There was a day when video games were special, one-off events that elicited inherent excitement regardless of genre. Nowadays with a larger interest, audience and over-inflated Hollywood level budget has resulted in the creation of monster franchises from larger developers such as Ubisoft. They have fully committed to annualizing their most successful franchises – Assassin’s Creed, for example, sells millions of copies worldwide each year. These series ride waves of popularity, in a precarious state, incredibly successful one day and gone the next.
World War Two shooters marked arguably the first epoch of the FPS game, flowing from Wolfenstein 3D in the early 90s through to the early 2000s franchises such as Medal of Honour, Call of Duty and Battlefield. However, games remain largely in the era they were born out of, with very few historical shooters currently being released for the mainstream audience. The arrival of Call of Duty: Modern Warfare was the first maverick creation and partial gamble by developer Infinity Ward to usher in the next cycle of popular franchises based around the modern world. It’s amusing in hindsight to remember how different and original it was at the time.
There are notable exceptions however, with Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway (2008) by Gearbox Software presenting a gritty, realistic insight into the true horror of war and the emotional toll it takes on those who fought through it. Spec Ops: The Line came out in a similar vein but unfortunately took the modern warfare approach.
Another iteration in the Brothers in Arms series was announced three years later at an E3 press conference titled Furious 4 but unfortunately the mature themes explored so far in the series weren’t taken any further with the project shelved in 2015, the remnants of the assets cannibalised and used in their latest project: Battleborn.
Valiant Hearts (2014) proved to be an unexpected success for Ubisoft, charting the story of a young German soldier trying to find his love, told through the perspective of several different characters in a charming art style. While the art direction suggested a lighthearted tone, the game’s story explored mature themes of the true impact of loss and sacrifice.
While I don’t think we have seen the last of the World War Two themed shooter or historical recreation, it is certainly indicative of a different era in the history of the medium that cannot be recreated.
It was an era where video games did not have such high expectations from their developers stacked upon them and the scope for story driven narratives in shooters usually took a back seat in place of sound shooting mechanics which were still being refined.
Without the success of games such as Medal of Honour from which Call of Duty could originate and improve upon, it is arguable that what would exist in its place today would be incredibly different and perhaps all the worse for it. Certainly games such as Titanfall, developed by a splinter group from the very successful team at Infinity Ward who created Modern Warfare and kick started the modern shooter revolution.
One popular example of a World War Two shooter that held its own in the face of competition from the monolithic beast that Call of Duty went on to become was Wolfenstein: The New Order, arguably the most successful reinvention of one of the founding fathers of the genre.
What was most remarkable about this revival, masterminded by Machine Games, was its complete refusal to adhere to the modern control scheme adopted almost universally through the tyrannical influence of the now-generic Modern Warfare series.
The game managed to stay true to its roots mechanically while reinvigorating the story for a new generation doing what many thought impossible: turning a one dimensional character quite literally three dimensional and giving BJ Blazkowicz an intriguing and realistic story which fit the dark and hopeless nature of the world the franchise now inhabited. The game managed to hold its own against monolithic entries such as Titanfall and received exceptional media praise for its bold new take on a classic dear to many gamers’ hearts.
If any lesson is to be taken from this success story it is to treat your franchises with care and consideration when trying to repackage them for a fresh audience. Genres in film are on a constant conveyor belt, with vampires and the gothic sublime in vogue one year and science fiction the next. Games work in a similar fashion.
World War Two shooters are certainly not dead, but simply taking a back seat while the desire for modern, hyper-realistic shooters burns itself out. If the right developers with original ideas decide to venture back to their roots, they will find plenty of material for a whole new generation of shooter. Wolfenstein is a hopeful first step and its huge success amongst new fans and old alike will encourage more developers to revisit what first made them pick up a controller and escape into a reality more intriguing than our own.