With the recent confirmation that the Call of Duty franchise is going to return to its original setting of World War II this fall, there is no better time to look back at the history of video games that have tackled the conflict of World War II. It makes sense that dozens upon dozens of video games have been set during WWII, as not only does Hitler make for the perfect Big Bad, it is an excuse to arm players to the teeth and have them engage in an epic, globe-spanning battle.
WWII games have been represented by just about every genre imaginable, though first-person shooters and real-time strategy games are perhaps the most iconic. FPS in particular have used the war as a backdrop for about as long as they’ve existed, beginning with Wolfenstein 3D— not technically the first FPS, but the one that laid the foundation for everything we would eventually associate with the genre.
RTS, which typically use either actual wars or settings very similar to actual wars as their bases, have often returned to WWII as the many countries involved make for deep, varied skirmishes that can involve many sides and locales. Some developers have taken the events of WWII in more creatively interesting directions and explored different angles and genres.
Here are the 18 Greatest World War II Video Games, Ranked.
18. Silent Service
Before becoming a nerd household name with games like Pirates! and Civilization, one of the games that legendary designer Sid Meier cut his teeth on was this ahead-of-its-time WWII submarine simulator. Incredibly realistic for its time (1985), Silent Service allowed patient players the chance to take control of a submarine as it made its patrol rounds in the Pacific Ocean. While looking for Japanese water craft, players were tasked with worrying about even tiny details like whether they were hidden enough so as not to produce surface bubbles.
The incredibly slow pace of the game– even for a sub-based game– and obtuse nature of the control systems make Silent Service a difficult game to appreciate today. In fact, its 1990 sequel improved and streamlined most aspects of the game, and definitely looked a whole lot better. But these lists should sometimes be about honoring important games regardless of whether or not they “hold up,” and to that end, Silent Service‘s places in the pantheons of both WWII game and sim game history in general are well earned.
17. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade: The Graphic Adventure
There can be just as much value to a video game that uses WWII more as the backdrop for its story than taking place directly within the war itself. As anyone who has seen the Last Crusade movie knows, setting plays a key role in the story of Indiana Jones and his father going after the fabled Holy Grail. There’s also the matter of players encountering Adolf Hitler himself during the game and, in a rarity for a video game Hitler appearance, doesn’t end with his head violently exploding.
Last Crusade was one of the most ambitious of the LucasArts adventure games, and while some prefer The Fate of Atlantis– the company’s other Indy adventure game– both stand side by side as the best Indiana Jones games ever made as well as some of the best games of all time, period. The bright red Nazi banners that adorn the various lushly-drawn environments serve to keep players cognizant of the overall threat that looms over the game, and help to make the adventure feel more grounded in reality than most Indy escapades.
16. Sniper Elite
In most WWII action games, sniping is relegated to dedicated “sniper levels,” or more commonly, just specific sniping setpieces within otherwise standard levels. To be a skilled military sniper isn’t something that any soldier can become just because they stumbled across a sniper rifle leaning up against a wall near an open window or on a rooftop– it’s a job specialty, and deserves a game specifically dedicated to it. Sniper Elite does just that, placing players behind the rifle scope of an American sniper in Berlin in 1945.
While the subsequent games in the Sniper Elite series have looked progressively better and gotten more ambitious overall, the original game remains the purest in terms of focusing primarily on the tactical, precise, slow-paced nature of being a sniper, without resorting to padding out the experience to make it more “exciting.” There are enough other games like that– Sniper Elite is the best of its franchise because it is confident enough to require patience and be unappealing to the average twitchy-fingered action gamer.
15. Hidden & Dangerous 2
While the most iconic image of WWII is of soldiers violently storming the beach at Normandy on D-Day in a massive hail of gunfire, as graphically depicted in Saving Private Ryan and video games on this very list, the reality is that much of war involves sneaking and being tactical. This aspect of WWII is where Hidden & Dangerous 2 takes its design cues– a game about lying low and plotting out precisely-executed attacks. The game can be tackled either as a “lone wolf” or as the the leader of a squad. Either way, rushing in guns blazing is never meant to be a viable solution and stealth is always the name of the game.
