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Video games built around World War II outnumber all other history-related games combined. In 2006 alone, an average of two new WWII games appeared each month. What lies behind this popularity? It can’t be sophisticated weaponry and gameplay alone—there’s plenty of that available in other types of games. Rather, the driving force behind the appeal of WWII games lies in the importance, relevance and all-encompassing nature of the war itself. World War II enveloped nearly the entire planet in conflict. No matter where you hail from, the war has affected your life in some fashion. These games, therefore, offer something for everyone. They provide not only entertainment, but a sense of appreciation and respect. Furthermore, the war’s real-life battles rival those of any fictional storyline in terms of scale and intensity. Overall, what 2006’s crop of releases showed is that when a game emphasizes the history of this great conflict, the result can be something extraordinary.

History in Action: Company of Heroes

Released in September, Relic Entertainment’s Company of Heroes is a great example of how an emphasis on history can produce an excellent game. Company of Heroes is a real-time strategy game, meaning that the action continues even when the player is issuing commands, and the on-screen view is generally of an entire battlefield. What makes this game unique is its emphasis on the importance of the events going on around you while you play. Relic took the best elements of real-time strategy games and then reconfigured the genre to better reflect the strategy used in the real-life campaign.

Company of Heroes’ storyline follows a fictional unit, Able Company, from its landing on Omaha Beach on D-Day to its participation in the closing of the Falaise pocket. Factors important to the real Normandy campaign determine the fictional company’s progress. This was a battle of inches. Controlling territory was the key to victory. In real-time strategy games, your ability to produce and upgrade your “units” (that is, your soldiers, vehicles and bases) depends on the amount of resources you gather. In Company of Heroes, you acquire resources when you occupy territory with an embedded “strategic point.” Your occupied territory must link to your base of operations for you to receive the resources to build or train new units. If your strategic points get cut off from your base, so do your resources. This little twist on the real-time scheme reflects the importance of linking the beachheads during the Normandy campaign, which connected the supply lines that allowed the Allies to invade farther inland.

Coupled with the fact that Company of Heroes’ visuals and physics system are unparalleled in the real-time genre, its intermingling of content and history— including mini history lessons between each mission—makes it hands-down one of the best games of the year.

Command Your Fleet: Pacific Storm

Another real-time strategy game released last year, Lesta Studio’s Pacific Storm follows air and naval operations in the Pacific theater from 1940 to 1945. While also placing emphasis on history, including historically accurate ships and aircraft, what makes Pacific Storm unique is its extremely large scale. You are the master commander of the imperial forces of Japan or the armed forces of the United States. You are given the ability to micromanage every conceivable detail of your forces, from the depth of your submarines, the size of a ship’s crew—even whether your aircraft are aggressive and fight back if engaged by enemy planes or are cautious and retreat until reinforcements arrive. There are 24 ship and 36 aircraft types available, and the missions are all based on real-life battles. You can man the largest battleship in history, the Japanese-built Yamato, in the Battle of the Philippine Sea, or fend off Japanese Zeros aboard USS West Virginia at Pearl Harbor.

Although managing your forces can be a little overwhelming considering the number of controllable variables, the game also gives you the option of leaving the management to the computer, leaving you free to get closer to the action by piloting any of the aircraft or manning anti-aircraft weapons aboard any ship. With this option, Pacific Storm avoids the potential monotony of similar games by adding a fresh feature to the realtime scheme.

Command Your Squad: Faces of War

A smaller scale real-time strategy game that also adds something fresh to the format is Best Way’s Faces of War. In this game, you are given the option to choose which side to fight for during significant battles between 1944 and 1945: the Western Allies, Germany or Russia. The side you choose determines which battles you fight and what perspective you have of the war. Whatever side you choose, you command a six-member team in basic squad-based, real-time strategy combat.

