Every time a new World War 2 First Person Shooter is announced, the collective groans from gamers and game media can be heard for miles, as if nothing more could be possibly done with this setting. The genre receives a bad reputation mainly because of the sheer amount of mediocre copycat titles that seem to be released every year. However, for every Elite Forces: WWII Normandy (Third Law, 2001) or World War II Sniper (Jarhead, 2004) there is a Call of Duty (Infinity Ward, 2003) that genuinely makes an effort to advance the gameplay.
I really liked Call of Duty; one of its key features was to give the player an AI-controlled squad that provided covering fire and gave the game’s many firefights a relatively realistic feel. Call of Duty wanted to push the genre away from the Single Hero with Machine Gun Saves World mentality that Medal of Honor and its many imitators seemed to subscribe to. Borrowing heavily from old war movies, it seemed to work despite the game’s obvious scripting. Indeed, Call of Duty 2 (Infinity Ward, 2005) continues this tradition by providing many intense setpieces that are certainly fun to play through, but offer little substance in the way it keeps the action constrained to the area where it is “supposed” to take place.
Call of Duty 2 was the latest in a long line of first-person shooters that attempts to recreate the battlefields of World War 2. Following the success of its predecessor and expansion, much like the Medal of Honor series, Call of Duty 2 did little to progress its proven formula. And yet it managed to find its way onto many year end Best Of lists, with the Xbox 360 port becoming one of the premier titles for the launch of the new platform.
Yet regardless of their quality, World War 2 shooters still manage to sell. The typical member of the game buying public must find something redeemable about them, because these games are still being made despite the malaise voiced by the videogames community. Why?
The genre works because World War 2 offers up a singular, immediately identifiable enemy; a “just cause” to enter the fight. Even the most casual knowledge of world history will produce the Nazis as one of the most despicable groups of all time. In games they’ve become Stormtroopers: nameless, faceless robots whose only purpose is to stand in the way of justice and freedom for the oppressed. You’re not expected to feel bad for killing hundreds of them; they are inherently evil. Nobody ever considers that the soldiers fighting in the German army at the time were conscripts just like the Allied forces, not necessarily adopting Hitler’s murderous campaign of hatred.
If you consider the youth of those days, there was no question about enlisting in the armed forces and contributing to the cause – perhaps even making the ultimate sacrifice. It’s just what you did. Though you’ll hear a much grimmer tale from the actual veterans who survived. Modern society has been trained not think that way anymore – they have been jaded by politicians and the media, and war is seen as a completely needless activity. Even by the soldiers themselves. In that sense, there are possibly feelings of guilt for not participating in “the Great Crusade”, a war with supposed purpose. On a subconscious level, maybe playing these games help to fill that void.
The genre has also been heavily influenced by films: Medal of Honor: Allied Assault (Electronic Arts, 2002) was a collaboration between Electronic Arts and Stephen Spielberg, taking the Omaha Beach invasion from Saving Private Ryan (1998) and making it one of the game’s levels. Indeed, this level matched the overwhelming and visceral nature of the Omaha beach invasion, and has since become the boilerplate by which future WW2 games attempt to recreate similar experiences. This combination was only natural, of course, as the setting provides ample opportunity for acts of heroism.
The problem lies in the sterilization of combat. There is much death and disappearing corpses, but no blood. There are health meters and medkits and endless supplies of ammunition to assist the war effort. There are no references to losing friends who fought beside you, or freezing to death in a foxhole in the dead of winter. It perpetuates the attitude that WW2 was full of glory to be had by any man, consequences be damned.
As a result, the World War 2 Shooter is treated like any other game: it’s simply an escape from reality. Their critical acclaim usually revolves around how cinematic they are; as if that is what the games should be vying for. I’ve never seen a reviewer speak about how it touched them emotionally when they saw a squad mate blown up by a mortar, because the games just aren’t set up to be experienced that way. On the other hand, it’s probably too much to ask for unparalleled realism, because I doubt it would be much fun. With that said, for once I’d like to see some respect given to the real source material and not some slickly produced movie. I wonder if the games would be as appealing.