In recent years, World War II action games have fallen by the wayside, with fewer and fewer games released each year, and with more "modern-themed" games taking their place. Medal of Honor? It's now all about fightin' the Taliban in Afghanistan. Call of Duty? Instead of simulating our grandfathers' landings on the beaches of Normandy, it now simulates "modern warfare" instead! What has caused this decline? Are we gamers no longer mesmerized by the sweeping views of Omaha Beach? Are we tired of shooting Nazis? Are we no longer fascinated with struggle which has maimed and displaced millions, introduced the Pandora's Box of nuclear warfare, and laid the foundations for the world in which we live today?
The reasons for the stagnation in use of World War II as a setting is twofold. The first reason is quite obvious. People are tired of them. For example, Medal of Honor, Call of Duty, and Brothers in Arms – franchises which are seen by the gaming public as the top three World War II franchises, have released no less than twenty-four titles (excluding expansion packs and other "special" editions) related to World War II since 1999. That is an average of roughly two titles per year. And not to mention, dozens of other lesser known and lower budget productions have been released during that time as well.
But, beyond the sheer volume in which World War II action games were once released, the second reason (which also explains the first one) is a little less obvious. Despite World War II being quite a diverse setting, developers, time and time again, have fallen back to featuring the same battles, the same guns, the same vehicles, the same evil Nazi cliches, and the same perspectives in their games. How many times have you climbed slogged through the sand of Omaha Beach and overcame the German defenders at Pointe Du Hoc? How many times have you played as a US Marine, a Soviet conscript, or a British paratrooper? How many times have you been told by in-game characters that the Germans are evil, soulless creatures who kill Jews and innocent civilians for fun? And, despite twenty-four games from three franchises in eleven years, why haven't we been able to play as a German in the campaign mode yet?
While there have been other games of the genre which have introduced different perspectives on the war (Velvet Assassin and The Saboteur easily come to mind), gamers haven't picked them up in droves, either. Partially, this is because these games, with their awkwardly-designed gameplay mechanisms and forgettable stories, were not so-welled received in the media compared to their more "mainstream" counterparts. But also, they too, fall into the trap of portraying the German enemy as unmistakably inhuman and sincerely evil, which dampens their creative impact. Yeah. Nazis are evil. We get it.
Ultimately, the reason for the lack of creativity within the World War II action genre does not lie within the laziness of the developers themselves, but rather in that World War II remains a sensitive topic for discussion and portrayal within many societal circles, most principally, in countries like Germany and Japan. I'd daresay that should a franchise like Brothers in Arms ever feature a story about average Wehrmacht troops fighting Americans, it would automatically be labeled a "Nazi-simulator" by the media unless the game had an anti-war or an anti-Nazi slant to it.
It is also important to note that a similar decline hasn't occurred in parallel with World War II strategy games. The strategy side of the genre is still thriving, and retains a bustling release schedule. For example, R.U.S.E., by French developer Eugen Systems, is due to arrive later this September. Earlier this year, 1C Company released Theatre of War 2 on Steam and at retail. The open beta of Company of Heroes Online, a free to play addition to the popular Company of Heroes franchise, is due to start in the coming days.
However, World War II strategy games cater to far different audience than its action counterpart. The people that tend to play these games are usually history buffs who are probably acquainted with all sorts of esoterica about the war. They are wargamers who want to act out their World War II fantasies on a more tactical scale, something that is beyond the scope of a run-of-the-mill shooter. And furthermore, strategy games in general cost far less to develop than their action counterparts, so developers may be more willing to churn them out, even if they only appeal to a very small audience.
And furthermore, while many strategy games allow the player to assume the role of Germans in the campaign mode, the fact that one is commanding troops against Americans accrues a far less visceral impact in the media than allowing a player to shoot them directly. So, it remains acceptable.
Will we see another big budget World War II action game ever again? I hope so, but given that gamers are purchasing games with "Modern Warfare" as part of their titles in droves (and generating billions for their publishers), it is hard to see the status quo changing any time soon. Good bye, D-Day levels, but it has certainly been nice playing through you for so many years.