The Greatest War Stories in Video Games
War. War never changes. Unless it’s war featured in a video game, in which case it changes pretty much all of the time. Sometimes the war will be waged between humans and aliens in a distant galaxy, other times it will be a retelling of one of the various conflicts fought right here on Earth. Over the years, developers have sought to differentiate how the medium handles the complicated and tragic intricacies of war in a manner that won’t come across as insensitive, while also ensuring its enjoyable to play.
The following video game war stories rank among the best ever told in video games, running the gamut from compelling tales set in real-world conflicts, to sci-fi combat set in distant worlds. Here are the greatest war stories in video game history:
Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater
Many consider Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater to be the pinnacle of the Metal Gear series, and it’s not difficult to see why. Snake Eater saw creator Hideo Kojima firing on all cylinders, fighting back against the widespread derision he faced in the wake of its controversial predecessor, delivering a story that greatly expanded the Metal Gear lore (and God knows it needed even more lore) and a brand new protagonist in the form of Naked Snake a.k.a. Big Boss.
Snake Eater was a step away from the over-seriousness of MGS2, confidently stripping away the convolutions of the notoriously complex Metal Gear Solid narrative in favor of transporting players back in time to the early ’60s. Set during the Cold War, three decades prior to the events of the original 8-bit Metal Gear, Snake is tasked with a mission into the Soviet jungle in order to rescue a rocket scientist, bring an end to a potentially devastating superweapon and assassinate his former boss, conveniently nicknamed The Boss.
Snake Eater‘s campy charm was (mostly) free of the melodrama of MGS2, borrowing heavily from old spy movies such as James Bond, while also delivering Kojima’s trademark off-the-wall boss fights such as a battle with a man who could control swarms of hornets by way of secreting a special pheromone from his body. A prequel before we were all sick of prequels, Snake Eater managed to win over fans who had been disappointed by MGS2 and made Big Boss the star of the series in the process.
Specs Ops: The Line
Spec Ops: The Line was a deeply cynical, hugely underrated commentary on the effects of war, taking players on a journey through the ruins of a Dubai ravaged by devastating sandstorms, wherein they unwittingly commit atrocities under the assumption that they are saving the city from a former US army colonel, the power-crazed John Konrad.
Assuming the role of Martin Walker, the player heads up a small Delta Force team as they fight their way through Dubai, but the lines between reality and hallucination are increasingly blurred as Walker’s mental health deteriorates. The comparisons to Apocalypse Now are easy to make, with developers Yager drawing plenty of inspiration from Francis Ford Coppola’s indictment of America’s presence in the Vietnam war; even Konrad’s name is a combination of the film’s antagonist Kurtz and the author of Heart of Darkness, the book on which it was based, Joseph Conrad.
With most shooters having grown increasingly “Hollywood” thanks to Call of Duty‘s impact on the market, Specs Ops: The Line‘s much less patriotic plot was both disconcerting and uniquely confrontational. Marketed as yet another generic action shooter, it failed to find a large audience as a result, though this made its dark story even more shocking to those who picked it up. Few games have dared to confront the horrors of war in a manner that has held the West accountable for their actions, with Yager’s modern cult classic being all the more vital as a result.
The 2008 sleeper hit Valkyria Chronicles takes place in an alternate timeline where the continent of Europa is dominated by the Autocratic East Europan Imperial Alliance and the commonwealth Atlantic Federation, with both becoming locked in the Second Europan War over Ragnite, a precious mineral the superpowers need in order to function. Welkin Gunther, the crown price of Bruhl, commands the newly formed Squad 7 in order to defend the neutral Principality of Gallia from an Imperial invasion.
While its story is hardly treading new ground, its colorful cast of characters and unique presentation of its plot was widely praised. With its entire story contained within the fictitious book “On the Gallian Front” by Irene Koller, the game’s plot is a retelling of the war by the author, with players able to flick through its pages in order to learn more of the battle waged in defense of Gallia. Couple this with memorable squad mates each with their own compelling back stories that’ll make you desperately want to keep them aliv
Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
The subsequent releases in the Modern Warfare trilogy may not have lived up to the precedent set by Call of Duty 4, but Infinity Ward’s first crack at the whip was transformative for the FPS genre, and a key reason why “cinematic experience” became the gaming industry’s go-to marketing term for the next decade.
Taking place in a conflict between the US of A and a gang of Russian nationalists led by the villainous Imran Zakhaev, ‘Murica sets out to take down the “New Russia” rebellion while simultaneously dealing with a seemingly unrelated nuclear threat in the Middle East, orchestrated by the separatist leader Khaled Al-Asad. Eventually it’s learned that the Russian nationalists and Al-Asad were colluding one another, but not before a nuke is activated that kills the player-character, Sergeant Paul Jackson. With players experiencing Jackson’s slow, miserable and unnecessary death in first-person, it was a genuinely shocking and ballsy scene that many games, including later CoD entries, attempted to replicate but never quite managed to pull off. Later entries had you firing bazookas from horseback, though, so there’s that.
