From the early to mid 2000’s, you couldn’t turn around without being courted by a World War 2 shooter. Games such as Medal of Honor: Allied Assault and the original Call of Duty brought Saving Private Ryan from the silver screen to computer monitors, while Medal of Honor: Frontline and Brothers in Arms brought them to TV’s everywhere.
Right around the advent of the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3, however, World War 2 shooters became old hat. Modern warfare and sci-fi shooters set in the distant future weren’t just the flavor of the week, but the champions of an entire generation, thanks to a little game called Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare and the continued success of the Halo franchise. Much like the countless developers that wanted a piece of the World War 2 pie thanks to Medal of Honor, it was games such as Modern Warfare and Halo that made everybody want a piece of this new shooter trend.
It was understandable – prior to the World War II gaming drought, the market was saturated with World War 2 shooters due to the prolific output of developers housed under EA and Activision.
These developers weren’t just choosing WW2 as a setting at random, however.
Up until Medal of Honor made its debut, first-person shooters were almost exclusively about space marines, thanks to Quake and Doom. Sure, there was Wolfenstein 3D, but even that was rooted in science fiction with its Mecha-Hitler final boss.
First-person shooters had been around for nearly a decade by the late ‘90s, and it was time for them to grow up by dipping their toes into realism. That meant digging into war history books in search of an era that would provide the most exciting setting in which to tell tales of heroism, patriotism, and sacrifice.There were also technological limitations to consider. Vietnam was likely out because its landscapes were made up of lush jungle foliage and enemies popping out all over the place. Consoles would have likely been taxed to the breaking point.
Of course, It wasn’t just the technical limitations that stopped developers from going anywhere near Vietnam. Whereas the USA was the clear hero in World War 2, that wasn’t the case with Vietnam. Much like the war in the Middle East today, the ol’ red, white, and blue was not the clear hero. Using such a divisive time in our history would not work.
After eliminating the more recent conflicts (Operation Desert Storm and the Gulf War were still fresh in our memories and a bit taboo), what was left? Oh, just our most patriotic and ultra-American war ever – Dubya Dubya Two. World War 2 games that weren’t shooters had come out long before Wolfenstein 3D. 1981’s Castle Wolfenstein and 1983’s 1942 came out in the midst of the Cold War, a time when American’s were at their patriotic peaks. So why not? Where the technology was concerned, the plainer European countryside and its pockets of urban landscapes were much easier to work with on consoles such as the original PlayStation.
So, Medal of Honor was developed in tandem with Steven Spielberg, the man responsible for Saving Private Ryan (1998), and released a year after the film. Much like the film, Medal of Honor was a smash hit, garnering critical praise and going on to become the third-highest-selling Medal of Honor game of all time, according to IGN. By 2001, another huge piece of World War 2 fiction, HBO’s Band of Brothers, pushed the conflict further into the American conscience.
Between 1999, when these series debuted, and 2008, there were 14 Medal of Honor and 10 Call of Duty games set during World War 2. Now toss in the multiple Brothers in Arms games, Battlefield games, and other various titles set in the era, and you have officially saturated the market.
Why all of the WW2 shooters? Patriotism played a pivotal role in popularizing the subgenre. Americans are naturally patriotic people, and what better way to cash in on that patriotism than to give us a game about one of the most American-hero-ridden wars we have ever fought (next to the American Revolution, that is).
Then the war in the Middle East began. By 2003, America was involved in two armed conflicts, which were supported by a large amount of the American people, flags waving proudly. Inside the homes where those flags waved, millions of Nazis were being shot dead. The next few years could be considered a golden age for World War II shooters — the point at which you couldn’t really find many shooters that didn’t involve Nazi Germany.
Why was World War 2 the epicenter of American retrospect? The Nazis are history’s best-dressed villains, with Swastikas and stark grey uniforms providing easy branding as the antagonists, and lend themselves to good guy/bad guy shooter dynamics. Through countless shooters gamers were able to feel like the “greatest generation” in a time when we weren’t sure who our enemy was. No longer could we pinpoint our target. World War II shooters kept our cultural fear at bay.
