Which war games are worth your time? It’s a tricky question to answer since war is sort of the default around here. The fighting in Counter-Strike will never cease, and Call of Duty will always find another geopolitical reason to nurture conflict. PC games are, as Turbine’s cancelled MOBA put it, in a state of Infinite Crisis.
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We’ve chosen to dig out the war games that don’t use conflict as a convenient backdrop, but treat it as a serious theme deserving of examination. Some of these greats recreate historical catastrophes in pedantic yet moving detail, while others concern fantastic beasts and wizards, but nonetheless simulate something real about the struggles of wartime.
Unity of Command
Unity of Command is a turn-based wargame set on the Eastern Front of World War II, and one of the brightest lights in the genre’s recent renaissance. If you can find it bundled with the expansion campaigns, you’ll have access to everything from Operation Barbarossa to the Soviet drive into Germany.
Unity of Command is one of the best war games thanks to its merciless focus on your ability to manage supplies across distance. Winning is about reading the map and planning bold, decisive campaigns that will keep your army rolling, despite perilously long supply lines and the constant threat of being cut-off.
It’s a great introduction to the sub-genre of operational war games, and a welcome change of perspective for those of us wondering what really makes a war run. If they can’t be fed or equipped, it doesn’t matter how well a soldier is shooting.
Company of Heroes
Carentan is a rural town in northern France with a lovely old church. It was also a strategic objective in the Second World War - perched as it was between Utah and Omaha beaches - and hosted perhaps the finest RTS level ever crafted in Company of Heroes.
Relic spent many months pacing that one mission before pitching the demo to publishers. Evidently, THQ saw the game for what it was - a push towards making real-time strategy experiential rather than mechanical. The developers intended players to feel empathy for their enemies, even as - especially as - they encircled the Germans during the decisive Falaise Pocket. A number of real-life battles are rendered from above in Company of Heroes.
Company of Heroes is one of those war games where your concerns weren’t abstract resources but manpower, munitions, and fuel. For the first time, RTS encounters felt like desperate skirmishes rather than cold strategic manoeuvres. For the first time, they felt human.
Valiant Hearts: The Great War
By the time a game’s given you a gun and sent you on your way, you’ve already been encouraged to start thinking in kill counts - to take on an oppositional role in whatever war you are involved in. Valiant Hearts is different to most war games: a procession of gentle puzzles and occasional rhythm action that simply has you witness the Great War as it ravages France.
It is to the credit of Rayman’s Ubisoft Montpellier that Valiant Hearts doesn’t do the usual and try to capture the reality of combat - instead opting for cartoon abstraction. But don't think it holds back on the harrowing detail due to its art style, as its environments are filled with snippets of shiver-inducing real-world history.
The principal characters in this sometimes heartbreaking adventure are, without exception, just trying to find their way back to each other. Torn apart by the most widespread war ever fought, borders and battle lines are irrelevant to these soldiers and civvies, yet they are shook by them to a distressing degree.
This War of Mine
In war, not everyone is a soldier. That is the tagline of This War of Mine - a game based loosely on the experiences of the citizens of Sarajevo, who lived under siege for 1,425 days during the Bosnian War.
Practically speaking, that means you’re presented with a cross-section of charcoal-coloured buildings and an unflinching view of the people eking out an existence within. You manage their lives, directing them to craft and trade during the day, and then - once the snipers are gone - sending them out to scavenge for food and medicine at night. Think of it as the war games equivalent of Fallout Shelter, but with less busy work and much more to say.
There is no way for you to win this war or to contribute to it. Your role is simply to keep going, and somehow reconcile your needs with your conscience. This War of Mine isn’t fun, per se, but it is vital.
You might have been encouraged to think of Tyranny as Obsidian’s fantasy RPG about evil, and it is that. But that evil comes about because of where it puts you: at the frontlines in a brutal conquest that has ripped a land to shreds.
At the game’s opening, The Tiers have been at war for several years - their people displaced, conscripted, or made to pull carts in the slave army of the Scarlet Chorus. Surely there are no other war games where you can have a child soldier as a companion - the damaged Sirin, kidnapped by an overlord keen to harness her innate powers of mind control.
In Tyranny, what little good you can do is less about individual acts of kindness than fostering a little order amid the chaos - enough that the people of The Tiers stand some chance of returning to normality. Or, at least, of not being blasted en masse from across the continent by an Old Testament spell. Yeah, there’s fantasy here, but Tyranny’s themes are starkly real.