Pre-Modern Warfare CoD games were popular as a result of their more realistic take on war, with them placing the player in the boots of just another average Joe, fighting for the world’s freedom alongside his fellow soldiers. Call of Duty 4 provided a midway point between that style of storytelling and big action set-pieces, with Infinity Ward demonstrating the value in moments of quiet tension such as in the excellent ‘All Ghillied Up’ mission, punctuated by explosive action sequences. The series’ over-reliance upon these set-pieces, along with appeasing the short attention spans of their expanded player base, has ensured that no other CoD game has managed to stack up to the original Modern Warfare. Not only did it set the new benchmark for competitive online multiplayer games, but it also raised the bar for single-player FPS campaigns, too.
Valiant Hearts: The Great War
It’s rare that a war game deviates from a traditional good vs. evil plot, especially if said game is set in either World War. Valiant Hearts: The Great War‘s story of families torn apart by WWI does just that, showing a man and his father-in-law forced to fight for the opposing German and French armies respectively after a deportation of all Germans from France is ordered by the government.
The comic book aesthetics of Valiant Hearts make its more violent scenes all the more jarring. Using a pile of the bloodied bodies of your fellow soldiers for cover, or witnessing the serenity of rural France aggressively interrupted by dropping bombs, developers Ubisoft Montpellier’s animated characters show a lot of depth as they face the horrors of war despite their 2D design. A game more about exploring the effects of war upon ordinary people than going in guns a-blazin’ on the Central Powers, Valiant Hearts was a thoughtful puzzler that depicted a rarely explored side of the so-called Great War.
The Halo story is as bloated a sci-fi yarn as you’ll encounter in video games, with series’ creator Bungie and 343 Industries both having struggled with pulling a compelling story out of a universe that, truth be told, isn’t all that interesting. Halo: Reach was an exception to this rule, and it’s unfortunate that it also served as Bungie’s final Halo game.
Halo: Reach managed to usurp previous entries in the series by A) giving us characters that we actually cared about, and B) abandoning the narrative threads of the Halo series in order to deliver a story outside of Master Chief’s convoluted exploits. Reach as a setting was fertile ground for exploration, with it having been a key part of Halo lore and somewhere that fans of the series had always wanted to visit, while the story of its downfall was infinitely more interesting than what followed. It also has one of the most memorable final missions of any FPS, with player-character Six continuing to fight an unwinnable battle against Covenant forces until they breathe their last breath. 343 would later put Master Chief back in the driving seat, and while John-117 is undoubtedly the most recognizable face (or helmet) from the series, the Noble Team had the best story to tell.
DICE struggled to deliver a compelling Battlefield story for years, before eventually moving to World War I and creating one of the finest entries in their FPS series to date. Battlefield 1‘s multiplayer may have been the star of the show, but DICE pulled together six self-contained stories for its campaign that each offered a unique perspective on the Great War, arguably delivering its finest single-player component yet.
Battlefield 1‘s six unique chapters see players assuming the role of a tank fighter in the Battle of Cambrai, a cocksure American posing as a British pilot, a Bedouin rebel reporting to Lawrence of Arabia and more, with each story managing to carefully tread the line between offering an authentic WWI story and still being a lot of fun to play (we called it the future of the single-player FPS around the time of its release).
Heroism is a core theme of each chapter, allowing DICE to deliver plenty of action while still ensuring that they didn’t take too many liberties with a very real, very tragic war. Sure, Battlefield 1‘s campaign is a little on the short side and its level of quality isn’t consistent across each chapter, but as far as big-budget, multiplayer-focused FPS games go, it was as good as any we’ve seen in recent years.
Gears of War 3
A rare instance of the final entry in a trilogy being the best, Gears of War 3 was Epic Games’ fantastic swansong to its blockbuster action series, before Microsoft ultimately decided to not let that cash cow be put out to pasture as it handed over development duties to The Coalition for Gears of War 4.
Game designer Cliff Bleszinski’s unashamedly testosterone-fueled Gears series was given a satisfying conclusion in GoW3, with sci-fi author Karen Traviss taking over story duties in order to bring an end to the Gears’ mission to save humanity. With GoW‘s apocalyptic universe having garnered itself a lot of fans, GoW3 had a lot riding on its shoulders to not disappoint those who had journeyed with Marcus and Dom in their efforts to pull humanity back from the brink of extinction, this time seeing them face hordes of mutated Lambent.
GoW3 featured the Gears at their most desperate, with humanity’s last remaining safe haven having been sacrificed in order to wipe out the Locust, and them now facing an even more powerful threat that seems destined to wipe them off the face of Sera. Unlike most finales, GoW3 provided a full stop at the end of the Gears‘ story (at least before GoW4 came along five years later) that the vast majority of its fans were happy with, complete with a surprisingly touching conclusion to Dom’s tragic story that brought the series full circle, thanks to the use of Gary Jules’ somber ‘Mad World’ cover.