But like any trend or American sentiment, people just weren’t entertained by Uncle Sam anymore. Not to mention the war in the Middle East had gone from “America, fuck yeah!” to “What the fuck, America?” Despite the negative press, the war was still getting plenty of it, keeping it fresh in everyone’s minds.
The lens under which war was examined changed from nationalistic to analytic and critical. People wanted commentary – something a little more topical than a war fought over half a century ago. Enter 2007’s Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.
Not only was Modern Warfare’s single-player campaign dripping with subtle jabs at the modern wartime state that America had become, but it totally reinvented the competitive online shooter as we know it. Modern Warfare’s success was impossible to ignore, and developers quickly abandoned the World War 2 shooter and never looked back.
Now, with next-gen consoles in our homes, we are looking for something new.
Isn’t it time that World War II shooters, having been ignored for the better part of a decade, make their triumphant return? Yes – for many reasons.
There isn’t anything inherently wrong with playing old games. World War 2 was loaded with interesting historical figures, some very touching storylines, and many different kinds of combat. I enjoy going back and playing Allied Assault, Return to Castle Wolfenstein, and Call of Duty 2 as much as the next guy, but isn’t it time that they were given the modern treatment?
Gaming has come a long way since some of the best World War 2 shooters came out.
Borderlands showed us that shooters and Diablo can get along just fine. Games such as Deus Ex: Human Revolution showed us that open worlds, shooting (or not shooting), and leveling up are also great fun. WW2 shooters should explore these new types of subgenres. Seeing how a developer could put this type of retro spin on what has become a cliché would be interesting, to say the least.
It wouldn’t be just in how the games play, however, but how they look and sound. With all of the technological leaps and bounds made in gaming, set pieces such as Normandy Beach, last visited by Medal of Honor: Allied Assault & Frontline and Call of Duty 2: Big Red One over a decade ago, would be glorious to revisit with improved graphics and effects. Modern effects and improved storytelling would make revisiting almost any engagement from WW2 a thrill, no matter how well-trodden.
Shooters have not just evolved on a mechanical level. Overall – video games have become much more character and story driven. The Assassin’s Creed series has brought gamers back in time and introduced us to all sorts of colorful historical figures, which World War 2 is brimming with. The Last of Us made us really care about the protagonists through great scripting and storytelling. Aside from Brothers in Arms, we have never really been given a character and story driven WW2 shooter. There are countless opportunities for developers to make this happen.
Aside from the technological and gameplay advancements, we are once again in a spot where we as a culture would be enticed by a World War 2 shooter. Aside from the fact that there will always be history buffs that eat these games up, we as a culture are also in a strange spot where we are both moving forward at a rapid pace and looking over our shoulders.
For the last several years, indie developers have been reintroducing us to the joys of the sidescrolling platformer with modern tech, giving us titles such as Super Meat Boy and Limbo. In the Triple-A market, we have games such as Wolfenstein: The New Order bringing together familiar concepts – the alternate-history World War 2 setting – with unfamiliar concepts – a semi-science-fiction re-envisioning of the Nazi war machine. No longer are things just old or just new. Much like the genres I mentioned above, lines are blurring, and many different influences are coming together to form wholly unique concepts. We are just as anxious to look back as we are to move forward.
Heck, given how modern warfare and future warfare have essentially become the new WW2, why don’t we revisit more than just The Great War? What about the American Revolution? The Korean War? There are so many unexplored wars with so many untold stories. Not going back to visit them could be missed opportunities. Given that commentary in video game form on the ongoing war in the Middle East isn’t exactly welcome, this would allow developers to let the controversy on modern conflicts die out while visiting the past.
Games have really grown up in the last decade, and it’s sad to see that such a great piece of history, once the crown jewel of one of the most popular genres in gaming, has been left behind. Some of the greatest innovations in not just gaming, but history in general, have come to fruition by people taking a look back, rather than marching forward with whatever trend is blowing up pop culture.
In this case, World War 2 is that innovation.