Thursday, 4 April 2013

World War II and computer gaming


I consider myself lucky to have been at the age when games like Call of duty had just launched.  Sure Medal of Honor had been out for years prior, but for me it was restricted by the technology of the day on PlayStation and only really made an impact when Allied Assault launched.  I played the crap out of MOHAA and it's sparse multiplayer modes, even buying the two expansion packs at a time when I was fairly ignorant of the events and the people involved in that fascinating and more horrendous period of human history.

Funny to think that this was cutting edge back in 2002
These days I consider myself to know more about the war, it's weapons and it's armies than the average person out there and I laugh when I think back to how hideously inaccurate Medal of Honor was back then.  A few examples include the British paratroopers from the spearhead expansion wearing US airborne uniforms and equipment, just trading in the helmet for a red beret.  The PPsH 41 having only 41 rounds and firing incredibly slowly despite it having 70 rounds in a drum mag and being one of the fastest firing smg's of the war.  There are many others but this really wasn't that big an issue for me back then.  The multiplayer was fun and at that time nothing else like it existed.  Even the campaign which saw you running up the beach on D-day was thrilling by early 2000 standards, to look it today it is laughably tiny for one of the largest invasions in military history.

Call of duty changed this with it's initial airborne campaign set during the June 5th paradrops and the subsequent days after.  These levels featured units of soldiers battling and using maneuvers to kill one another.  Animations looked great and the weapons looked and sounded so much better.  More importantly uniforms had been accurately modelled for each nation.  It's true that later on the campaign fell into the MOHAA trap of having cinematic chase scenes and a terrible British campaign that felt more adventure flick than epic war drama.

The multiplayer in Call of duty was epic and in my opinion is still the best the series has ever been.  Maps where big and varied, weapon variety was large and more importantly useful and battles could be large scale 64 player dust ups with 4 different nations to play as.  My only gripe was a lack of other axis nations to play as such as Italy, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria or Japan.  To be honest I am always a little perplexed as to why developers leave such a lucrative genre after only scratching the surface.

Point in case is the amazing Company of heroes series, a game that redefined real time strategy genre with many layers to it's combat.  It isn't a simulator but for the material it works and all sides had definite pro's and con's to their use.  I (and many others) wanted to see Relic expand the original game to include more of the war.  The excuse Relic gave. which was to say the engine could only handle 4 armies, was poor as it was proven false when a mod team added the Russian army without issue to the game, but I will put that down to publisher pressure rather than laziness on the developers part.

The D-Day trap

Too many western developers run on the belief that gamers always want to see the D-Day landings and the subsequent march along the peninsula when in reality most gamers who are into world war 2 have already stormed the beaches of Normandy so many times they could tell you how many grains of sand are on the beach at that time.  The only reason the beach landing is turned into a major level in any game is because Omaha was the beach that had the most trouble.  If it's tanks had gotten to land then it would have been as short a battle as Juno, Gold, Sword and Utah.

Forgotten hope 2 deserves to be it's own retail game
We have been in the boots of countless US airborne soldiers already, stormed Carentan, assaulted Brecourt manor and landed near Ste. Mere Eglise enough already.  There are plenty of other stories to play in the D-Day time frame.  The southern landings are a virtually untouched area of the war that still featured American forces fighting German defenders.  Canadian and Polish troops trying to close the Falaise pocket is another oft forgotten struggle, yet has a grander scope for narrative.  I know most developers need to sell primarily to a stereotyped flag waving American demographic, when I believe that many US gamers would happily play as any nation during the war, if the game was good and stayed within the realms of good taste.  Many were afraid that being allowed to play as the fictional Panzer Lehr unit in Company of heroes: opposing fronts would be too close to glorifying the German war effort, but in reality it was a set of missions about men fighting in a horrible war who weren't members of the SS and had no particular hate of the Jew.

