It was the most destructive conflict in human history, and one that directly shaped entire generations of both creators and consumers, so it’s little surprise that for the longest time the Second World War was maybe the most popular setting in video games.
This story was originally published in February 2016. It has been updated with a new entry.
In 2016, things have eased up considerably—perhaps through the passing of years, perhaps as a correction to an over-saturation of the market—but for a long time you couldn’t turn a page or click a news story without seeing the announcement of some new game based on World War Two.
Shooters, simulations, strategy games, it didn’t really matter what kind of game it was, just that it could somehow represent the men, women, vehicles and places involved in (or affected by) the conflict.
All that attention inevitably meant that, over the decades, some of the best video games ever made have been set in and around the Second World War. Some are trying to simulate the action, others the strategy, others still simply reaching to capture the tone and feel of the period.
Below are the very best of them.
SECRET WEAPONS OF THE LUFTWAFFE
We remember Lucasarts today as the Star Wars and adventure game guys, but there was a time they were also famous for a trilogy of outstanding WW2 flight sims. This was the last—and best—of them.
Players could assume the role of a pilot in either the 8th USAAF or the Luftwaffe, and while the game featured a ton of solo missions, the centrepiece was a free-flowing strategic campaign (improved upon from Lucasarts’ second WW2 flight sim, Their Finest Hour), where the Americans had to bomb Germany into dust (with your results affecting the overall strength of the enemy) and the Luftwaffe had to try and stop them, potentially changing the outcome of the war in the process.
You could fly fighters on escort missions, attack enemy airfields to lower their defences, even take control of a bomber (and every position within it) and knock out factories. It was epic stuff, far more involved and inter-connected than most other flight sims at the time.
Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe was directed by Lawrence Holland, who would go on to lead development of Lucasarts’ X-Wing series. The two worlds may seem as different as can be, but they both had one thing in common: a perfect blend of simulation and arcade fun.
SEE ALSO: Operation Overlord, IL-2 Sturmovik
I so wanted to reserve this space for Panzer General, one of the greatest turn-based strategy games of all time, but Panzer Corps—a more recent homage so faithful it borders on being an unofficial remake—is the better game.
You’ll find far more complex and “realistic” strategy games on WW2 out there, but you’ll struggle to find one as focused, accessible and solid in its foundations as this. On top of vintage turn-based tactics there are a staggering amount of missions and campaigns available (and units to fight them with).
SEE ALSO: Order of Battle: Pacific, Unity of Command
COMPANY OF HEROES
Not just the best real-time strategy game set in the Second World War, this remains the pinnacle of the genre itself. Even now, a decade after its release, it puts other RTS games—still designed around base building and tactics so simple and reliant on speed they may as well be action titles—in the shade, marrying sensible small-scale considerations (like cover and line-of-fire) with a thundering sense of violence and destruction you normally only see in first-person shooters.
The original Company of Heroes (and its essential expansion) was so good that a sequel, released years later, was a clearly inferior offering, unable to match the original’s mix of strategy, tactics and presentation.
SEE ALSO: Men at War, Codename: Panzers
CALL OF DUTY
There could be only one choice here. Medal of Honor’s intro changed the game when it came to first-person shooters, but Call of Duty honed that raw passion into something so strong that its basic formula—bombard the player’s senses and usher them down a carnival ride of respawning bad guy checkpoints—remains mostly in place today, over 12 years later.
The Stalingrad stage beginning the game was incredible, both in terms of spectacle and the freshness of setting for a Western audience, but Call of Duty’s highpoint actually comes with a daring airborne mission.
The British assault (and subsequent defence) of Pegasus Bridge—continuously forcing the player to change positions, objectives and even weapons—remains one of the standout pieces of singleplayer mission design, not just for WW2 games, not just for the Call of Duty series, but for the FPS genre as a whole.
SEE ALSO: Medal of Honor
There hadn’t been anything quite like Commandos when it first hit, and there hasn’t really been anything since. Looking down on the war through one of the prettiest isometric viewpoints in all of video games, the player had to guide a team of...commandos on ridiculously complicated and daring missions across the world.
What made the early Commandos games so unique—and brilliant, and frustrating—was that despite requiring precise player movement, stealth and inventory management, they played out in real-time, meaning one wrong click could end your entire mission real fast.
Both Commandos and Commandos 2 are excellent games, but I’ve opted for the sequel here thanks to its bigger roster of WW2 caricatures, which gave the player a little more flexibility in their approach to missions.
SEE ALSO: Hidden & Dangerous, Brothers in Arms
SILENT HUNTER III
Submarine games used to be a thing! Now they’re not a thing. But if the last great submarine game we’ll ever see is Silent Hunter III, then the genre went out with a bang.
A sickeningly tense simulation of life onboard a German U-Boat, SHIII went to absurd lengths to be as “real” as possible, giving players the ability to manually operate most of the boat’s main systems (including an outstanding targeting and weapons system), as well as walk around and interact with your crew, who would level up over the course of an open-ended campaign.
SEE ALSO: Aces of the Deep, Silent Service
HEARTS OF IRON IV
Most of the games on this list are asking you to fight a highly-specific, often individual aspect of the war. Hearts of Iron IV asks you to fight the whole damn thing.
A grand strategy game in the grandest sense, it puts you in charge of a nation of your choice (from the largest to smallest) and asks you to manage the entire war effort, from production to supply to strategic movement.
It’s definitely not for the faint of heart, but for anyone willing to invest the time needed to tame its enormous interface, there’s no finer way to play armchair General.
SEE ALSO: Commander – Europe at War, Strategic Command WWII Global Conflict
Where Call of Duty revolutionised the way singleplayer campaigns are constructed, Battlefield 1942 laid the foundations for multiplayer success that lives on to this day.
BF1942's flexibility—allowing for the use of not just infantry tactics but wild and unexpected vehicle action—was pure chaos. Enjoyable, hilarious chaos. Where almost every other shooter at the time had you running around small maps on your feet, BF1942 let you commandeer aircraft across enormous maps, crash them into jeeps and everything in between.
SEE ALSO: Day of Defeat, Red Orchestra
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