Or has it? Depends on who you trust more – David Hayter or Ron Perlman.
Regardless, as this list of the 15 best war games will show, what definitely has changed are war games. Once pixelated battlefields come to life with hyper-realism and bombs that used to “ping” in our ear now erupt over surround sound speakers. Every firefight grows more intense as we run for cover, rush up to rooftop vantage points, plow through enemies in lumbering tanks, and aimlessly toss explosives hoping something will hit.
The mechanics and visuals may have changed, but the core focus of every war game is the same. It’s all about the fight, and the following 15 best war games, ranging from early-era gaming to modern consoles with just one entry per franchise included, give us some of the most memorable we’ve ever geared up for.
Developer: Introversion Software Publisher: Encore Software
What if it were your finger hovering over the infamous big red button? Every nuclear strike the nation takes is your call. The deaths of millions rest in just one muscle movement. It’s not a pleasant position to be in – unless, of course, the whole point was to exterminate your enemy and be the only nuclear power left standing.
Nuclear war is a terrifying concept, but DEFCON tinkers with it by pulling inspiration from the 1983 movie Wargames. As a General tucked safely away in an underground bunker, it’s your job to wipe out your enemies while keeping civilian casualties low for your nation. That means strategically planning your strikes while keeping your missile silos, nuclear subs, and bombers hid.
DEFCON is a full-on strategy game played on a world map threatening to go completely nuclear. Can you manage to wipe out your enemies, destroy any signs of counterattack, and keep the people of your country alive? It may sound a lot easier than it is, but DEFCON’s entertainment value far exceeds the frustration of losing, which you will do a lot.
14. IL-2 Sturmovik
Developer: 1C: Maddox Games Publisher: Ubisoft
One if by land. Two if by sea. IL-2 if by air.
So often we see depictions of World War II trickle out of Hollywood from an Americanized point of view. Gaming has changed that a bit, especially with games like IL-2 Sturmovik. Before Call of Duty became the “it” game for the World War II setting, Sturmovik places players in 31 different warplanes and sent them soaring into the Eastern Front at the height of the conflict.
IL-2 Sturmovik, named for the Soviet ground-attack fighter, is a combat flight simulator that lets you join the Allied or Axis powers as a French, Finnish, German, Polish, British, American, Japanese, Italian, Hungarian, Australian, Nordic, Romanian, Slovakian, or Kiwi pilot. Choose your craft of choice and engage in thrilling dogfights over a variety of different European environments.
Flight simulators have come a long way since the first entry of the IL-2 series launched, but despite its age, Sturmovik stands up incredibly well against others of the same genre. As with any flight simulator, when you get tired of actually playing the game, you can waste time coming up with ridiculous ways to crash. Clearly, that’s what landed IL-2 on a best war games list.
13. Close Combat: A Bridge Too Far
Developer: Atomic Games Publisher: Microsoft
War isn’t just about rushing into the fray with your regenerative health and arsenal of firearms. Sometimes, there is a strategic side to it. Close Combat: A Bridge Too Far opts for the thought-provoking procedures of conflict and sets it against the backdrop of World War II. The playing field is a 2D map speckled with 3D terrain that serves all sorts of purposes in the thick of battle.
In Close Combat, it’s not just about placing units in the optimal spot. You have to watch their stats and make sure they don’t go mad from fatigue or are out of ammo. The best soldiers are those that are well equipped and mentally prepared for the fight, and that’s only one hurdle you have to clear to obtain a victory.
Every decision you make can have dire consequences, so those decisions must be made carefully. Misplace your troops and they’ll be overtaken immediately. Fail to provide tank support and you’ll risk losing your position. In Close Combat, it’s all about anticipating your enemy and knowing the limits of your units.
Developer: 11 Bit Studios Publisher: 11 Bit Studios
We’re so used to being in the thick of battle, mortar shells and bullets peppering the ground around us. It’s not often that we see a war from the viewpoint of the civilians it may affect. This War of Mine is a different take on the genre that swaps out an arsenal of weapons for dwindling supplies and replaces non-stop action with slow-paced survival.
Controlling a group of civilians, players must do all they can to survive within their makeshift shelter until a ceasefire is reached between warring nations. The (fictional) city of Pogoren, Graznavia has been hit hard by the conflict, leaving minimal supplies and tools behind. Manage hunger, health, and mood levels by being creative with what tools you can find to avoid becoming another casualty of war.
Only in the cover of darkness can you scour the decimated city – but the horrors of war never truly sleep, and even fellow survivors can be your downfall.
11. Valiant Hearts: The Great War
Developer: Ubisoft Montpellier Publisher: Ubisoft
Who’d have thought that a cartoonish art style would fit so well within a wartime environment? Valiant Hearts proves that war games don’t always have to be gritty and realistic to be effective and land on “best war games” list. Set during World War I, players take on the role of four characters – a German, Frenchman, American, and Belgian – and battle their way through a series of connected campaigns. In this case, by battle, I mean use their wits. Valiant Hearts is not a straight-up action game and is filled with puzzles to complete in order to survive the war. Or at least try to.
