CrunchArcade: War Simulations on the Front Line

War is hell; there is no denying it. Yet conflict makes for a good backdrop for gaming. While upcoming titles such as the newly announced Call of Duty 4 and the next Brothers in Arms are still months away, you can get in on the action now. Several games have slipped under the radar this spring, and these offer salvos of action. And war games not need be limited to first-person shooters. Strategic games that let you play as an “armchair general” can be just as exhilarating. It is time to lock and load, and get ready to sortie. On this anniversary of D-Day, which began the liberation of Europe (and made for an impressive scene in Saving Private Ryan 9 years ago), we look at some of the military sims that will put you on the front lines.

Dunes of War
DreamCatcher Interactive
ESRB: Teen
Platform: PC
One of the very first “propaganda” films made by the United States after its entry into World War II was a film starring Humphrey Bogart called Sahara (not to be confused with the awful Matthew McConaughey film of the same name). In this one, Sgt. Joe Gunn (seriously that’s his name) is a tank commander fighting in the North African desert against the vile Nazis. This game pretty much offers the same senseless fun. Like the film from long ago, Dunes of War makes no sense – but it really doesn’t have to. You get to drive a tank and lead your forces into battle, and this is enough to make for some mindless entertainment.

Dunes of War gets the simple things right. A.I. controlled airplanes, anti-tank guns and even enemy tanks stand in your way and you’ve got to take them out. You can play as both as the Allies or the Axis in a very balanced game. In truth this was where the underpowered American Sherman actually did very well against older German tanks, such as the Panzer IV, so it makes for a very level playing field during the single player campaign and this carries on in the robust multiplayer mode. The game includes 10 multiplayer maps, with fully destructible environments, where up to 32 players can get in on the action with WWII armor.

Medal of Honor: Vanguard
Electronic Arts
ESRB: Teen
Platform: Wii
Listen up soldier! As a member of the elite 82nd Airborne Division you’re gonna jump into action beginning with Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily. But don’t think this is an Italian vacation; there are several thousand crack German troops who won’t want you marching up the boot so easily. And don’t think you’ll stick around to take in the sights either. After Italy you’ve got a little thing called D-Day to deal with, and then you’ll head over to Holland for Operation Market Garden, and finally into the heart of Germany during Operation Varsity. The 82nd Airborne had quite the European Tour, and Medal of Honor: Vanguard lets you experience it from beginning to end.

This latest edition of the popular World War II first-person shooter franchise will let you venture into battle to liberate Europe from the Nazi grip. This one has been designed specifically to take advantage of the Wii’s unique two-handed controller, where you can run and run making direct assaults, or use stealth as a sniper to pick off targets from a distance as part of the Allied vanguard! The controls are more refined that last year’s Red Steel, but a standard controller might still be the better option for shooters. However, visually the game actually delivers the goods as well, and anyone who says the Wii doesn’t have good-looking games should check out this latest MoH title.

Ancient Wars Sparta
ESRB: Mature (Blood, Violence)
Platform: PC
The world was a smaller place during the Classical Age, but that didn’t make it any easier for would-be conquerors! Exactly, how do you think Alexander got the moniker “the Great?” It wasn’t from being an all around nice guy; it was from defeating the might of the Persians and Egyptians on the battlefield. This strategy game gives you your chance to dominate the Eastern Mediterranean, as you lead the forces of Sparta, Persia and Egypt through three vast campaigns in this visually rich real-time strategy game that lets you command warships, chariots, cavalry and siege weapons. Of course it isn’t all conquest either, you’ll have to use your workers to create a thriving economy and upgrade your defenses.

Unfortunately, all this sounds good but the game can be tedious to play. The build-ups seemingly last longer than some of the empires of the day, and anyone attempting the traditional RTS “rush” might just be rushing to defeat. Much of this is because the resource gathering is very slow. The interface is also far from streamlined. It is cluttered with information that you just don’t need and uses a design that is far from attractive. The animations are very good however and this is a fine looking game. But in fairness, I’d rather just load up the original Age of Empires from 1998 instead. Now there is a classic about the Classical Age.

Mission: Blackhawk
ESRB: Everyone
Platform: PC
Despite having an E for Everyone ESRB rating, this is one war game that no one should play. The game is in its essence a combat flight simulator that is light on sim as well as action. While you’ll get to “pilot” a variety of choppers, including the UH-60L Blackhawk, SH-60 Seahawk, HH-60G Payehawk and HH-60J Jayhawk you’ll never really feel like you’re taking flight. Poor graphics, unrealistic missions and wonky controls just ground this one. This is a Blackhawk down that should stay down!

Cossacks: Emperor’s Edition
Take 2 Interactive
ESRB: Teen
Platform: PC
If this one sounds familiar it is because you might have even played it previously. It first arrived from Ukrainian game developer GSC Game Works in 2001, and was published by CDV. Now Take 2 Interactive has repackaged the original Cossacks: European Wars game along with the Back to War and Battle for Europe expansions. This lets you lead the major powers of the 16th through 19th century into battle in a time when officers were truly gentlemen.

