Anyone looking at historical shooters of years past could be forgiven for thinking global conflicts lasted from 1939 to 1945, followed by a peace only marred by imaginary current day wars. Notable series Medal of Honor, Call of Duty, Brothers in Arms, Wolfenstein and Sniper Elite all began in the WWII setting. MoH and CoD have since abandoned that setting to jump into “modern” and futuristic warfare. The Black Ops series integrated snippets of Cold War history into its fantastical story, but the campaign will not satisfy a desire for an authentic historical experience. The Black Ops competitive multiplayer modes are indistinguishable from any other entry in the Call of Duty series, requiring no historical use of tactics or teamwork.
In contrast, the best WWII title from a historical perspective was Brothers in Arms, which eschewed fantasy elements and the “player-as-supersoldier” concept with its excellent single player squad-based gameplay. However the games never left the Western Front of WWII and effectively died as a PC shooter after the 2008 entry in the series. Wolfenstein rebooted in 2014 with an alternate history “Allies lose WWII/Space Age Nazis” concept. The most recent WWII game Sniper Elite III saw a change of enemy uniforms & scenery, changing the setting from Europe to Africa.
Based on the output of the larger development studios, there has not been much innovation in the historical shooter category. It is tempting to blame this on the baby boomers generation for their preoccupation with the war of the so-called “greatest generation.” Anyone with a marginal interest in history knows the United States has been involved in many military actions around the globe, so it’s frustrating that the only “historical” shooters available appear to have forgotten these conflicts or consigned them to the realm of fantasy.
It’s not a coincidence that World War II and the modern era of warfare continue to be revisited in games. The industry desires projects with low risk and high reward, so emulating the successes of the Call of Duty series is understandable. It’s also a fact that Nazis are the one villain everyone loves to hate, but this limitation on the historical shooter genre has to be stifling creativity in the industry.
Perhaps the prevalence of easy Internet outrage and flash shame mobs can tell us something about a corporate reluctance to touch certain chapters of history. The “modern” 2010 Medal of Honor reboot scrapped the name Taliban in favor of Opposing Force in its multiplayer mode, in response to complaints about player-controlled Taliban forces killing American soldiers. Pointing out the selective outrage — countless AAA games allow the player to kill American soldiers in multiplayer — would have been futile. That is just the environment big-budget game development exists in these days.
For this reason I’ve placed my hope in smaller, often independent, developers. Perhaps there, the discerning player and student of history could find daring innovators interested in exploring the untapped riches of woefully neglected settings such as WWI, Korea, the Civil War and Vietnam. There are hopeful signs from Campfire Games’ recently funded Kickstarter for a Civil War shooter, War of Rights, as well as Tripwire Interactive’s upcoming Rising Storm 2, a tactical, squad-based Vietnam shooter. It is not merely the setting that makes these games especially interesting to the game-playing student of history. The promise of tactical gameplay from these titles involving historical use of technology and the limitations that brings is a relief after a bombardment of run-and-gun, spray-and-pray Call of Duty-style multiplayer games. However, it is the work of one veritably tiny European crew, namely Blackmill Games and M2H, that especially deserves attention. They are responsible for the recent launch of Verdun, a trench based shooter based on the 1916 WWI battle of Verdun.