From French POW camps to the frontlines of the Nivelle Offensive, Valiant Hearts doesn’t hold back on the horrors of war. Most surprisingly, the art style and puzzle-based gameplay don’t detract from the somber mood you would expect from a World War I game. Unlike many war games where soldiers almost seem ecstatic to be on the frontlines, Valiant Hearts reminds us that, sometimes, men fought because they had no other choice.
10. Unity of Command
Developer: 2×2 Games Publisher: Divaput
Risk aficionados should get a kick out of Unity of Command, a strategic war game that tasks players with battling across Stalingrad during the campaign in the Eastern Front. Take control of either the Axis powers or Soviet forces to turn the tide of war and take the city of Stalingrad as a vantage point for the remainder of World War II.
Things may not have gone well for the Wehrmacht in the real Stalingrad Campaign and the culmination at the Battle of Stalingrad, but Unity of Command gives you the chance to rewrite history. To do so, you must carefully place units, command aerial attacks, and dominate slivers of the map. While a bit more interactive than Risk, victory in Unity of Command doesn’t come without careful consideration of every move you make.
The turn-based format gives you time to plan your attack or defense, which can include bolstering your forces, moving units, and preparing for your own attack. Despite progressing based on turns, the game has a fast pace to it that prevents it from dragging on. Also unlike a real game of Risk.
Somehow, we made it 6 entries into this list before coming to our first action-based war game. Brought to life by the development studio behind Borderlands 2, We Happy Few, Half-Life Blue Shift, and Alien: Colonial Marines (okay, bad example), Brothers in Arms is a story-driven game of war that puts you in control of teams of soldiers on the frontline. Praised for its system of commands, Brothers in Arms took things a step further than previous war titles like Call of Duty.
Though it took on the first-person shooter format, Brothers in Arms wasn’t about running-and-gunning. Even the slightest movement would set off the game’s realistic accuracy, which required players to take things slow and steady. To survive long enough to line up a shot, you have to work with your team to suppress enemy fire or flank their positions.
Players used to picking off Nazis with sniper-like aim may get frustrated over how sensitive the aim system is, but it lends a bit of realism while requiring you to rely on ally AI and your ability to control them.
Based on Mission Albany and the 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment dropped behind Nazi lines during the Normandy Invasion, Brothers in Arms is an emotional journey sure to tug at the heartstrings while also fuelling your adrenaline.
Set in World War II, Panzer General’s campaign enlists players into the Axis forces as a German Generallisimus fighting across 5 locations. To push ahead in your campaign for victory, you’ll engage enemies in turn-based warfare. There is a lot of strategy to mastering Panzer General and plenty of menus to click through to ensure your military power vastly outweighs that of your enemy’s.
In Panzer General, resources are limited. Can you decimate the enemy without completely draining your resources? Or will your last few troops drop under the weight of the Allied armies? It’s all about how you place your tanks, infantry, support vehicles, air defense, and recon units.
Learning how to play Panzer General isn’t too tricky. Learning how to play it correctly is where the challenge comes in. Careless unit placement can have infantry going toe-to-toe with tanks or cavalry units trying to bring down enemy aircraft. Like many strategy games, every move you make will get your heart racing as you wait for the inevitable misstep that leaves you with limited troops.
7. Company of Heroes
Developer: Relic Entertainment Publisher: THQ
Real-time strategy is an all-too-perfect format for war. You can man an army of troops, oversee an entire map riddled with conflict, and make decisions that will get a ton of people killed for your cause. Company of Heroes shows just how well it works with a solid RTS that thrust you into the thick of World War II during the Battle of Normandy.
The single-player campaign puts you in charge of American forces as they battle across France. As part of the Able Company of the 29th Infantry Division’s 116th Infantry or Fox Company of the 101st Airborne Division’s 506th PIR, you’ll command infantry and vehicles in an effort to liberate the French. Since you’re not battling on your home turf, resources are limited, and you can only suffer so many losses before the Axis emerge victoriously.
Company of Heroes captures the chaos of war. Bombs blacken the ground, bullets are exchanged between positions, and the ruins of war-torn cities are scattered everywhere you look.
If it’s fast-paced action, nonstop explosions, and waves of Nazis that you want out of your war game, you’re not going to get it out of Arma 2. That doesn’t mean it isn’t a great war game. In fact, it’s placement on this list indicates it’s one of the best.
Arma 2 is more of a simulator with elements of an FPS and RTS sprinkled in. Your campaign across the fictional Eastern European state of Chernarus requires patience and careful planning. You’re in command of multiple units, so with every action you take, you have to consider how it will affect all of your troops and not just one soldier. To break up the slower-paced ground missions, players will also take the wheel and cockpit of a variety of ground vehicles and aircraft.
