No matter where you look, war has found its way into almost every seam of pop culture. If Bruce Springsteen isn’t asking what it’s good for in typically melodic style, then Ron Perlman is mumbling something about its ever unchanging nature in Fallout 3. As that latter example attests to, video games are no stranger to the subject of war either, with many of them using it as the basis for their entire existence.
The best war games, however, are those which contribute or build upon ideas and themes about the weighty subject matter with deft judgement and creative poise. They stick with us for their unique perspectives on war, enriching our understanding of the phenomenon when so many other titles tend to mindlessly glorify it above all else. That isn’t to say some of the titles below don’t lean into this temptation at times, but the calibre of their creative ambition ultimately outweighs the sum of their infrequent missteps.
10. Gears of War 2
What it is: A third-person shooter and the second title in the Xbox exclusive trilogy from Epic Games.
Where you can play it: Xbox One via backwards compatibility and Xbox 360.
In spite of its entirely fictional subject matter, Gears of War is a series steeped in real-world influences with regards to its presentation of war. So why place Gears of War 2 on this list over the rest? Well, the sequel’s dramatically sweeping scope takes the focus off of the “Gears” of the title to instead double down on the “War” part, dealing in broad strokes and grand gestures to convey the sheer scale of the conflict ravaging across Sera.
You fight alongside hundreds of COG soldiers, save entire cities from being destroyed, and gut a giant, world-eating worm from the inside out. If there’s any lesson to be had from Gears of War 2, it’s that war is unceasing, ever consuming and has little concern for the micro.
9. Battlefield 1
What it is: A first-person shooter and the latest title in DICE's Battlefield franchise, this time set in World War One.
Where you can play it: PS4, Xbox One and PC.
Battlefield 1 is a game of two disparate parts. One the one hand, you have a sombre campaign which sincerely delves into the human cost of war. Then there’s multiplayer, which turns the WW1 setting into an arena for digital sport. Putting multiplayer aside for one second, however, it’s hard to deny that the team behind Battlefield 1’s campaign did a fine job of conveying the themes of World War 1 we’re so familiar with - hope, tragedy, heroism, grief - in a manner well suited to the advantages of the medium.
Its opening level, for instance, brings an intelligent spin to the “game over” trope, as each death doesn’t lead to an instant reset, but becomes an opportunity for bleak remembrance, as the camera pauses to commemorate each soldier’s life before briskly moving to another fighter on the field. For a big budget first-person shooter, these are ambitious creative decisions indeed, and together creates something that DICE can and should be proud of.
8. Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway
What it is: The seventh instalment in the WW2-based first-person shooter series from Gearbox.
Where you can play it: PC, Xbox 360, PS3
2008 was clearly the watershed year for squad-based combat, with both Battlefield: Bad Company and Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway releasing within a few months of each other, to much the adulation of their respective fans. While Bad Company was a strong debut that paved the way for an even better sequel, it’s Hell's Highway that still stands out as a memorable high-point for the Brothers in Arms series, with the dramatic poetry underscoring the campaign juxtaposed effectively against the fierceness of both the visuals and gameplay.
Hell’s Highway deals with the subjects of brotherhood, PTSD, and leadership, but the gunplay itself isn’t left lacking either, complemented by fine-tuned squad command mechanics that still hold up today. At the very least, play Hell’s Highway to understand why people are still clamoring for a Brothers in Arms sequel.
Play it on: PC
7. Valiant Hearts: The Great War
What it is: A puzzle-centric adventure game focused on the memories and experiences of four characters embroiled up in the Great War.
Where you can play it: PS4, Xbox One, PC, Xbox 360, PS3, iOS and Android.
Remembering the horrors and celebrating the heroes of World War 1 through the framework of a side-scroller puzzle game is ballsy to say the least, but Ubisoft Montpellier clearly knew what it was doing right from the get go with Valiant Hearts. The game maintains an intimate and deeply personal perspective, focusing on a small cast of individuals caught up in the storm of the Great War.
The result is a story laced with humanity, exposing compassion and commonality against a backdrop of seemingly endless conflict. It’s a poignant work, but keeps the material (relatively) upbeat so as to remain accessible to a wider audience of ages. While the gameplay can come across as rather twee at times, Valiant Hearts’ bittersweet story will linger in your thoughts long after the credits roll.
6. Age of Empires II HD
What it is: A real-time strategy game from Ensemble Studios, in which players must build civilisations from scratch and conquer any historical foes.
Where you can play it: PC. Plus, check out the Age of Empires: Definitive Edition this October, which is the remastered version of the original Age of Empires.
