Games look as much to history as they do the the future and fantasies, and there’s few periods as well recreated in games as World War 2. A brutal and savage conflict, World War 2 was also a time of massive technological leaps and impressive new battle tactics that make it an exciting setting for player heroics.
In no particular order these are some of our favourites, containing a mix of free war games, genre-defining classics, and more modern experiences that you can easily download from Steam and play right now.
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World War 2 was a true combined arms effort, with land, sea, and air forces offering equally invaluable efforts. War Thunder throws its spotlight on the war’s colossal aerial battles. Boasting a dizzying number of historically accurate aircraft from pretty much every nation involved in the war, this exceptional free-to-play multiplayer flier offers a great experience that neatly sits in the middle ground between inaccessible flight sim and overly-floaty arcade shooter.
It’s War Thunder’s attention to detail that makes it compelling play. Flying each machine feels genuinely different and all offer their own challenges. Even when you’re not in the air there’s tactics to consider as you stock your hangar with various planes and upgrade them to suit your approach.
Not content with just staying in the sky, developer Gaijin has expanded War Thunder this year with the Ground Forces expansion. Encroaching on World of Tanks’ firmly held territory, Ground Forces applies the War Thunder formula of multiplayer historical recreations to tank warfare.
World of Warships
Tanks and land battles have been done to death. Try something new by taking to the open seas in World of Warships. Wargaming.net’s newest title takes the well-worn World of Tanks formula but adjusts it for a slower-paced, more tactical game. With a massive selection of vessels of all sizes from many different nations, Warships provides everything the budding Admiral needs. Also: ships have many more guns than tanks, and the bigger the boom, the better the kill. Fact.
World of Tanks
The equivalent of the Tiger tank in free-to-play land due to its massive player base and frequent updates, World of Tanks is a multiplayer shooter where everyone – yes, even you – gets to take command of a tank. You to pick a machine from a list as long as a small country of various vehicles from WW2 – from half-tracks to tank hunters – crew it up, and hit the battlefield for swift quick-fire rounds. Modes are broadly split into two camps; the more arcade-feeling games based on territory capture and enemy obliteration, and Historical Battles which recreate actual conflicts.
World of Tanks is fun game to play, throwing out the finicky details and focusing purely on refined mechanics and responsiveness. But despite this you can genuinely feel the passion developer Wargaming has for the stars of its show. From the most obscure little Polish tank to icons like the Sherman and Panzer, World of Tanks is an explosively interactive military hardware museum.
World of Warplanes
If tanks don’t tickle your fancy, you can take to the skies with World of Warplanes. Just like World of Tanks, it’s a multiplayer shooter that takes place in wide open expanses of blues skies and fluffy clouds. There’s a bazillion planes to choose from: from the likes of the British, USA, Japan, Germany, China and the U.S.S.R. too.
Standard affairs put two teams of 15 aircraft, which can create some spectacular action as everyone unloads hot lead into each other. The sky isn’t the only stage though – you’ll find targets on the ground that will need some surgical strikes too. Battles last no more than 15 minutes, so the tempo between games is quick; there’s hardly any room for downtime in between games.
Company of Heroes
If there’s one genre that’s flooded with World War 2 titles, it’s strategy games. Furthermore, unfortunately for most games that choose such a path there’s no escaping the towering dark shadow cast by Relic’s Company of Heroes, an RTS so astonishingly good even its own sequel failed to match it.
Its brilliance comes from an exceptionally tight set of mechanics that rely on supply lines. Each mission has a set of objectives like any other RTS, but in between succeeding in those goals you’ll need to capture territory across the map to ensure income of basic currency. However, unlike the regular mining work of games like Command & Conquer and StarCraft, Company of Heroes requires you to keep territories joined together to allow supply to feed back to your base.
