Simulation war games died out a long time ago. In the 1980s, I loved playing these games, first on cardboard and paper, and then on computers. But by the 1990s and early 2000s, the accursed blockbuster video games crowded them out of the market. Game developers and publishers in the genre vanished as retail became too expensive and difficult to penetrate.
But even as the blockbuster games get even bigger in the digital age, these realistic war games are making a comeback. Two of them that I’ve just seen show me that it is possible for indie studios to make AAA-quality simulation war games that have outstanding quality. They’re part of the “long tail” of titles that are available through digital distribution of huge numbers of games that would never fit on a retailer’s shelves.
The first title I played is Ultimate General: Gettysburg, a tactical battle simulator that lets you command the Union or Confederate armies at the Battle of Gettysburg in the American Civil War. The title was developed as the first title from Game Labs, and it was designed by Nick Thomadis, creator of the DarthMod game series. It was funded in part as an Early Access Game on Valve’s Steam digital distribution service.
It’s a beautiful game, with maps that show you exactly what the terrain of the battlefield probably looked like from a bird’s eye view. You can see the brigades of soldiers from above, with the right level of detail to make the waves of soldiers seem realistic, yet there aren’t so many of them that the game becomes unmanageable. When one brigade attacks another, the soldiers advance in an uneven wave, making for a much more realistic movement. And when you command a brigade to advance, you see an arrow that looks like the sort of attack vector that you see in history books.
But you don’t just get the general’s view of a distant battle. The ambient noise of horses and gunfire makes you feel you are there. The little whiffs of smoke around the cannon and musket fire give you the sensation of a being in the middle of pitched battle where armies are engaged in a mighty struggle. And when there’s a big charge or a panicked retreat, you hear a lot of screaming and yelling.
The action unfolds in real-time. As you set your brigades in motion, the enemy moves too. It reminds me of the old Sid Meier’s Gettysburg from 1997. But it has much more detail, thanks to the computing power of today’s PCs. You can follow the action of the historical battle exactly and see what strategic and tactical options the generals had in the thick of the action. But you can pause it, restart, and test different strategies. And you can face off against AI generals who change their tactics. Those generals can be cunning, dynamic, determined, or opportunistic.
My general impression was that the South’s Robert E. Lee could have won that battle if he attacked more aggressively, but the simulation takes into account the morale and exhaustion level of your troops. You may want your soldiers to take a hill, but if it is covered with trees, the enemy will be all but impossible to dislodge. And you may order your troops to outflank the other side’s positions, but constantly arriving reinforcements can block that from being effective.
The result is fun and replayable game that can also teach you a lot of history.
The second cool simulation game I saw recently is IL-2 Sturmovik: The Battle of Stalingrad. It’s another example of the kind of game that would never get made in the retail-only blockbuster console and PC world of just a few years ago. The game depicts the air war above the snow-covered ruins of Stalingrad in
“There is no way we could have made this game if it were only for physical retail,” said Albert Zhiltsov, producer of the game at Moscow-based 1C Game Studios. “This genre has not gotten a lot of love from the AAA development community.”
It’s no accident that both games were made by Russia game developers. Russia is one of the places where hardcore simulation war games still thrive, and Eastern Europe has given rise to giants like Wargaming.net, maker of World of Tanks, which is perhaps the world’s most popular war simulation game. Wargaming got its start making titles like these ultra-realistic titles, but it has moved on to more broadly appealing, arcade-like games.
But 1C Studios has learned how to make the smaller, historically accurate games pay off too. At a time when other flight sim studios were shutting down, 1C made IL-2 Sturmovik, a combat flight simulator based on the Russian bomber from World War II, in 2001. It created other titles in 2005 and 2011. When it came time to reboot the franchise, it turned to 777 Studios, which had previously made Rise of Flight: The First Great Air War, about World War I flying.
777 Studios took its models and refashioned a new title based on The Battle of Stalingrad, the turning point in World War II on the Russian front. For the past 18 months, a team of 30 has been making the game. Zhiltsov demoed the game for me, showing how the cockpit controls were intricately mapped to the keyboard and joystick on an Alienware laptop. You can opt to learn those controls, or simply fly with a joystick and take off in mid-flight if you don’t want to figure out how to take off on a runway.
Wargaming’s World of Warplanes and its rival War Thunder go a step further with ease of use, allowing you to play a combat flight simulator with just a mouse and keyboard. But 1C Studios has only begun to experiment with a World War I flying game, Ilya Muromets, which can be controlled with a mouse.
But the new Stalingrad game, which debuts in September, is a jewel. Zhiltsov, who was once part of a team that won a championship game playing the original IL-2 Sturmovik, says this labor of love is a ground-up reboot with completely new details. You can fly over 40,000 square miles of Russia, between the Don and the Volga rivers, and zoom in on the wasteland of Stalingrad after it was bombed, and see miles and miles of trees in the surrounding region.
The enemy artificial intelligence pilots are not trained to be perfect computer opponents; they’re modeled after humans. The aircraft physics are precisely modeled. If you shoot at a piece of the wing, a piece of it may crumble and fall away. In combat, dozens of planes can square off against each other. Short missions may take a half hour, and long ones may take a full hour. During the mission briefings, you learn exactly what was happening on the ground at that time in the battle.
“We re-create every detail, because most of our fans are pilots,” Zhiltsov said. “We want you to feel the emotion of the freedom of flight. This is not fantasy. We talk about casualties and how terrifying it was.”
To play the game, you’ll have to invest in a $50 joystick, and you will need a gamer PC or laptop that might set you back around $1,000.
But that’s not a huge hurdle for flight sim fans who have been waiting for a long time for another ultrarealistic combat sim game. You don’t have to have a crazy set-up with a complex joystick and foot pedals. If you invest, you’ll be able to learn history like no one else has ever been able to do, by reliving it in a simulation that is as close to the real thing as possible.
I don’t want to sound like an old fart crying for the days of Electronic Arts’ Jane’s flight sims or Microsoft’s Combat Flight Simulator. But I sure am glad that new indie game companies are picking up the torch and making AAA war games again. And it’s so nice that these games emerged unexpectedly.