whilst it was partially a re-run of events in Allied Assault, Infinity also sought to introduce other theaters of war, most notably the Soviet Union’s struggle against the Nazis in Stalingrad, and a final mission taking place during the Fall of Berlin, with a photographic-finish of the Red Army storming the Reichstag Building.
As Call of Duty began to geographically diversify, venturing beyond Spielberg’s cinematic universe, EA continued to try to support its own WWII shooter, releasing an expansion called Breakthrough, which looked to both the British campaign in North Africa, and to the grand assault of Monte Cassino in Italy.
A Dark Age
In 2002 DICE released its spectacular multiplayer epic Battlefield 1942. This offered players huge battlegrounds to fight it out in, as opposed to linear levels and character-focussed drama and heroics of previous WWII shooters. It almost seemed as thought characters and narrative were exhausted, every film and television drama had been stripped clean, and now all that was left was this ambiguous battle space for players to endlessly shoot up.
EA and DICE quickly moved their Battlefield series on to mine other historical moments, whilst Call of Duty 2 became Infinity’s last WWII hurrah. There have been other games in the periphery; Medal of Honor limped on, developer Treyarch bolstered the Call of Duty series with a third game and World At War, which explored a campaign in the Pacific. None of these titles were particularly innovative. A mechanical malaise set-in and often more of an emphasis was placed on multiplayer-modes as developers looked increasingly desperate to say anything new about the war.
An Alternative History
Despite audiences being tired of shooting their way through World War II, interest remained high and the setting flourished within a range of other genres which leveraged the historical background in exciting new ways. The setting was used in a number of tactical and strategy games — everything from Commandos, where you controlled a squad of special operatives, infiltrating and assassinating their way across Europe and Africa — to Relic Entertainment’s Company of Heroes, which brought a much needed energy and offensive-thrust to strategy gaming.
Developer Paradox built their own ambitious grand-strategy empire with the likes of Hearts of Iron, a sprawling game of martial and political maneuvering that unfolded at the national level. World War II vehicle simulation games like the aerial IL-2 Sturmovick, the popular War of Tanks and the tensely predatorial Silent Hunter series also flourished within their respective niche.
The Spielberg-esque bombast and cinematic spectacle of these early 21st Century shooters has never quite been recaptured — perhaps it was a doomed project to begin with. Regardless, developers appear to feel there is yet more to tap. World War II offers an almost bottomless pool of drama, intrigue and excitement — and recently both EA and Activision (who retain the Call of Duty brand) have sought to return to the setting.
Last year saw the release of Call of Duty: WWII, a competent but familiar romp through Europe that billed itself as a gritty reboot (despite the fact the original games had plenty of grit). Later this year Battlefield V will return too, and hopefully have some new stories to tell. By now the Normandy beaches, D-Day and the heroism of the United States Army are burned into our cultural memory — what we need, if we are not to tire of this endless war altogether, is something unexpected.