I felt that Brothers in arms was a series that did something a little better with the subject material and really deserves a special mention as one of those games that rewards smart tactical play.  It's just a shame that Gearbox are now turning it into a lame inglorious basterds knock off.  At least the three games we have still represent some of the best storytelling in a world war 2 game set in the D-Day offensive, with characters that grow as the series continues and new features becoming integral to each title. 

I applaud mod teams like Forgotten hope who released their first version of Forgotten hope 2 in the African theatre.  It was such a breath of fresh air for once.  Being able to play using weapons and equipment rarely seen in computer games was awesome and yes their were those who bemoaned not having the tired hedgerows of Normandy to plod through, but they got it eventually and the game still shines best when they revisit the unforgiving deserts of North Africa because that was so unique in a way that is hard to describe really.

The forgotten fronts

Much like the forgotten war between Finland and the belligerent USSR, many other parts of the conflict are completely ignored or rarely get any releases at all.  Finland is a great example because the fighting between the relative underdog against the massive might of the red army really makes for some interesting reading and gives you a different perspective on Finlands later efforts to join Nazi Germany, not because it wanted land or power, but because it wanted revenge and the chance to reclaim lost territory.  You want narrative you have plenty of scope here and a unique set of engagements to play.

Company of heroes rewrote the book on RTS games
North Africa is a little more common but only once has it featured in a major game release in the form of Call of duty 2.  The levels where a real departure from the SAS style levels of Call of Duty and actually gave us a conflict to participate in, but again these levels left much to be desired for the hardcore world war 2 gamer.  Accuracy aside it just didn't feel like the scope of the desert war was being taken into account.  This is the one setting where the Italian army can be fully justified as an addition for the Axis player and yet they are largely written off as cowards, inept soldiers and a footnote, when in reality the forces of Italy fought and died just as hard as Germany and the Commonwealth did, yet a common and ignorant opinion rules them out time and again.  The desert has such a broad scope of forces to utilise also when you consider the fighting involved, Indian, Gurkha, Australian, New Zealand, South African, British, American, German, French and Italian forces.  It's also noted as being the part of the war where chivalry last seen as both sides had great respect for each other and very few incidents ever occurred.  Rommel is seen at his best here and Montgomery makes his name, it's such a brilliant setting for a WW2 game I am shocked it never makes the grade for whatever reason.

Poland is where it all started if you aren't counting the conflict in China.  Here we are with the Polish nation being the first to test the mettle of a reformed Germany and we are again denied this gaming opportunity.  Yes many third party and second party games allow us to play this campaign, but I am still mystified as to why developers miss this part of the war out completely.  Considering how many American's claim Polish heritage they seem to never count Poland as something people would want to play as in a triple A WW2 game.  The loss is inevitable but the story can be told in such a way that it informs the player of the desperate struggle of a nation doomed to defeat.  Polish forces didn't exactly have a small army and it wasn't through lack of capable weapons that they lost, it was through better tactics that they lost.  The campaign could really highlight this as players adapt and struggle to counter the German forces they face.  Multiplayer alone would be a unique experience with such early war technology.

Company of heroes 2 cannot come sooner
France is another criminally ignored front.  Like Italy, France is also ruled out as cowards who couldn't fight when it was a mixture of out of date tactical thinking and decisive German maneuvers that ended Frances hope of staying in the war.  The conflict in France still lasted for weeks and many French forces engaged German troops in battle.  Is it really too difficult to make a campaign out of all of those engagements?  Even if creative licence was taken to craft a story the material to do it is still there.

Sicily and Italy are regularly ignored.  Battlefield 1942 did make sort of Italian expansion but the effort put in was sorely lacking.  Italian troops had German weapons until a patch added the Breda Modello and that was all.  The M13/40 was nowhere to be seen and apparently the Italians used Stug tanks exclusively, while the Carro light twin turret series was used when those tanks where woefully inadequate for the task.  I don't really count DICE's lacklustre attempt as a real triple A addition here.  Company of heroes could have easily made a "tough old gut" expansion but they seemed uninterested.

