Over the years, developers have often turned to the pages of history for wars, conflicts and real-life combatants to inspire first-person shooter video games. Instead of conjuring some alien invasion or shadowy government conspiracy, many studios see greater sense in basing games on real-world concepts, which are often more amazing than fiction. The Vietnam War and other modern conflicts have proved rich source material, but World War II has inspired the majority of titles, predominantly because it was the last true war featuring a clearly-defined enemy that must be stopped at all costs. So, Digital Spy investigated the real-world FPS genre to see why it remains such a compelling prospect for gamers.
The history of FPS titles based on real-world events and concepts can be split into four main categories: World War II, alternate history, the Vietnam War and modern conflicts. Games falling into these segments have provided some exhilarating experiences, but also some rather controversial moments. When dealing with wars in which thousands or even millions of people were killed, and untold hardships were imposed on whole nations, it's understandable that even the concept of a game can seem a touch trivial and even insensitive. However, the other side of the coin is that such games really bring to life these conflicts for people who will hopefully never have to experience them first-hand. In doing so, important historical chapters and their lessons remain fresh in the minds of future generations.
The popularity of WWII as an FPS inspiration rests in the fact that it was the first truly modern conflict which directly or indirectly involved all civilised countries in the world. Events in the 1939 to 1945 conflict have provided rich fodder for developers and spawned two goliath franchises - Activision's Call Of Duty and Electronic Arts' Medal Of Honour. Started by filmmaking legend Steven Spielberg and his DreamWorks studio, the Medal Of Honour series really drove forward innovation in the wartime FPS genre. Still revered as a classic, Medal Of Honour: Allied Assault is an expertly designed and evocative piece of work, with its exhilarating and moving recreation of the D-Day Allied invasion of Normandy representing everything that is so compelling about first-person shooters in general.
The first three Call Of Duty titles (2003, 2005 and 2006), along with the Pacific Theatre-set World At War (2008) gained critical acclaim for enabling players to take on the role of US, British and Russian troops to see multiple perspectives on the conflict. However, the series would later come to dominate the wartime FPS genre when it shifted to a modern setting, but more on that later. Other games have expertly taken inspiration from WWII, including EA's Battlefield 1942 (2002) and its sequel Battlefield 1943 (2009), which opened up wide-ranging multiplayer contests around the war.
Jesse Divnich, Electronic Entertainment Design and Research vice president - analyst services, believes that the popularity of wartime FPS titles is down to the "sociological and historical interest" of gamers. Divnich said that WWII is a permanent fixture on the 20th century history school syllabus, regardless of "what side of the line your country fought on". So, the ability to recreate events from such a memorable conflict via video games becomes an "even more appealing" prospect for players, both young and old.
WWII is equally favoured by developers because it featured many of the rudimentary weapons, technologies and tactics still being used today. Crucially, though, the war also comprised of an enemy and its leader so tangibly evil as to become almost caricatures: the Nazis and Adolf Hitler. Having such an easily recognisable and despicable threat frees up developers in both narrative and gameplay terms to bring the conflict and its inherent drama to life. In doing so, gamers are temporarily transported, if only artificially, to the heat, frenzy and pain of the battlefield.
The unashamed joy of dispatching Nazis has also opened up a splinter historic FPS genre giving an alternate view of history. These games ponder what would have happened if events around the war had turned out differently. For example, the ultimately disappointing Turning Point: Fall Of Liberty (2008) imagined the nightmarish scenario of a Nazi invasion of the US. Interestingly, the genre actually gave us one of the first ever genuine FPS titles in id Software's 1992 classic Wolfenstein 3D. Players became allied spy B.J. Blazkowicz as he fought Nazi officers dabbling in the occult, including a cyborg Hitler as the game's big boss. A sequel, 2001's Return to Castle Wolfenstein, even introduced zombie Nazis to the mix, such was the appeal of battling these repugnant foes.