Juggling managing resources with frontline fighting that demands you adhere to cover, methodically flank, and train the right troops for the job makes Company of Heroes a real moment-to-moment brain exercise. Bringing tanks to the forefront add even even more systems as you do the ‘dance of death’, attempting to keep your tin-foil rear armour away from enemy fire. But the biggest joy of Company of Heroes’ combat is the sheer destructibility of it all. Artillery kicks up forty-feet tall dust clouds, satchel charges blast apart concrete, and tanks roll through houses as if they were gingerbread. By the end of the game maps can be nothing but flattened dust, and that’s just beautiful.
Call of Duty: World at War
The Call of Duty franchise has kicked out some excellent WW2 shooters in its time, but it is its oft-overlooked final hurrah in the period that actually offers one of the most interesting depictions of the war. Developed by Treyarch, the game is notably downbeat compared to other Call of Duty games, replacing the cinematic heroics with a moody, dirty look and atmosphere. This is mostly achieved through the setting of the Pacific theatre – where US Marines battle in tropical heat against the Japanese – and the deathly cold Eastern front where Gary Oldman leads the Soviets in the campaign to Berlin’s doorstep.
Not just depressingly moody in tone, World at War is also the most viciously violent Call of Duty. Machine guns chew apart bodies, shotguns detach limbs to reveal splintered bones and shredded muscle, and sniper rifles puncture skulls like bursting melons. The opening sees a Japanese officer stub a cigar out in a prisoner’s eye. It doesn’t feel exploitative: it just reminds us that this is a brutal, terrifying conflict. It may still contain the huge set pieces a Call of Duty game demands by default, but World at War is a sad, interesting entry in the series.
Brothers in Arms: Hell’s Highway
Whilst we’re all familiar with the historical facts of the Second World War, mission documents, timelines, and body counts don’t tell the best stories. The Brothers in Arms games offer the best narratives in the WW2 niche, filled with deeply personal tales of struggle and friendship. Hell’s Highway, the third in the series, brings the troubles of the 101st Airborne’s Matt Baker to a close with a harrowing story that emphasises the relentless loss of life every soldier was forced to endure.
Backing up the story is an exceptionally solid FPS game, borrowing the third-person cover system that the Rainbow Six: Vegas games created, and making the squad tactics a much smoother, effective element. War is hell in Brothers in Arms, and the methodical employment of flanking maneuvers and suppressing fire is the only way you’ll be able to survive it. Thanks to the tight-knit relationships Hell’s Highway weaves over its campaign, by the end you’ll really feel as if you helped pull your comrades through the dirt.
Red Orchestra 2: Heroes of Stalingrad
As much as games like Brothers in Arms and World of Tanks aim for historical accuracy in their weapons, machinery, and locations, they still offer a Hollywood-tinted depiction of the action. Red Orchestra 2 removes the filters and offers an unflinchingly difficult simulator shooter. A pure multiplayer game, Heroes of Stalingrad recreates battles from the Eastern Front in a Battlefield-like combined arms settings with soldier classes and vehicles. Throwing pray-and-spray, gung-ho attitudes to the wind, Red Orchestra demands strict teamwork, caution, and a considered tactical approach to objectives.
It’s the hardships of being an individual cog in the machine that makes Red Orchestra compelling. Machine-gunners are vital for covering fire, allowing other players to advance down the field. But holding down the trigger too long causes the barrel to melt and buckle, requiring it to be replaced in a lengthy maintenance animation. Tanks are murder machines when fully crewed, but attempt to commandeer one by yourself and you’ll spend an eternity crawling from gun compartment to driver’s seat, and find yourself a sitting target as you attempt to aim your cannon. As well as the stresses of being part of a team, as an individual you’ll have to constantly count your rounds as a complete lack of HUD removes any indication as to what’s left in your magazine.
Each round of Red Orchestra 2 is hard work, but like ARMA and other bullet-physic heavy shooting simulations, there’s a distinct, unrivalled sense of victory with every point scored. Few multiplayer games make you work this hard for a single kill.
Hidden & Dangerous 2
The old breed of the list, Hidden & Dangerous 2 may be an ageing veteran that needs a stick to stay mobile these days, but its tales of silent heroics, undercover operations, and daring strikes have been unmatched in the 11 years since its release.
