They’re immediately recognisable thanks to their camouflage, short hair and very big guns – perhaps inspired by the on-screen antics of one John Rambo, soldiers have been marching and murdering their way across videogame battlefields for more than a quarter of a century.
With the forthcoming SOCOM: Special Forces set to bring more tactics and realism to the military shooter subgenre, we take a timely look back at ten of the very best soldier-based videogames, beginning with a Capcom arcade classic that may well have started it all…
Running and gunning was all the rage in 1985. If you weren’t gunning whilst you were running, you were no one in the videogame industry. No one. The epitome of that genre was Commando, a game that cast you as Super Joe. Not regular Joe, oh no, because that would be boring.
Nothing to do with the classic Arnie film of the same name, Commando is a game about men, guns and explosions. In that order. Much like the Arnie film of the same name. If you were being kind, you might suggest that it invented Horde Mode twenty years before Horde Mode was invented, but one thing’s for sure, Commando is a classic.
Operation Wolf (1987)
Much like Commando, Operation Wolf wore its influences on the torn off sleeve of its army uniform. An on-rails first person shooter, the game was famous for the elaborate and hulking machine gun that you used to control your cursor in the arcades. The aim of the game is to shoot everything that moves, rescuing prisoners on your way through six stages. Extra ammo can be found by shooting pigs (really) and the damage you take from knives, grenades and rockets can be counteracted with power ups.
Ports-a-plenty followed, but none of them managed to capture the pure, tactile joy of wielding your very own weapon. Sequels introduced multiple machine guns, allowing you to recreate scenes from Rambo in the privacy of your own, er, arcade.
Cannon Fodder (1993)
Whereas Operation Wolf and Commando focused on the lone wolf, the super soldier who took on an army all by himself, Cannon Fodder was all about teamwork. It was also about the horrors of war, laments the faceless nature of the men and women who die protecting their countries and was aggressively British in its presentation. And it was hilarious.
A mix of tactics and action, Cannon Fodder was a game that was well ahead of its time. You commanded a squad of up to eight soldiers through a variety of missions, each of them with different objectives. As your soldiers fall in battle, the pre-mission screen fills with gravestones and an ever-growing line of new recruits, ready to give their lives for the cause. Honestly though, it’s really not as depressing as I’ve made it sound.
Metal Slug (1996)
Metal Slug 90s-ified the soldier genre by making it “rad” and “kool” and other adjectives that are currently being ironically revisited by videogame journalists. It also made being a soldier an incredible amount of fun.
A side scrolling shooter with a fiendish difficulty curve, a fine line in visual jokes and a sky high body count, Metal Slug was one of the last games before war became serious business. An arcade game through and through, the series is still going strong, bringing its cheeky levity to cabinets and consoles the world over.
Metal Gear Solid (1998)
Metal Gear Solid is the polar opposite of Metal Slug. It looks at war through post-modern goggles, analysing the past and the future of conflict with extended cut scenes and the sort of navel gazing usually reserved for the parties I never get invited to.
Metal Gear once again returns to the lone wolf template, but this time the protagonist, Solid Snake, is backed up by a variety of generals, tech-guys and temptresses, with whom he can have meaningful discussions about the nature of conflict and the men who engage in conflict. It’s still a massively enjoyable game, but it set the bar with its more mature and considered approach to soldiers and violence.
Commandos: Behind Enemy Lines (1998)
While Metal Gear was carving the lone wolf furrow once again, Commandos was focusing on the squad-based gameplay that soldiering sims were heading towards. It was also cementing the genre in the real world, with a strong WWII theme running throughout.
Commandos introduced role-based gameplay, with each of your team of six soldiers having their own skill set and tasks they could perform. They also had their own special issue ammunition and equipment, a move that set the scene for the games that followed it.
Hearts Of Iron (2002)
A strategy game of epic proportions that set out to tell the story of the Second World War. The game took a far more hands-off approach to soldiering, with your little men in green fighting on a far more abstract field of conflict than the other titles on this list.
Hearts Of Iron gave players a glimpse of the complexity of war from the outside, focusing on the decisions of commanders-in-chief rather than the soldiers on the ground. It also had you dealing with politics, economics and every other aspect of running a country while a war’s going on. An ambitious title, any game that lets you try to run an entire war on your own deserves some praise.
Battlefield 1942 (2002)
At the opposite end of the scale to Hearts Of Iron, Battlefield 1942 threw you headfirst into the hell on earth of World War II. Objective-based gameplay, characters with different in-battle roles and a strong rooting in actual events, 1942 was a game that owed much to its predecessors.
The fact that this was a multiplayer-only title, placing you on either side of the fighting and tasking you with capturing strategic markers, did little to distil the feeling that you really were a soldier, doing your damnedest to not get your head blown off and get to that flag before the (insert opposing force’s name here) managed to.
Rainbow Six: Vegas (2006)
Vegas is the fifth game in the Rainbow Six series, and while purists may disagree, it’s the strongest of the bunch. Released on consoles and the PC, it cast the player as an elite member of the Rainbow Six squad – one of the best of the best.
The game takes soldiering away from the past and lodges it firmly in the now, tooling you up with cutting edge-weaponry and gadgets. You’re fighting terrorists, not enemy combatants, and you’re doing it with a team. The Rainbow Six series set the benchmark for tactical shooters, and Vegas stands proud as the one to beat.
Call Of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (2007)
Before the series meandered off into controversy, sub-Clancy plotting and playable presidents, Call Of Duty reached its zenith with Modern Warfare. Not only did it have the best multiplayer around, it also featured an engaging and dramatic story that, whilst not exactly plausible, was at the very least believable.
It’s sometimes forgotten beneath the glitz and glamour that now surrounds the series, but Call Of Duty 4 featured some truly shocking moments, including the death of a player character while you were controlling him. It was a brave step by Infinity Ward and one that paid off – Call Of Duty 4 didn’t just make you feel like a soldier, it made you feel for soldiers as well.