In what I’ve taken to calling the original For Honor, Age of Empires 2’s real-time strategy battles were set in the Middle Ages, allowing players to control great armies of knights, vikings, samurai, and many other historic factions. The real-life inspired campaigns often felt like a history lesson in the conduct of medieval warfare, but Age of Empires 2’s meaty RTS gameplay allowed players to conduct battle the perspective of its grand wagers.
You weren’t fighting from the front lines, but scheming and leading from above, in which the art of war becomes a grand game of strategy. Granted, no medieval warmongers were ever able to watch down upon their armies as if they were pieces on a chessboard, but that’s precisely the point. Age of Empires reveals how war could be nothing more than a great game to its leaders, emulating a entirely new dimension to the mechanisms of armed conflict.
What it is: A real-time strategy game based on the "big board" iconography of the Cold War.
Where you can play it: PC
DEFCON was released over ten years ago now but, with the current climate of international relations being what it is, its message and themes unfortunately feel more pertinent than ever. Playing out like some sort of epic digital board game, DEFCON gives you a map of the world and the tools to sustain (or destroy) the delicate international order.
It’s heavily inspired by the MAD politics of the Cold War, and the game’s brilliance is in its ability to emulate the psychological stress and emotional paranoia which is forever at play behind the conduct of nuclear warfare. Each match represents a horrifying hypothetical, theorizing the human cost of all-out international conflict in the modern age. The line between precarious peace and total catastrophe is a thin one in DEFCON, and it makes for one of the most hair raising war games out there.
4. This War of Mine
What it is: A survival game set in the fictional war-zone of Graznavia, where players take on the role of civilians trying to outlast the conflict.
Where you can play it: PS4, Xbox One, PC, Mac, Linux, Android and iOS.
Few, if any, games have shone a spotlight on the victims of war in the same way and with the same level of graceful tact as This War of Mine. In 11 bit studio’s seminal project, you’re not playing as a “hero” of war; you’re just someone trying to survive the real world nightmare of armed conflict at your doorstep.
Through the lens of its despondent art style and intelligent survival mechanics, This War of Mine touches on the experience of those caught in a middle of a war they never asked for, and creates a powerful piece of work in the process. The developers were inspired by the real Siege of Sarajevo which took place during the Bosnian War in the 1990’s but, as civil conflicts continue to rage on in the Middle East and elsewhere, This War of Mine has yet to lose its socio-political poignancy.
3. Operation Flashpoint: Cold War Crises
What it is: A military-sim from Bohemia Interactive, featuring tactical first-person shooter gameplay both in single-player and online.
Where you can play it: PC, Xbox
By offering a revamped understanding of what a military-sim could be, Operation Flashpoint indulged in the cold, hard science of war, where the threat of death lurked around every corner of its intense campaign. The game had no time for the cliched ideals of heroism or comradeship, and instead aimed to scratch at the brutal heart of modern conflict - the small scale, squad-on-squad combat where tight teamwork and patient caution is more important than any notions of glory-hunting.
Players are either left to doggedly follow orders or think on their feet, as a single false step could result in fatal failure. Realism is a buzzword that gets thrown around a lot when talking about shooter games, but few have still yet to reach the same level of authenticity as that of Operation Flashpoint.
2. Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
What it is: Infinity Ward's seminal epic, and a first-person shooter grounded in the realism of contemporary combat of the 21st century.
Where you can play it: Xbox One, PS4 and PC in Modern Warfare Remastered.
Before all the time-travelling, mind trickery and intentionally controversial campaign missions, there was a time when Call of Duty actually had something to say about the nature of warfare. Take “Death From Above”, for example, the level in Modern Warfare in which you take out targets with air strikes from the safety of an AC-130. With it’s deliberately lo-res, monochromatic filter, the sequence feels troublingly lifelike, establishing a cold, calculated climate that doesn’t sit well with the stomach.
What’s the message? War has changed. The Revolution in Military Affairs means that combat is no longer up close and personal, but distant and removed from individual accountability. Modern Warfare’s campaign is peppered with such reflections on the new theatre of war we now live in, even as it simultaneously works to indulge in the combat with equal panache.
1. Rome: Total War
What it is: A real-time strategy game by Creative Assembly, which re-stages the various conflicts of the most powerful army known to history.
Where you can play it: PC
Back in the early 2000s, a British TV show called Time Commanders would air once a week on the BBC, using Rome: Total War to recreate famous battles throughout history. This gives you a good idea of how effectively Creative Assembly’s RTS can serve as a model through which to explore the dynamics of ancient warfare, despite the forgivable historical inaccuracies found in its campaign and certain elements of its design.
Every clang of steel and cry of command worked in unison to create a war experience that felt believable, almost tangible in its dramatic authenticity. By fusing visual spectacle with tactical depth, Rome: Total War delivered on the promise of its title with one of the finest presentations of historical warfare to date.