With Battlefield 1, DICE took an uncharacteristically brave leap into the First World War - virgin territory for most war games, let alone publisher-owned triple-A studios like theirs.
The shooter’s single-player campaign is split into six ‘war stories’ - each told from the perspective of an individual soldier on one of the war’s many fronts. You can expect to be a young British chauffeur driving a tank, or a bullish US aviator, or a hardened female warrior working alongside Laurence of Arabia and his rebels. None of these mini-campaigns last much longer than an hour, but they’re all filled with personality and humanity.
Battlefield 1’s most affecting mission is its first, however, which gets across the unspeakable death toll by throwing you into the boots of another soldier in the same battle every time you die - only to gun you down again moments later.
The multiplayer might cling too tightly to a format defined in other warzones, and the gas grenades definitely don’t get across the horrific reality of chemical warfare in the early 20th century. But these stumbles are the sign of a studio daring to try rather than fall back on old accomplishments.
There are some political climates under which you don’t really want to play war games like DEFCON. This is perhaps the bleakest way you can while away an evening on Steam with your friends. Inspired by 1983’s cinematic cult classic Wargames, it’s a multiplayer strategy oddity which pulls on the paranoia and high stakes of the Cold War - casting you as a general playing with the lives of millions from the safety of an underground bunker.
You soon come to learn that mutually-assured destruction isn’t as simple a concept as it sounds, and that strategic nuclear warfare is a psychological game of intense pressure. You’re looking to wipe out your enemies and disable their capacity for retaliation, while knowing that doing so will expose the positions of your own silos and submarines.
Alliances form fast and break down quicker in the wake of terrible betrayals. But if you do it right, you’ll manage to exterminate your opponent’s civilian population while saving your own. Hooray?
Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30
Authenticity is a questionable ask for all the best war games - how can any immaculately recreated battlefield capture the experience of living through its horrors? The first Brothers in Arms made a great go of it, telling the true story of a parachute infantry regiment in the United States’ 101st Airborne Division, dropped behind enemy lines on D-Day.
Levels were designed around historical reconnaissance photographs taken in ‘40s Normandy, and research included both interviews with veterans and classroom lessons on combat tactics. The result remains the closest thing we have to an interactive Band of Brothers, and that most rare of things – a respectful shooter.
It is hard to believe that Road to Hill 30’s director, Randy Pitchford, would go on to greenlight Brothers in Arms: Furious 4 - an apparent co-op shooter with a tongue-in-cheek tone that's worlds away from its predecessors. Thankfully, Gearbox saw sense: they cancelled the game after concluding it “just wasn’t right for Brothers in Arms.”
Sometimes the most sobering thing you can do to drive home the vulnerability of battle in war games is to strip away everything we’re used to in a shooter - regenerating armour, piles of hit points, copious cover - and show how quickly we’d really last under fire. Operation Flashpoint was a concerted effort to do just that. It’s still remarkable when played today.
At the start of each mission you’re presented with a briefing, handed a map, compass, watch, and notebook, and then booted onto an unforgiving island in 1980s Eastern Europe. You might be guarding a base, engaging in reconnaissance, bearing down on an objective, or simply driving a truck - but all the time, you’ll be acutely aware of the sudden death that awaits you if you slip up. Bohemia’s subsequent ArmA series is a successful (and far prettier) continuation of the same feel.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
Here’s a description of an unassuming hamlet on The Witcher 3’s map: “The inhabitants of this village were relieved when they learned the path of the marching armies had shifted slightly and passed their village by. Then, one night... they changed their mind.”
That cruel sense of circumstance and (sometimes literal) gallows humour is typical of The Witcher 3, and its Velen area in particular. In a country reduced to mud by forces battling to reach more strategically important settlements, the focus is placed on the people trampled underfoot. The indiscriminate cost of war is weaved into quests, incidental descriptions, and the world itself.
“As Poles, we’ve a strong folk memory of World War II,” CD Projekt writer Magdalena Zych tells us of The Witcher 3’s depiction of war. “Even if it’s something we heard from our grandparents or great grandparents, we can relate to people living under foreign occupation. It’s not hard to imagine for us.” Sure, swords and sorcery might not be what initially leaps to mind when you think of the best war games, but The Witcher 3’s sobering depiction of life in a war-torn nation makes it more than worthy of inclusion.
Any war games we missed out? Let us know in the comments below.