In this week’s Split Screen, Sean Knight and Richard Hayden look at World War 2 video games and wonder what the next wave of titles has in store
Sean: You know Richard, for a while the FPS genre was dominated by World War II-themed titles and were very popular. Now the modern-shooter is dominating the FPS market. A market that has become saturated with a plethora of modern FPS games – just like what happened with WW2 IPs. While sci-fi shooters are still a niche sub-genre and haven’t really caught on, with a couple of exceptions, I can’t help but wonder if this is the perfect time for WW2 games to make a comeback in a big way.
Richard: You’d get no argument from me. There is something splendidly old-fashioned, yet grounded, about games set in WW2. I don’t want to trivialize one of the most terrible passages of world history, but it does make for an exciting time period within which to set a game. It also carries the ring of authenticity. There are times in gaming when the player wants to be carried away in a flight of fantasy. But, there are also times when they want to take a run at rewriting history and WW2 games give that chance. With upcoming or planned releases for Company of Heroes 2, Heroes and Generals and Sniper Elite 3, it does beg the questions, why are they coming back now and why did they go away in the first place?
Sean: While WW2 was absolutely horrific, it is a fascinating period of good versus ultimate evil. A crucible that gave us the greatest generation that ever lived. But what happened to those games? The FPS genre is what happened. The Call of Duty and Medal of Honor franchises, among other IPs, got old as the genre stood in the spotlight over all the others. Because of that there was hardly any diversification or innovation when it came to approaching WW2-themed FPS games. It got to the point where it was all a cookie-cutter experience as one game just blended into another without any distinction. And that caused a sense of fatigue for gamers.
But with the current leap in technology there are so many exciting things that can happen. Just look at Company of Heroes 2! While WW2-themed games have never stopped being developed there haven’t been any significant titles to really grab the spotlight. Especially when it comes to the AAA space. Is there a special WW2 game you played back in the day that you would like to see return? Or perhaps a particular genre that can revitalize interest in WW2?
Richard: The WW2 games in my backlog go back a very long way. The very first game I ever played was Bandits at 3 o’clock on my brand new Acorn Electron microcomputer (on my 10th birthday in 1983) before moving on to long string of 8-bit classics on my ZX Spectrum (Beach-head, Commando, The Great Escape, etc). But the game that gave me my favorite WW2 experience wasn’t even a proper WW2 game. Civilization II came with a game map of Europe and North Africa, which started at June 1940 with the Axis in total control of the mainland ready to pour across the English Channel.
I regularly pitted my wits against this Nazi menace, driving towards Berlin. Once, despite strong moral conflict, I took over command of the Wehrmacht and successfully crushed Russian and British resistance, forcing the US into an uncertain peace.
The main thing I learned from the whole Civ II experience is that I prefer to experience my WW2 games at a macro level, moving whole platoons of troops rather than taking the role of a single soldier staring down his sights. For this reason, I am excited to see Company of Heroes 2 (although it will be hard for it to match, let alone surpass, the absolute splendor of Relic’s original Normandy campaign). But, with Sniper Elite’s third outing only announced last week and Petroglyph working on a quirky WW2 RTS called Victory, I wonder which way the next generation of WW2 games will go. More shooters again?
Sean: I would never have guessed Civ II! My favorite WW2 games were in the 1990s, like the turn-based strategy game Panzer General and a submarine simulator called Wolfpack. In addition, I played my fair share of great WW2 FPS games such as the first Call of Duty game – which was brilliant. My favorite memory was when I was playing as a Russian, with my comrades and I charging across Red Square to retake Stalingrad. The entire army is shouting and shooting while an orchestral version of “Once To Every Man and Nation” is playing in the background. Absolutely epic! Of course I would also include Wolfenstein 3D and Battlefield 1942 on that list as well.
And in answer to your question, yes, there will be more shooters again. I think that the genre is a great way to bring that era to life so that we can experience it. I would love to re-enact storming the beach of Normandy, or marching through winter under Patton in order to relieve the forces at Bastogne. However, I wouldn’t want this new crop of FPS games to mimic how modern FPS games have developed. These games need to be hard, punishing, and almost unforgiving – like DayZ with no regenerative health.
Richard: So, it sounds to me like you are less interested in set-piece action sequences and more into the hard slog of being a fighting infantryman. The only problem is that the history of the Allied march across Northern Europe is packed with events ripe for immortalization as a set piece in a video game – D-Day, the assault of Caen, the race to close the Falaise Pocket, the Battle of the Bulge, Arnhem, the crossing of the Rhine, and the Battle of Berlin. Really, June 1944-May 1945 was just a succession of massive action sequences!
But maybe that’s the wrong battle theater upon which to base a future FPS. Maybe we should look beyond the major battles and explore less well-known aspects of the war’s history. For instance, has anyone done justice to the Italian campaign? You could open with a big action sequence on the beaches of Anzio and then drive up the spine of Italy, finishing with the liberation of Rome but, crucially, stopping on the way to grind past Monte Cassino. Now there’s a battle that would bring home the horror of infantry assaulting a fixed elevated position.
Which leads me to wonder, is it enough for the next round of WW2 games to tweak a few mechanics, as you have already suggested, or do they need a major change in innovation?
Sean: Hmm, I can’t recall if any game was set in Italy. But that also brings up the idea, given recent titles like Far Cry 3 and Tomb Raider taking place on islands, that it would be nice to see a WW2 game focusing on the Pacific campaign as well.
To answer your question though, there does need to be a change in innovation. For example, how about we see a page taken from BioWare that involves your character and a group of resistance fighters trying to take back their country from the Nazi regime? Or a full-blown RTS game based on naval battles? Maybe finally release a WW2-themed RPG game? As far as I’m aware there isn’t one.
All it has ever been, when it comes to WW2 games, is FPS, strategy, and simulator games for the most part. There are too many different genres and ways to tackle the subject instead of rehashing old ideas, concepts, and gameplay. Innovation and originality is definitely key if WW2 games want to have a successful comeback instead of being a flash in the pan before gamers get bored again.