My 30 second guide to gaining a WWII education through gaming: for insights into the airman's war, choose Battle of Britain II or IL-2: 1946. For a taste of the tanker's experience, your best bet is Steel Fury. Interested in the challenges that generals faced? Grab anything by Panther Games. Wonder what it was like to be a WWII grunt? No title will get you closer to the muck and bullets than Red Orchestra.
Tripwire's multiplayer time machine may be a little long in the tooth now, but thanks to mods like the recently refreshed Darkest Hour, it remains unmatched as a 1939-45 infantry simulator. DH shifts the high drama, high bodycount aggro from Ost Front to West Front. Out are the Ivans with their bulky greatcoats and chattering PPSh-41s. In are the Yanks with their BARs and bazookas, and the Brits and Canucks with their Sten guns and stiff upper lips.
Actually, scratch the stiff upper lips. You'd have to be knapped from Norfolk flint to maintain a stiff upper lip through some of DH's teeth-rattling bloodbaths. Take Dog Green for example. Battles on this vast recreation of the deadliest sector of Omaha Beach often feel like subliminal adverts for the Quakers.
Fighting for the Allies, my last session began something like this: Spawn 1: chewed up by an MG 42 seconds after leaving the landing craft. Spawn 2: cut down by sniper fire while cowering behind semi-submerged beach obstacle. Spawn 3: blown to smithereens by artillery while attempting to resupply a machinegunner on first shingle bank. Spawn 4: rifle shot from hand while sprinting between shell craters, then killed endeavouring to retrieve it. Four deaths in as many minutes, and I never even fired a shot.
Dog Green played from the attacker's perspective is at the extreme end of the Darkest Hour difficulty spectrum, but the core elements that make it so brutal and convincing are common to all of the 18 official maps. Whether you're storming French farmhouses at La Chapelle, darting between wrecked gliders on Ginkel Heath, or hunting Panzers through the slushy streets of Stoumont, you'll be doing it without crosshairs, ammo counts, or medkits. How autistically authentic can Darkest Hour get? Squeeze the trigger of a Lee Enfield or Kar98 a couple of times and you'll find out. All bolt-action rifles in the game have functioning bolts that must be manually worked between shots.
Leaning, weapon resting, bipods, bayonets, suppression effects, bazooka backblasts... all the fine details that FPS makers routinely ignore are bread and butter to Tripwire and Darklight. In its own stylised way the class system also ratchets-up the realism. Nab the officer slot before anyone else, and it's up to you to orchestrate friendly forces by setting rally points with coloured smoke. You're also the chap that gets to call the artillery in. Assuming of course, there's a radioman nearby.
Plausible teamwork is everywhere on a frantic DH battlefield. Anti-tank soldiers and squad machinegunners spawn with piffling amounts of ammo. Once that initial stock is gone, they are wholly reliant on comrades for resupply. On smaller, denser maps like Foy and Juno Beach, armour is screwed without infantry to watch its flanks, and infantry massively disadvantaged without an HE-slinging trundler in close support.
Tank fans have done particularly well out of the last update. An impressive choice of chariots (of which those in 'Stars Of Track & Field' are just a selection) now includes the M36 Jackson, a vulnerable yet vicious US tank destroyer, and the Panzer III Ausf N, the perfect tool for silencing troublesome MG nests or clearing buildings at range. All AFVs die a little more dynamically thanks to new damage modelling subtleties. Though DH can't quite match Steel Fury's fancy ballistic maths and slew of degradable systems, it has a good stab at it. Pump a shell into a target's tracks and you may immobilise it. Land one on the front hull and you can nobble or nail the crew (up to three players may man a single tank). Turret hits can play havoc with gun traverse and elevation controls, and – gulp – cause shells in storage racks to cook-off.
Among the half-dozen new maps are two tailor-made for long range, high velocity duels. La Monderie's scattered villages and copses, and Freyneux's bare snow-mantled hills are tough environments for the pedestrian, but a skilful tanker can have a lot of fun. It says plenty about Darkest Hour's authenticity, that you often find yourself using historical tactics not out of a desire to roleplay, but because it's the natural thing to do. Lone AFVs seldom last long, so tankers often band together into ad-hoc zugs. Skylined AFVs are easy meat, so wise warriors lurk behind crests or in hull-down positions in hollows.
Of course true-to-life tactics come with their own risks. Last night I parked my Sherman Firefly behind a wooded hill, and jumped out to scout on foot (a bloke with binos is a lot less conspicuous than 36 tons of smoke-belching steel). Reaching the summit I came face to face with an enemy gentlemen also clutching binoculars. After exchanging a few panicky pistol shots, we both legged it back to our vehicles. He, sadly, was a lot closer to his than I was to mine. DH's delights are strictly multiplayer (the dunderheaded Red Orchestra bots can't even navigate their way out of the spawns on some maps) but that's no reason for the shy to hang back. The vast majority of people who throng the dozen or so servers active most nights are friendly and helpful. Triumphalist trumpetblowing is rare, perhaps because Darkest Hour players understand better than most that behind the riveting spectacle and high excitement of war is a meatgrinder. See you on Dog Green.