While this sequel improved many aspects of the original, it is still a game that was notorious for bugs and a lot of wonky design decisions. But for those that had the patience to look past its flaws, it’s a really satisfying and unique take on the WWII experience was on offer in Hidden & Dangerous 2. It’s unfortunate that a third installment was never made that could’ve potentially ironed out some of the franchise’s quirks even further.
14. Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe
The video game branch of Lucasfilm– at this point known as Lucasfilm Games– didn’t just take on WWII passively behind the fedora of Indiana Jones. The developer also created a whole trilogy of WWII flight simulation games, beginning with 1988’s Battlehawks 1942, continuing through Their Finest Hour: Battle of Britain, and culminating in the best of the series, Secret Weapons of the Luftwaffe in 1991.
SWotL was not only the obvious result of three years’ worth of experience in crafting realistic, engaging flight combat sims; it allowed players to play as either the American or the German side, which wasn’t an option in most WWII games of the time– and still rarely is today.
Beyond the novelty of being able to see WWII from both sides, SWotL garnered as much praise for its historical accuracy as its realism in the cockpit. The game even came bundled with a 200+ page historical manual, which is especially mind-blowing when you consider that modern games typically don’t even come with any manual at all.
13. IL-2 Sturmovik: Battle of Stalingrad
One of the most interesting things about IL-2 Sturmovik is that it takes place in one of the less-covered parts of WWII, the eastern front showdown between Germany and the Soviet Union– a part of the war with which the United States had no involvement. It’s always refreshing to see WWII from another angle, especially a non-American one, as the majority of WWII games seem to make sure to choose skirmishes that the U.S. had a hand in.
As far as the game itself, IL-2 is just an expertly-crafted flight sim that looks amazing, sounds incredible, and plays like a dream. While most of the games in the franchise are worth checking out, a lot of subsequent installments fell victim to chasing that Call of Duty model of playing like bombastic, setpiece-based Hollywood blockbusters. The flight-based action still felt the most focused in this original installment, with the later Battle of Stalingrad being the next time the series got back on track.
12. Silent Hunter III
For those that want to experience a WWII submarine simulator but can’t stand to go all the way back to an ancient one from the mid-80s, the excellent Silent Hunter III is the way to go. Rather than having a predetermined sequence of missions, Silent Hunter III was designed to automatically generate enemies and other tasks as the player patrols a given grid area. This dynamic nature makes the game feel exciting and leaves players not really knowing quite what to expect next.
On a personnel level, Silent Hunter III allows players to rise through the ranks as a given character and eventually have that character guide the careers of other crew members. Making the game about the people and world within the submarine rather than just the submarine itself and the ocean around it gives Silent Hunter III even more depth than dedicated sub simulation games. Having to worry about naval battles and the well-being of a crew can be overwhelming, but anyone who signs on for a game like this is likely looking for exactly that level of challenge and complexity.
11. Red Orchestra 2: Heroes of Stalingrad
While most of the major WWII video game franchises have made appearances on both consoles and PC, there is one series that PC gamers have been greedily keeping to themselves– the Red Orchestra tactical FPS games. Console gamers should definitely be jealous, as the second Red Orchestra game in particular is perhaps the most enjoyable multiplayer-focused WWII action game ever made.
The story mode is nothing exceptional, but it’s a passable experience and one that is essential in teaching you the tools you need to take into multiplayer. One of the most unique parts of Red Orchestra 2 is the tank warfare, which requires you and three other players to work in unison in order to successfully operate the massive machine. The on-foot warfare is pretty standard fair, but it does have a cover mechanic and blind fire system that rival those in any other WWII-based FPSs.
All in all, your mileage in Red Orchestra 2 depends heavily on finding three other people willing to learn and play the game properly and take it seriously– but if you find that, it’s some of the most fun you’ll have with any of the games on this list.
10. Freedom Force vs. the 3rd Reich
Part parody of and part tribute to Marvel and DC comic book characters of the ’80s and ’90s, Freedom Force was a terrific tactical RPG that accomplished the rare feat of having original superheroes who didn’t suck. The game’s one and only sequel took an interesting turn by having the heroes time travel back to WWII in order to help the Allies win the war. Well, initially the group went back in time to thwart antagonist Nuclear Winter– cool name for a villain, no?– from getting involved in the Cuban Missile Crisis, but had to then go back and get involved in WWII as history had been altered and Germany won the war.
