World War II is one of the most horrifying events in human history. So naturally those long gruesome years of combat that nearly obliterated our world have been used as the setting for a lot of awfully fun videogames. This is a contradiction that we haven’t been asked to think about in a while, as game developers have generally opted for more modern military settings in recent years. But that may be about to change with the release of Wolfenstein: The New Order and Enemy Front, two games that take place in settings either directly lifted from—or inspired by—the battlegrounds of the Second World War.
As we stand at the crest of a potential WWII videogame revival it seems like a good idea to look back at some of the best entries to this genre to date. Here is a list of WWII games that portray the war in various ways, from grim-faced reverence to mindless, barely historical fun.
Pandemic Studios, 2009
The Saboteur’s unlikely hero—Irish racecar driver Sean Devlin—is a welcome change of pace from the hyper patriotic grunts found in most WWII games. Loosely based on the story of racer/spy William Grover-Williams, Sean aids the French Resistance in undermining the Vichy regime mostly because he’s out for a spot of apolitical revenge against a local Nazi. As players liberate Paris and the French countryside from occupation, the grayscale filter that normally overlays the game’s environments is lifted and color restored. The Saboteur is not only a lot of fun, it also shows that the Allied victory sometimes owed as much to partisan resistance as it did to traditional military campaigning.
Replay Studios, 2009
Velvet Assassin is clunky and weird but ultimately pretty great. Its main character is an opium-addicted secret agent (based on real-life spy Violette Szabo) and its missions are concerned more with quiet sneaking than frantic gunplay. Yeah, the stealth can be a bit more frustrating than fun and Violette’s special power—shooting morphine so she can slow down time and execute enemies in a blood-stained nightie—makes it hard to take the grim storyline too seriously, but Velvet Assassin is memorable because it’s unique. Just as The Saboteur portrays another side of WWII through its look at citizen uprising, Velvet Assassin offers a good reminder that the war was fought by more than just stoic, uniformed men.
Relic Entertainment, 2006
Less concerned with marksmanship than tactical smarts, Company of Heroes is a game about controlling battle on a large scale. Successfully pulling off a carefully formulated plan makes the player feel like a master general—even if that player is as chronically inept at real-time strategy games as I am. Assuming the perspective of an invisible, god-like troop commander also makes Company of Heroes an inherently dispassionate look at each bloody fight’s human cost, allowing the audience to experience the weirdly statistical calculations that must have run through the minds of Generals Patton or MacArthur.
Tripwire Interactive, 2011
Everyone loves to imagine that they’d be a hero if thrust into a war. Red Orchestra 2 deserves credit for swiftly disabusing players of that notion. Soldiers go down with a single well-placed shot, gun sights must be dialed in by hand according to target range and actual, honest-to-god ballistics are used to determine bullet drop over long distances. The end result of this dedication to realism is a game where death is swift and constant. And it turns out that WWII without recharging health and arcade-style shooting is a grim affair.
Gearbox Software, 2005
The Brothers in Arms series isn’t much for narrative originality, but it compensates for its straight-up Band of Brothers rip-off story with light tactical systems that make players feel like an actual squad leader. Commanding the same soldiers throughout an entire campaign makes it an appropriately heavy bummer to lose a fellow trooper during a hectic firefight, too.
EA Digital Illusions CE, 2002
Listen, if you’re going to turn a historical event as profoundly awful as World War II into a fun game, you might as well dispense with any pretense of story. Battlefield 1942 is a nightmare—a never-ending war, interminably fought on hundreds of servers—made into time-wasting joy. People have been playing this game for longer than the actual Second World War lasted. That probably means something.
EA LA, 2002
Medal of Honor was, at one point in time, Steven Spielberg’s baby. Nowhere is the homage to Saving Private Ryan clearer than in Frontline, a game that mixes black-and-white archival footage (overlaid, of course, with melodramatic bugling) and arcade-style Nazi shooting. Its American soldiers are square-jawed, everyday heroes, dismantling the German war machine one “cinematic” level at a time. This may just be the archetypal example of the World War II videogame. And it’s good fun as long as you don’t think too hard about it.
4A Games, 2010
Neither of the Metro games are set in World War II proper, but in spirit they belong indelibly to that time. Ukrainian developer 4A Games set forward a chilling vision of a post-apocalyptic future where nuclear annihilation reduces Moscow’s population to warring tribes, living in the city’s subway tunnels. What’s notable is how stuck the game is in a WWII mentality. The war between fascists and communists rages on even after the bomb has destroyed the known world. Developed by Ukrainians and set in Russia, Metro puts forth the dark suggestion that the political struggles at the heart of the Second World War—as well as the fallout of its conclusion—will continue unabated, long into the future. Lately, that seems like a point worth remembering.
Infinity Ward, 2003
Though Call of Duty is most closely associated with fast-paced, vaguely Middle Eastern-set multiplayer shooting these days, the first entry to the monolithic series was most notable for its WWII solo campaign. It doesn’t look like much now, but in 2003 ’s sound and visual design made it pretty exciting to take part in a series of historic battles from the later years of the Allied campaign in Europe. Levels that put players in the boots of badly outfitted, desperately outgunned Soviet soldiers also provided a level of pathos that wasn’t always present in other WWII games.
id Software, 1992
Wolfenstein 3D is the big poppa of WWII games, its twisting brick corridors and “kill kill kill” objectives laying the groundwork for not just similarly themed experiences, but the entire genre of first-person shooters. Irreverent, ultraviolent and still surprisingly fun decades after its release, Wolfenstein 3D is a game design Rosetta Stone for anyone hoping to make sense of the many World War II videogames that followed it.
Reid McCarter lives and works in Toronto. He has written for sites and magazines including The Escapist, Kill Screen and Pixels or Death. He also runs digitallovechild.com and tweets stuff @reidmccarter.