This was the time when grand armies, suited in fancy uniforms lined up in parade formation, and then proceeded to blast each other apart. The result was some of the most colorful battles in the history of warfare, and of course some of the bloodiest as well. The gameplay, which captures this era very well, is clearly inspired by Age of Empires II, and in fact until the arrival of Age of Empires III this was as close as you could get. But unlike the AoE series, Cossacks features some truly massive scale battles where you can build up armies of several thousand units, complete with accurate style formations of the actual era. Choose squares to defend against cavalry attack, or form lines to pound away at the enemy.

With thousands of units on the map the gameplay is more fun than fighting a battle with toy soldiers. Despite this however, the animations are somewhat lackluster, and dated by today’s standards (or even 2001 for that matter). But if you can look past the animations and adjust to the cluttered interface Cossacks is actually a great game focused on the glorious age of combat.

ArmA: Combat Operations
ESRB: Mature (Blood, Violence, Strong Language)
Platform: PC
Ever since the release of Battlefield 1942 much of the focus of military shooters is around the multiplayer modes, and somehow ArmA: Combat Operations has completely evaded attention. If there was ever a game that deserved a look it is this one. Sadly Atari’s woes have resulted in the game all but being ignored, which is a real shame. ArmA is essentially the follow-up to Operation Flashpoint, which was an extremely cutting edge shooter when it arrived in 2001.

This time around you’ll play through a 20+ mission single player campaign that while linear, actually changes depending on you performed in completing various objectives. And of course the game features a hearty multiplayer mode that can support dozens of players on each side, with maps can be extremely vast and open. This makes for gameplay where you want there to be a lot of players on each team. As a LAN game with small teams you’re going to have problems however, as the maps are just too big. But online this size and scope make for something that feels chaotic, intense and confusing – just like the real thing.

Just as realistic are the types of weapons, vehicles and other equipment that are used in the game. The East vs. West theme is once again the backstory, and this means you’ll see a mix of former Soviet-Bloc equipment along with American and NATO gear. Much of this looks extremely well rendered, and other than the occasional blocky character or muddled scenery, ArmA really raises the bar on war games. It is just a shame that most gamers won’t ever notice.

Command & Conquer: Tiberian Wars
Electronic Arts
ESRB: Teen
Platforms: PC, Xbox 360
Command & Conquer was not the original real-time strategy game. That honor would go to Dune 2 from the same developer, Westwood Studio, which has done much to refine the genre over the past 15 years! The company has long been a part of Electronic Arts, and over the years the C&C franchise has seen its share of ups and downs. For every great C&C game (including those from the spinoff C&C: Red Alert franchise) there have been some real disappointments.

C&C: Tiberian Wars, which arrived this spring, is one of the better games – in part because it sticks to what it does best. This means over-the-top gameplay with fantastical weapons, futuristic technology and a plot that doesn’t stray beyond the confines of a B-movie. Likewise, this game is filled with plenty of B-level talent, including Tricia Helfer, Josh Holloway, Michael Ironside and Billy Dee Williams. This gives the game even more of a cinematic epic feel – at least if that cinematic epic were on Cinemax at 12midnight on a Saturday night — through the 35+ single player missions.

Best of all this game features a nearly perfect balance of the “rock, paper, scissors” approach to RTS gameplay, so players can safely rush, turtle, guerilla or boom their way to battle. In other words (if you’re not an RTS gamer), you can just as easy just in and attack from the get-go or build up first. As mentioned this one doesn’t innovate much, so it doesn’t really bring anything new to the genre. And some units are a bit out of balance (thus we said nearly perfect balance), but otherwise this is the sturdy C&C that we’ve wanted to see for a while.

Silent Hunter 4: Wolves of the Pacific
ESRB: Teen
Platforms: PC
“Who’s the U-Boat Commander?” That’s a great line from the film Risky Business, and I had to use it here. But the answer is actually no one, at least not in this game. The popular World War II submarine franchise has headed to the deep blue waters of the Pacific (as you already may have noticed in the title). So instead of getting to command a U-Boat, you’ll have to settle for American and Japanese boats instead. In Silent Hunter 4 you also get to take the helm of more than 75 authentic era war machines. And this isn’t limited to subs either. While you can dive with the U.S. Gato sub, you’ll always get to take to the skies as a sub hunter as well, and even go on patrol in other surface vessels.

This has always been a love it or hate it series. The action isn’t fast paced and some games can drag on as you do your silent running. The explosive moments, which do happen of course, are quick and short lived – just like the real experience of submarine crews in the Second World War. The single player campaign features 15 maps to explore, plus the game offers a new online adversarial mode where you can hunt or be hunted.