A lot of video games go for the “alternate history” route in tackling WWII, giving the Nazis super powers or envisioning a modern world where WWII played out differently. As a trope, it’s actually a bit overdone, but Freedom Force vs. the 3rd Reich pulls it off– thanks not only to the great cast and intriguing story, but also the incredibly fun gameplay at the heart of the series.
9. Battlestations: Midway
Sure, it’s great when a WWII game focuses on a detailed depiction of one specific job or facet of combat. But it’s also pretty awesome when you have an entire fleet at your command, as you do in the tactical action game Battlestations: Midway. With both land and sea vehicles to dispense, Midway makes you feel like an army general with tremendous power as you go through real-life operations like the Battle of Midway and the attack on Pearl Harbor. In fact, during the skirmish that gives the game its title, players have access to an entire carrier battle group.
A few years later, the Battlestations series took on its second– and final– iteration, focusing on the U.S.’s push toward Japan following the Battle of Midway. Battlestations: Pacific got a little too far into fictionalized “what if?” scenarios and lost some of what made Midway special, even if the game itself took a few steps forward in terms of visuals and play mechanics.
8. Commandos 2: Men of Courage
There is often a sense that a game needs to be over-the-top visceral and have the action be right in your face in order to properly evoke the intensity of war– well, as much as a video game can to do that, anyway. Anyone who has played Commandos 2 knows that an RTS can definitely convey that intensity just as well as any Call of Duty.
From the breathtaking and ridiculously-detailed environments to the gameplay that combines all-out action with tactical puzzle solving, Commandos 2 isn’t for the easily-discouraged or those unwilling to put in a lot of time to learn a complicated game. But Commandos 2 rewards practice and persistence and reveals itself to be one of the closest digital depictions to the kind of war seen in even the most brutal WWII movies. Yes, really. The game even throws in lots of sly references to classic WWII films, which is a nice little treat for players who are fans of WWII fiction in general.
7. Return to Castle Wolfenstein
As previously mentioned, both WWII games and first-person shooters owe a debt of gratitude to Wolfenstein 3D. As a matter of fact, that game was a spiritual successor to Castle Wolfenstein and Beyond Castle Wolfenstein; WWII games from all the way back in the early ’80s. The Wolfenstein series has since been rebooted two additional times, but probably the best overall game in the franchise– and certainly the one with the best depiction of WWII– is 2001’s Return to Castle Wolfenstein.
Most Wolfenstein games play fast and loose with history, portraying Nazis as having supernatural powers of some sort. Return to Castle Wolfenstein does the best job of all the games at striking the right balance between otherworldly Nazis without going too far over the top and basically being Doom with a WWII skin.
The game also came out a time before FPS became heavily reliant on scripted setpieces, and as such, Return is still more open and old-school in its design– and that’s meant as a compliment in this case –but with more modern visuals. Because the game is made with a version of the Quake III Arena engine, the multiplayer is extremely satisfying to boot.
6. Company of Heroes
Both the best WWII-based RTS of all time as well as one of the best RTS of all time period, Company of Heroes is the crowning achievements of legendary strategy game developer Relic Entertainment. The single-player portion of the game tasks players with gathering resources and commanding units during multiple WWII operations, beginning with the Battle of Normandy and ending with wiping out the German occupation of France.
Company of Heroes also has a fantastic multiplayer system where up to eight players can compete across several modes (the original version allowed both LAN and online multiplayer, but the Steam version sadly doesn’t offer LAN support). There are few things in all of gaming more fun than taking on seven other people in an all-out RTS war, especially one in a game as impeccably made as Company of Heroes.
South Korea was even treated to a free massively-multiplayer version of the game in 2010, but it never made it out of the beta stage and was cancelled the following year. How awesome would that have been?
5. Battlefield 1942
While the Battlefield series is often seen as trying to play catch-up with Call of Duty, the first game in the franchise actually made its debut the year before Call of Duty was released. In fact, Battlefield was the second modern WWII FPS to hit the market, being beaten only by Medal of Honor. Battlefield also made the jump to modern combat two full years before Call of Duty did.