Military buffs will love the accuracy of Arma 2, which is jam-packed with 80 weapons and 130 vehicles, all faithfully recreated from their real-world counterparts. A multiplayer component is a bit more hectic and utilizes many of the same features as the single-player campaign. The result is a frantic battle that still requires a bit of strategy and teamwork.
5. Command & Conquer: Red Alert 2
Developer: Westwood Pacific Publisher: EA Games
What if all those fears of a Soviet invasion of the United States were founded? Command & Conquer: Red Alert explored that scenario with an alternate history where Adolph Hitler didn’t exist. Instead, a great war was fought between the Allies and the Soviet Union, resulting in the latter’s defeat. Though the Allies thought they had control of the Soviet Union, the Red rose again, backed by a military force strong enough to take on the United States.
Red Alert 2 is one of those games you can expect to see in most “best strategy games” lists. From the solid gameplay to the corny live-action cut scenes, everything comes together for a classic gaming experience. Whether you play as the Allies or the Soviets, you’re treated to a robust campaign across expansive maps.
Build up your forces, research the best upgrades, and launch a massive attack on your enemies. It’s all standard RTS fare, but Red Alert 2 executes it better than most.
4. Total War: Shogun 2
Developer: Creative Assembly Publisher: Sega
RTS games generally let you control groups of units at a time, giving you a modest amount of control over what unfolds on the battlefield. The Total War series, which, admittedly, is partially turn-based, extends your control to complete armies of units. We’re talking entire phalanx of infantry units that crowd massive battlefields. Shogun 2 is the 7th Total War game and arguably the best in the entire series.
Beyond visual enhances, Shogun 2 makes some mechanical adjustments to bring fluidity to the battlefield. The game is beautiful, and you have plenty of time to admire the landscapes as you plan your army’s next move. Total War has always been about large-scale warfare, and Shogun 2 doesn’t stray from that.
Set in 16th-century feudal Japan, in the aftermath of the Onin War, players control one of 9 clans vying for control of the country. Taking control of Japan means dominating the large-scale battles, which requires strategic planning and placement of infantry. When the battle begins, chaos erupts on the battlefield. It can take a little bit to get used to how to manage the fight, but once you get the hang of Total War’s system, Shogun 2 is an addictive war game.
We feel sorry for anyone that’s grown up with nothing but the newer Call of Duty games. Not that they’re all bad, but games like Medal of Honor: Allied Assault helped define the genre. An incredible score coupled with a veracious depiction of the horrors of World War II created an unforgettable experience that’s been tough to match.
Medal of Honor: Allied Assault opens with one of the tensest scenes in any war game. The Normandy landings have become a staple of World War II games, but Allied Assault was one of the first and remains among the most memorable. There may be a noticeable difference in visual quality between Allied Assault and other depictions, but 2015, Inc.’s portrayal sticks with us even 17 years later.
Allied Assault doesn’t have to hang on the opening moments to be memorable. Battling across German-occupied Norway, dismantling Axis bases in Algiers, and pushing through North Africa culminate in one of the best war games and one of the pioneers of FPS World War II shooters.
2. Battlefield: Bad Company 2
Developer: EA Dice Publisher: Electronic Arts
There are a lot of Battlefield games to choose from, and though 1944 and 1942 may have been better at depicting historical warfare, Bad Company 2 is overall simply a better game. The Bad Company series introduces squad-based gameplay, where you’re almost always fighting alongside a team of AI-controlled allies.
As part of Bad Company, you’re thrust into a series of conflicts during the fictional Second Russo-American War. The diverse environments, from the snow-covered terrain of Russia to the small villages and rainforests of Ecuador, help keep the firefights from getting stale. The modern warfare is still grounded in realism and features an authentic and varied arsenal.
The campaign was solid and worth playing through but suffered from repetition and predictability. The multiplayer, on the other hand, was the shining star, advancing on the strides that had already been taken in its predecessor.
1. Call of Duty 2
Developer: Infinity Ward Publisher: Activision
You can’t mention the best war games of all time and not expect Call of Duty 2 to come up in at least the top 3 on said list. Before the Call of Duty series became repetitive and reliant on reworking the formula that made Call of Duty 2 so good, Infinity Ward was delivering an experience that immersed you in every aspect of war.
There are many shining achievements with Call of Duty 2, but the team in charge of the sound design deserves ample praise. Distant sounds of battle echo throughout every level, reminding you that the war is so much bigger than just the part you play. In a way, you feel less like an action hero and more like just another grunt. Visuals are also a remarkable improvement over the original Call of Duty, which helps bring every battlefield to life with bullet impact and the particle effects of scattered explosions.
Call of Duty 2 is designed for longevity and is something you can easily pick up today and play without the usual frustrations that come with playing old games.