In comparison, games based on the Vietnam War have proved less successful. Despite brimming with sophisticated military technology and tactics, Shellshock: Nam '67 (2004) and Shellshock: Blood Trails (2009), along with Men Of Valor (2004), Battlefield: Vietnam (2004) and Vietcong (2003) were all met with a mixed critical response and relatively poor sales. Problems abound with basing games on the Vietnam War, not least because the conflict has been a lingering scar on the American psyche ever since the North Vietnamese army snatched victory in April 1975.
In a US-dominated global gaming market, an FPS title based on the sensitive and still-resonant Vietnam War seems a relatively tough sell. Should rumours prove to be true that 2010's Call Of Duty instalment will be based on the Vietnam War, then it will be interesting to see how the acclaimed series handles such a complex conflict. Divnich believes that a quality Vietnam FPS would prove popular in the US, but lack sufficient appeal elsewhere.
"Vietnam was primarily a US conflict and it was an event that simply does not have a worldwide appeal," he said. "I believe a Vietnam-based game would be exceedingly popular in the United States, but not so much in Europe, which would impact on its sales potential by as much a 50%. However, I believe that the failure of previous Vietnam-based games has more to do with their actual quality and less to do with the infamous non-fictional conflict."
As Vietnam continues to prove rather complex subject matter and developers struggle to find new angles on WWII, Divnich believes that it has been a "natural evolution" for studios to shift their focus to more modern conflicts and protagonists. Released in 2005, EA's Battlefield 2 pitched players into made-up battles between global power blocs - the US, China, European Union, Russia and a fictional Middle East coalition. The game took real-world fault lines between geo-political blocks and then conjured viable scenarios around that to create a vibrant and realistic gaming experience.
In 2007, Infinity Ward crucially opted to shift Call Of Duty's long-running WWII focus to a more contemporary arena with Call Of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. The game received pretty much universal critical acclaim and showed that the successful principles of WWII shooters could be refreshed for a modern era. A year later, EA followed with the chaotic yet hugely enjoyable destruction-fest Battlefield: Bad Company. Both games featured a mix of Russian armed forces and dissident terrorist groups, taking the themes of nuclear weapons, intelligence agencies and covert Black ops' 'wet work'. Interestingly, EA also recently announced that its Medal Of Honour franchise will be rebooted this year, but in a modern setting - the still ongoing conflict in Afghanistan.
Dealing with historical events or real-world conflicts brings an inherent danger of being insensitive or causing offence. Activision's recent Call Of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 featured a controversial segment where players were given the opportunity to slaughter people in an airport as part of a Russian terrorist squad. The sequence was removed from the game's release in Russia, but the controversy did little to affect the game's commercial success as it sailed past the $1 billion revenue mark after just two months.
Divnich questioned just how far a game would need to go before it became truly insensitive and abhorrent to players. He pointed to 2004's JFK: Reloaded from Scottish studio Traffic Games, which enabled players to recreate the assassination of former US President John F. Kennedy.
"Surely a game that recreated one of the darkest days in American history would be rejected by gamers, but it didn't. It was awfully successful," claimed Divnich. "Sure, most games can be marked as insensitive, but insensitive to the point where the impact is negative on its commercial success? I've certainly never seen a case to date that would indicate such."
When asked why dealing with real-world events is such a pull for gamers, Divnich used the example of EA Sports' FIFA series. Now into its tenth instalment, the football game has consistently proved popular due to its extensive player licensing deals with the sport's world governing body FIFA. Divnich believes that if such as deal was removed, then the series would become a "generic football game" with significantly reduced popularity. Historic FPS games are able to transmit similar levels of authenticity and realism which makes them such compelling and enduring prospects for gamers.
"Recent games such as Modern Warfare and Modern Warfare 2 featured fictional conflicts, but their locations and weapons were real. And even the fictional stories themselves resembled actual world conflicts that are occurring or could occur," said Divnich. "That's why games such as BioShock 2, which any gamer would argue is equal in quality to a Call Of Duty, will never reach the same mainstream appeal. It just doesn't contain the sense of realism that mainstream gamers can relate to."
Join us next Sunday to discuss the forgotten war of historic FPS gaming: World War I. Could the Great War ever inspire a future classic in the genre?