Finally you have Japan and it's battles in Burma.  Burma was the theatre where most British and Indian forces did battle with the Imperial Army yet time and again we see the rehashed story of Iwo Jima, Tinian and Saipan, Guadalcanal and the rest.  That is not to say I don't enjoy playing in these locations, but honestly why is a massive part of the fighting in the Pacific theatre missed?  Again this is another setting for massive scope and narrative.

The Stalingrad Trap

Call of duty was and still is an amazing online shooter
The war in the eastern European theatre can summed up with just one battle in gaming - Stalingrad.  While the fighting there effectively signalled the end of Germany's domination of the Russian army it would be erroneous to say that it was just this one siege that broke the German forces back.  Leningrad, Sevastopol, Kursk, Moscow.  All of these areas are rarely seen outside of mods, lower tier developers and grand strategy games. 

Russian developers obviously paint the picture of the war differently here with Russia being the only nation to have any effect on Germany's ability to fight a war, but this is understandable when you consider the sheer scale of the fighting in this one area of the world on it's own.  I just think developers both eastern and western have a narrow view again of what players want to see when the focus shifts from the rolling hills of France to frozen urban shells of Russian cities. 

The Apathy

I think a lot of the apathy came from this narrow focus.  Critics had been tapped out from playing the same old battles time and again, while fans who still enjoyed these games yearned for something new, never before seen from a publisher like EA, THQ, Activision or even Ubisoft.  I think if Sega gave Relic the time and the resources they could spin out a plethora of WW2 company of heroes games that covered most of the war in a great way, with unique play styles and strategy's to each nation.

EA and DICE could make a killing with a new Battlefield game set during the war, with the systems they have in place now with Battlefield 3 and soon Battlefield 4, the multiplayer could be epic. 

Tripwire are soon due to release their expansion to red orchestra 2, Rising storm which shifts from the brutal fighting of the Russian front to just as brutal fighting in the pacific and it looks great.  I would love Tripwire to continue this effort also by expanding into new fronts with new nations and equipment each time.

I44 for Arma 2 is one of the best mods made for ARMA 2
There are many developers out there who have made great world war 2 games with series such as Combat Mission, Hearts of Iron, Theatre of war, Men of war and many others to name that make games that with more money and time could really show up the top developers, given a chance.

And let's not forget the dedicated modders out there who work for free to try and bring all the things I have talked about here into the gaming world.  Forgotten Hope 2 is a real star in my opinion, but there are many others such as Darkest hour, Mare Nostrum and I44 for ARMA 2 who produced great material for their favourite games.

The Hope

So what was the point of this post?  Mostly to vent but also to hopefully highlight just how much I love the subject material and how it lends itself to the medium of gaming.  Some may see it as morbid or inappropriate to view such a conflict in this way, but it is history now and nearly everyone who suffered the torments of the war have passed away now.  We play games based on more recent conflicts and many allow these without issue.  I view games of the second world war to be as much an educational tool as much as a game.  I learnt a lot about the war through games before I started collecting books and studying the subject in more depth.  Gaming can open your eyes to a subject that previously may have seemed very bland and uninteresting, I mean showing a child the stock footage of the war isn't going to have same effect as putting them in the position of command, or simply surviving the battle. 

ROME 2 Total war is another example which could be used to educate children on a subject matter.  Those games are crammed with historical tidbits of information about municipal buildings, the ins and outs of politics and the reasons for many buildings existing in the first place let alone the soldiers, national histories, famous characters, past times and weapons, units and equipment.  It also highlights cultures many would never have heard of before and may create a future historian. 

In the end the sacrifice of so many lives in the war shouldn't be forgotten, but I fear it is and with the media, especially gaming, being such a massive part of our lives we need to start finding ways of keeping the lessons of this conflict alive and I honestly believe that games can help do that.  That and I want my French army in Company of heroes, don't let me down Relic :)

Thanks for reading, I am sleepy, see you tomorrow maybe.

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