What makes Faces of War unique is that it gives a player the ability to take direct control over a single soldier, enabling him to fire on distinct locations and perform specific tasks. While this is one of the game’s distinguishing characteristics, it is also one of its faults. When you take control of a single soldier, you cannot issue commands to the rest of your squad. And the behavior of the soldiers not under your control is somewhat odd. Squad members controlled by the computer will gleefully surrender their cover, expose themselves to fire and waste ammunition. Enemy units sometimes forget to attack you, or don’t realize they’re being attacked. Also, while the game stays true to historical events, little emphasis is placed on relevance of those events. These shortcomings make Faces of War disappointing for someone seeking a realistic game.

Experience the War: Red Orchestra Ostfront 41-45

Realism is not a problem for Red Orchestra: Ostfront 41-45. Focusing on the Eastern Front struggle between the Soviets and Nazi Germany, this first-person shooter game (meaning a game in which the on-screen perspective is through the eyes of the playable character) stands out because of its strong emphasis on realism. It features 24 types of authentic infantry weapons, including the Russian MosinNagant M1891/30G rifle, and 14 authentic vehicles. While the popular panzers and T-34 tanks make appearances, the inclusion of less-familiar vehicles in the game, such as the German Sturmgeschütz III (StuG) mobile assault gun and the Russianequivalent SU-76 self-propelled gun, help add authenticity.

But what really builds a sense of realism is the gameplay. To aim, you must use your rifle’s iron sights instead of a reticle. Small-arms fire and tank rounds follow real-world ballistics affecting projectile movement, including distance, bullet drop and deflection angles for armored targets. You must properly arc a long-distance shot to hit your target accurately.

While manually reloading your rifle instead of just pushing a button might frustrate some players, Red Orchestra delivers an immersive and realistic look at combat on the Eastern Front. However, it fails to capture the relevance of the battles. For example, in the mission “StalingradKessel,” you fight in the Battle of Stalingrad in the winter of 1942-43. This important battle forced the Germans to regroup, allowing the Soviets to resupply their troops to prepare for the Battle of Kursk. The game gives you a brief history lesson on the battle—but, disappointingly, no inkling as to its importance to the Soviet forces.

The Complete Package: Call of Duty 3

Although all the previously mentioned games bring their own unique offerings to gamers, for the complete package, one need look no further than Call of Duty 3. The Call of Duty series has become a powerhouse in the gaming market for intermingling intense, realistic WWII combat while immersing you in the history of the battles going on around you. The games in this series are the highest-selling WWII games ever. This third installment in the immensely popular series takes both traits to the next level.

Call of Duty 3 is a first-person shooter that centers on the Normandy campaign, which opened the Western Front for the Allies. You take part in four separate campaigns all modeled after real battles, fighting as an American, British, Canadian or Polish soldier. Your soldier progresses through the bombed-out streets of St. Lô, the swamps near the town of St. Germaine-sur-Seves, the strategically important bridge of Mayenne and the climactic liberation of Paris. The gameplay is intense and you can’t help but feel a sense of urgency as you hear gunfire in the distance only to have bullets seem to whiz past your ears a split-second later. Designed from the ground up for debut on next-gen consoles such as Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, Call of Duty 3 features advanced high-definition graphics, improved digital sound and an incredible all-new physics engine that greatly affects the gameplay. The game doesn’t treat cover alike—bullets will slice through wood crates, making cover such as armored tanks preferable. A new close-quarters combat feature allows for hand-to-hand combat, in which enemies can grab your rifle away and shoot you unless you fight them for it. Realistic combat features are also incorporated into the operation of heavy weapons such as the Flak-88 cannon. You must rotate your controller’s joysticks to simulate cranking the pulleys that control the X and Y axes of the cannon.

The game’s only weak spot is its lack of a French campaign, since it was the French 2nd Armored Division that liberated Paris. Nonetheless, with its incredible next-generation console graphics, gameplay and a strong emphasis on the history of this important campaign, Call of Duty 3 is unquestionably the game of the year.


Originally published in the February 2007 issue of World War II Magazine. To subscribe, click here.