Rainbow Six for 1944, Hidden & Dangerous 2 is a tactical squad shooter with all the trimmings we’re clamoring for in the modern era: permadeath, persistent characters, detailed operation loadout screens, and fully open maps with mission goals to be completed any which way you fancy. Leading a squad of four stiff-upper-lipped SAS officers, there’s a fascinating variety of missions that take you to every theatre of the war, from a snowy top secret research base to the dense jungles of Burma.
The level of freedom is comparable to Hitman: Blood Money (there’s even the option to strip enemies and steal their clothing), and the lack of enforced silence means when things go belly-up you can crack open the heavy machineguns and simply murder your way out. The controls and systems are all fairly clunky and the AI of your squadmates is never always up to scratch, but the thrill of Hidden & Dangerous’ campaign is absolutely worth pushing through the niggles for.
Hearts of Iron III
A Paradox-developed grand strategy game, Hearts of Iron III takes the astonishing depth of the Europa Universalis games and applies it to the era of blood, bullets, and bombings. Allowing you to take command of any country involved in the conflict, Hearts of Iron lets you steer the world in your ideal direction between the years 1936 and 1948. Being a grand strategy, your decisions are not purely based upon warfare: as leader of your country, economic and political choices are equally as paramount as where your U-Boats are positioned or what territories your troops are marching through.
It’s a brilliant ‘What If? simulator. Starting with the exact same resources as Germany had in 1936, is it possible for the Nazis to win the war? Would the conflict be over by Christmas if the Americans joined the day Britain declared war on Germany? Would Soviet world domination be on the cards if Stalin had turned on the Allies and tried to invade every country in europe? These are the questions that Hearts of Iron can answer, provided you’ve got the head for dense War Cabinet arguments, problematic resource management, and the constant questioning of your foreign policy.
Silent Hunter III
The Second World War is frequently depicted as a violently bloodthirsty, explosive, and ear-drum bursting conflict. It’s no wonder there are so many shooters based on it. But not every element of all-out war is as noisy or as fast paced. For the quiet, considered, cold-blooded killers out there, there’s nothing quite like Silent Hunter’s unique brand of stealth. Throw out your undercover OSS agents, and submerge yourself in underwater naval warfare.
Silent Hunter III, despite being nearly a decade old, remains the best of the series, and allows you to command a U-Boat full of German seamen under the surface of the Atlantic ocean. Freeform missions simply inform you of targets and naval traffic, allowing you to conduct the operation in whatever conniving manner you so wish. You’ll need to be map savvy; Silent Hunter is a gloriously uncompromising submarine sim, and without solid navigation skills you’ll be firing torpedoes into the open ocean instead of the side of a Allied merchant ship. Patience is the key ingredient though, as you lurk in wait as your plan slowly comes together.
The third game is starting to show its age, and if that’s a problem it may be best you try out Silent Hunter 5. It’s graphically sumptuous but shipped with a hull riddled with bugs and glitches that severely hampered its critical scores. Thankfully four years of modding have saved it, and it’s now a solid second choice.
Medal of Honor: Allied Assault
It’s impossible to put together a list of the best WW2 games without including Medal of Honor: Allied Assault. It’s the grandfather of today’s shooters, and whilst on the whole it may feel a little simple today, all the hallmarks of what we know as an FPS today are there in it’s levels, weapons, and characters. It’s little surprise that the people working at developer 2015, Inc would go on to create Call of Duty.
But what makes Allied Assault the classic that it is? It’s the game’s depiction of the Normandy Landings. Medal of Honor was the first FPS to tackle this momentous, iconic battle, and few who have played it’s devastating second mission will ever forget it. From sloshing through the ocean as your landing craft barely makes the beach, to struggling up the sands under impossible amounts of machinegun fire, there’s not an action sequence in any shooter of the era that quite compares to Allied Assault’s drama.