Battlefield 1942 was also the first WWII FPS to take the battle into tanks, fighter jets, and even submarines, and it handled that diverse mix of gameplay systems remarkably well. In addition, while most WWII games up to that point tended to focus on just one or two theaters of operations, Battlefield spanned all five major fronts of the war, and on maps that are said to be pretty accurate.
With all of the innovations Battlefield 1942 made, it’s a shame that it was eventually overshadowed by Call of Duty and looked at as the imitator when, really, it is the other way around. Now let’s see how long it takes CoD to do a WWI game…
4. Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30
Most modern WWII games try and give names, faces, and stories to their protagonists in an effort to lend some emotional gravitas to all the killing and explosions. No franchise has done that better than Brothers in Arms, which tells the story– inspired by true events– of Sgt. Matt Baker and his team as they are dropped behind enemy lines on D-day. True to the title, the games are all about Baker and his men forming brotherly bonds as they try to survive together, and the pain felt whenever they lose one of their own.
None of this would mean much if the game surrounding all that human drama wasn’t also up to snuff, and in that respect, series debut Road to Hill 30 doesn’t disappoint. Its squad-based action is thrilling in a way that your average one-man-army WWII FPS can’t replicate, and the game even designs the weapons to be as erratic and unpredictable as their real-life counterparts, making gunfights more intense because you aren’t mowing down enemies with superhero-like accuracy.
3. The Saboteur
When you hear that the team behind Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction is doing a WWII game, you probably think you have a pretty good idea what the game is going to be. You’re probably not expecing a serious neo-noir game set in 1940s France, starring an alcoholic Irish race car driver who lives in the back of a brothel. A lot of people passed over The Saboteur, in large part due to what was a saturation of Grand Theft Auto clones at the time. It’s unfair that it got lumped in with all that, as The Saboteur is easily one of the biggest hidden gems of its generation.
The Saboteur has a brilliant visual aesthetic where the world is largely black-and-white– save for the splashes of red in the Nazi banners and uniforms– and individual neighborhoods are colorized as you drive out the Nazi threat from the area. This is accomplished through a combination of shooting, sabotage, and some of the most satisfying fisticuffs of any open-world game.
2. Medal of Honor: Frontline
When Steven Spielberg conceived the first Medal of Honor game, he was likely envisioning something akin to the video game equivalent of Saving Private Ryan. While the developers definitely pushed the PS1 to its limits with the game, the system was definitely not capable of anything on that level. However, when the franchise made the jump to the then-cutting edge PlayStation 2, there was finally enough hardware for a powerful interactive depiction of the D-Day landing at Normandy. And boy, did it ever deliver.
Following one of the most thrilling and emotionally draining first levels in video game history, Frontline proceeds to take players on the incredible journey of Lt. Jimmy Patterson as he fights Axis forces across Europe. Tight gun play combined with excellent atmosphere and some of the best video game sound design create something that came much closer to Spielberg’s original vision than he probably ever thought possible.
As a nice tribute to this classic, the PlayStation 3 version of the 2011 Medal of Honor reboot game came with an HD remake of Frontline, allowing players to relive an already-great game with even better visuals.
1. Call of Duty 2
While the Call of Duty franchise didn’t quite become the blockbuster uber-phenomenon it is today until the series left WWII behind with Modern Warfare, its fourth installment certainly wasn’t its first masterpiece. That distinction belongs to Call of Duty 2, the game that takes everything that makes for an engaging WWII experience and delivers on it flawlessly.
Entering the “HD era” and harnessing the immense power of the Xbox 360 and the PCs of 2005, CoD2 was a visual powerhouse, showing every bombed-out building, every explosion, every crumpling soldier, and every burst of gunfire in a previously-unheard of level of fidelity. As many of the people behind CoD2 had already spent years working on WWII games, both with its predecessor and on the PC Medal of Honor games, that experience shone through in the visceral, pitch-perfect gameplay.
As it happened, this would be the last WWII game that both Infinity Ward and its now-departed founders Vince Zampella and Jason West would create– but after a game like Call of Duty 2, maybe it’s best to just drop the mic and rest on your laurels.
What’s your favorite World War II video game? Let us know in the comments!
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