The lights are on
If EA and DICE have learned anything over the last fourteen years, it’s how to cut a great trailer. The Battlefield 1 reveal at E3 made everyone watching sit up and take notice. It’s a pulse-pounding, swashbuckling, violent montage of biplanes, horses, tanks, and soldiers in gas masks, all realized in a vibrant color palette that could hardly be further from the teal and orange that’s saturated the last two entries in the series.
But what really turned heads was the decision to set the hit military shooter in World War 1. There have been precious few games to use “The Great War” as a backdrop, and it’s not a conflict that’s very well-understood in general. Particularly since Saving Private Ryan, movie-goers and gamers alike have had boatloads of modern-day material on the Second World War to pore over and play through.
You have to dig a bit deeper to find games that help put World War 1 in context. That’s partly because it’s a difficult war to portray in a way that makes sense in games. The causes and factions involved were complex and numerous, and with the dawn of industrialized warfare came many false starts and some of the most horrible carnage humanity has ever seen. Beginning in July, 1914 and lasting to November 11, 1918, estimates put the war’s death toll at about 11 million soldiers and 7 million civilians.
Beyond the staggering death toll, World War 1 led to the collapse of the Russian, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, and German empires, re-drew Europe’s political borders, and made the United States into one of the world’s leading industrial powers. It’s almost impossible to overstate the importance of the war, and fortunately for us, it’s possible to learn more about it through games.
Here’s a selection of titles that can help fill out your knowledge of the First World War, so you’re all studied up for when Battlefield 1 comes out later this month.
Valiant HeartsUbisoft, 2014Available on PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360, PC This beautifully-illustrated puzzle adventure isn’t particularly challenging, but it’s a poignant trip through the stories of actual people who lived through World War 1. As Joe Juba wrote in his review, “it’s a better history lesson than a game.” Using the letters sent by men and women who experienced the brutality of the fighting first hand, Valiant Hearts is an intimate look at the human side of war, and the small but important victories and tragedies individual people experienced in it. As you progress through the game, you access real letters sent by soldiers to their friends and families during the war, and the game’s reverence for all of these people is deeply moving.
VerdunBlackmill Games, 2015Available on PC, Mac, Linux, PlayStation 4Lasting from February to December 1916, the Battle of Verdun was one of the costliest battles in the history of warfare. More than 700,000 casualties resulted from the clash between French and German forces in the vicinity of the Meuse River in France. Verdun the game is an online first-person shooter that attempts to recreate this historic battle by organizing players into squads led by non-commissioned officers who direct attacks and order mortar barrages and smokescreens. The era-accurate firearms are appropriately difficult to use and aim, and chemical attacks force players to don gas masks as they alternately fight to capture or defend objective points. While it lacks the flash and polish of Battlefield 1, Verdun is a detailed and difficult shooter that takes its subject matter seriously.
The Great War 1918 mod for Company of HeroesTGW 1918 Development Group, 2013Available on PCCompany of Heroes emerged on the tide of renewed World War II nostalgia and provided a real time strategy experience that dovetailed with films like Saving Private Ryan and the HBO series Band of Brothers. The Great War 1918 is a total conversion for Company of Heroes, modding in new vehicle models, soldiers, equipment, and even progression trees to take the game back to the final year of the First World War. What The Great War 1918 does well, through its custom-designed maps, is illustrate the tactical challenges presented by the increasingly-complex networks of trenches infantry used as battles raged on over weeks and months .
Rise of Flight777 Studios, 2013Available on PC World War 1 was the dawn, or perhaps the pre-dawn, of modern warfare. It brought with it the first tanks and the first generation of fighter aircraft. These were light, wooden-framed, and flimsy, with engines that did not have reliable RPM and would frequently fail. But their pilots were the first aerial dogfighters, and the tactics they pioneered during World War 1 laid the groundwork for air-to-air combat today. Rise of Flight is a simulation-heavy multiplayer game that gives players the chance to take to the skies in some of these earliest fighter planes, and it’s free to play, as long as you’re content with the two base planes. Additional aircraft are sold in packs of four for $14.99.
Victoria IIParadox Development Studio, 2010Available on PC and MacParadox makes gigantic history simulators that give players the chance to pull the various knobs and levers of history. Victoria II covers 1836-1936, and allows you to take control of any nation on Earth and guide it politically and economically into the 20th century. Like most Paradox games, there’s a steep learning curve for Victoria II (particularly if you haven’t played a grand strategy game before), but it’s worth the effort. The detailed simulation of 19th century societies, conflicts, and politics provides a compelling look into the lead-up to the First World War and the industrialization of warfare.
Additional resources: There are libraries worth of books available to read if you’re interested in learning more about World War 1, but one of the best summaries of the conflict can be found in Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History series of podcasts on the subject, titled “Blueprint for Armageddon.” Carlin, a former journalist and history enthusiast, brings in a tremendous amount of resources and dozens of independent sources for each of his episodes, which tend to run long (usually around three hours), but are well-organized and easy to listen to thanks to his conversational, engaging tone.You also might want to check out Ben Reeves' piece on games that tell the story of the 20th century, and Matt Bertz' story on why World War 1 might – or might not – work with the Battlefield formula.
This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it should be enough to help get you in fighting shape for when Battlefield 1 comes out October 21.
Do you have a favorite World War 1-themed game, mod, book, or film? Let us know in the comments.
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