World War II gamers fight new battles
World War II gamers fight new battles
By HIAWATHA BRAY Boston Globe
Thursday, January 15, 2004
World War II was a savage conflict that left many of the world’s largest cities in ruins and resulted in 50 million deaths. Yet somehow we can’t get enough of it.
World War II-related titles crowd bookstore shelves. Cable TV subscribers can view World War II documentaries practically any night of the week. Hundreds of thousands of Web sites examine the history of the war from every conceivable perspective.
And then there are the computer games. World War II is one of the hottest genres in gaming. Titles like “Battlefield 1942,” “Return to Castle Wolfenstein,” “Medal of Honor” and the new “Call of Duty” have attracted millions of players looking to refight the battles of more than a half-century ago.
It seems odd, considering there are plenty of modern-day wars to choose from, including the unpleasantness in Iraq. But to the producers of the World War II games, there’s no mystery. Like everybody else, gamers are attracted to the black-and-white clarity of the conflict.
“It was the last great war where there was a distinct good and evil side,” said Steve Groll, senior publicist for the “Battlefield” game line at Electronic Arts. “There’s no such thing as good Nazis.”
Even adults who’d never buy their kids a violent game like “Grand Theft Auto” will make an exception for make-believe assaults on Nazis or imperial Japanese suicide troops.
“Parents don’t mind buying a game where you’re shooting them,” said Matt Powers, senior producer for the upcoming EA game “Medal of Honor Pacific Assault.”
Besides, said Powers, World War II was a global conflict. Its games can feature a variety of combat settings, from deserts to tundras, to keep the players interested.
The games sell well outside the United States, thanks to the planet-wide nature of the war. “It goes all across the world, which is very, very good for international sales,” Powers said.
Just as Hollywood’s treatment of the war ranges from the fanciful to the grimly realistic, game designers have reimagined World War II in clever and surprising ways.
Surely “Return to Castle Wolfenstein,” from Activision and Id Software, is among the oddest results.
Like the film “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Wolfenstein” is inspired by the Nazi leadership’s fascination with the occult.
Battling Nazis, zombies
In the game, a U.S. Army commando must battle not only the usual storm troopers but also zombies called back from the dead to fight for the Third Reich.
It may sound goofy, but somebody’s buying it.
“Return to Castle Wolfenstein” has sold more than 2 million copies since its release two years ago. Created for personal computers, Activision last year introduced versions for the Sony PlayStation and Microsoft Xbox consoles.
Last year, Activision abandoned a plan to introduce a more realistic “Wolfenstein” shooter game, focused on plain old combat action.
“The single-player component just didn’t come together the way we’d like,” said Id Software co-owner Kevin Cloud.
But the part of the game that let players compete over the Internet worked splendidly. So Id and Activision decided to give it away as a free download. Titled “Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory,” it became one of the most popular online games of 2003.
At EA, executive producer Scott Evans took a different approach to the war. He wasn’t interested in zombies, but he wasn’t all that keen on realism either.
Evans wanted an easy-to-play war game that would let players operate many of the weapons systems they’d seen in World War II movies, ranging from battleships to Tiger tanks.
“The intent was to create a fun arcade-style gameplay experience that has its foundation in realism,” Evans said.
Fighting across Europe
The result was another hit game, “Battlefield 1942.” The game has a limited single-player mode — it’s mostly intended for play over a broadband Internet connection.
Players can fight either as Allied or Axis forces, hopping from one military vehicle to another as they try to achieve their objectives.
But it’s the more grittily realistic “Medal of Honor” games that have become EA’s strongest World War II franchise.
Born as a project of film director Steven Spielberg, EA purchased the rights to the game and in 2002 introduced a new version for PCs called “Allied Assault.”
The player finds himself in the shoes of a common infantry grunt fighting his way across Europe in the final year of the war. There are no zombies; you can’t transform yourself into a fighter pilot at will. Instead, you’ve got to use standard infantry weapons to achieve a series of ever-more-difficult objectives.
The result was so popular with war gamers that EA has been rolling out sequels and expansion packs ever since. There are now “Medal of Honor” games for every major gaming device on the market, even the pocket-size Nintendo Game Boy Advance.
The “Pacific Assault” edition for the PC will finally let desktop players take on the Japanese; Xbox, PlayStation 2 and Nintendo GameCube players can already fight Japan in “Medal of Honor: Rising Sun.”
Yet some of the developers of the “Medal of Honor” series weren’t satisfied. They felt the game was too individualistic, where real- world warfare requires teamwork.
These disgruntled programmers jumped ship and formed a new company called Infinity Ward.
Their first game, the new World War II shooter “Call of Duty,” was published by Activision last year, premiering to rave reviews and strong sales.
“They got one of the most elemental parts of war right, which is it’s a team environment,” said John Hillen, a former U.S Army special operations soldier who acted as a technical adviser for “Call of Duty.”
Hillen, a Gulf War vet with a master’s degree in military history from the University of London, was awed by the developers’ attention to detail, saying that some of them knew more about German military equipment than he did.
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