World War II has been the backdrop for hundreds of PC games in the time since the Allies declared victory, but not all of them get it right. Stereotypes or absurd action setpieces leave historians shaking their heads, and at this point we've seen the same famous battled played out so many times. What would it look like to cobble together a game made from the best depictions of those moments, spread across years and genres?
These are our favorite representations of key World War II moments and battles. Like the games of our most historically accurate PC games, not all of them would pass muster at an academic conference. But they're all commendable for capturing some element of the conflict in a way that shows a reverent, compelling attention to detail.
Best D-Day landing - Medal of Honor: Allied Assault
While Allied Assault’s graphics don’t hold up flawlessly today, it felt grippingly real in 2002. The developers tried to make us feel like we were in Saving Private Ryan, and they knocked it out of the park. I can still hear the final instructions before being dumped into the surf echo in my mind: “Head for cover and get to the shingle! I’ll see you on the beach!”
I was genuinely tense as the ramp to my transport lowered, putting me directly in the line of German machine gun fire. My heart raced as I watched my fellow soldiers drop like flies all around me. Finally reaching safety was pure euphoria. Many games have tried to recreate that feeling since, and none have truly succeeded in such a gut-wrenching fashion.
Best Battle of the Bulge - Call of Duty 1
It’s easy to forget Call of Duty began as a single-player focused World War II shooter that rose to prominence in an era when it was compared favorably by critics and fans to Medal of Honor and Battlefield. The most memorable mission from the original game (and perhaps in the whole series) was the capstone of the American campaign, “Festung Recogne”. It flips the pacing of Normandy on its head. Rather than a sense of dread at the carnage you know is to come, it lulls you into a false calm before the first wave of Germany’s most infamous counter-attack of the war takes you off-guard.
Infinity Ward did an excellent job of making the assault feel unexpected, and the fight to stabilize the situation frantic and challenging.
Best depiction of junior officers - Company of Heroes 2: Ardennes Assault
Sticking to the Battle of the Bulge, I couldn’t complete this list without mentioning CoH2’s fantastic Ardennes Assault expansion. In addition to introducing very interesting dynamic campaign elements, it gave each of its distinct companies a beating heart—voiced officers who each represented an archetype of the types of people who got caught up in the war. The reactive end mission dialogue made me feel each victory and defeat ever more keenly. I’ll never forget Johnny Vastano lamenting the pointless loss of life after a mission where I’d played fast and loose with my boys to get the job done.
Best air combat - IL-2 Sturmovik series
There’s a reason IL-2 is still a darling in the flight sim community all these years later. The meticulous modeling, both visually and mechanically, of the storied Soviet aircraft was enough to set it apart on its own. But it also dialed up the immersion by introducing mechanics like blackout and redout when experiencing extreme g-forces. While most flight sims are content to give you the most immersive experience of a robot flying a plane, not many go out of their way to remind you that you’re playing a flesh-and-blood human being.
Add to this some well-designed missions and wonderfully tense dogfights, and it’s hard to recommend any other game about flying a plane over war-torn Europe more highly.
Best strategic layer - Hearts of Iron IV
Not many World War II games get into how and why the Allies actually won. Unfortunately for the romantic depictions we’re used to, it wasn’t primarily because of the heroic sacrifices of a few gifted servicemen. It actually had a lot more to do with availability of resources and industrial capacity. These concepts underpin Hearts of Iron IV and challenge you to think about aspects of modern total warfare that most normally wouldn’t give a second thought to. Rather than making it across a beach, your objectives often involve securing key oil fields and developing your industrial heartland.
Best depiction of ground combat in the Pacific - Red Orchestra 2: Rising Storm
The Red Orchestra series represents perhaps the best infantry-focused multiplayer shooters centered on the conflict, and Rising Storm in particular shines a light on the oft-overlooked Pacific theater. Like Allied Assault, it does a fantastic job of depicting the pressure of coming under attack from all sides. Battles play out amidst the chaos of mortar fire and shouted warnings. It's all the more impressive that Rising Storm accomplishes this using other players rather than scripted NPCs. The confusion and paranoia of jungle combat is tuned perfectly to create hectic, low-visibility firefights and allow for cunning ambushes.
Best high-level tactical experience - Steel Division: Normandy ‘44
Existing at a scale just above Company of Heroes but below Hearts of Iron, Steel Division excels at giving you a detailed and plausible sense of commanding combined arms resources to win large battles. Scouting and intelligence are emphasized, gaining air superiority can be decisive, and every weapon on every tank or infantryman models realistic range, accuracy, and penetration. It exists in a great sweet spot in terms of scope and scale to give you the total World War II experience (minus naval combat) in a single match.