It was 75 years ago that young men from the United States, Canada and Great Britain took part in what was the greatest amphibious landing of WWII. On June 6, 1944 the Allies took the fight to Hitler’s so-called “Fortress Europa,” opened up a front in France, and began the liberation of Western Europe.
While there are plenty of movies about D-Day, if you’re more into experiencing the action—in a totally safe and non-threatening way of course—there are a few video games to get you in on the action on the virtual front lines. Whether it is storming the beaches in a first-person shooter, or commanding your troops in a strategy there have been a lot of ways to head to a virtual Normandy over the years, some better than others. Let’s take a look at them and see where they land on the accuracy scale when it comes to the military aspects, and the firearms.
FIRST PERSON SHOOTERS
The most intense way to experience D-Day in a video game is in the numerous first-person shooters that have come out in the past 20 years. Some of these games are more dated than others – and in many cases run on older hardware, but these offered a chance to go in on the first wave and take the fight to the Nazis.
Day of Defeat (2003)
Developer: Valve Corporation; Publisher: Activision; Platform: Windows PC
This game could fall into the category of “forgotten games” as it actually began as a “mod” (user created modification) for the sci-fi shooter Half-Life. It remains notable that it actually was the first FPS to depict the Normandy landings.
By today’s standards, it’s a simplistic look at D-Day; the size of the beach was limited to what seems to be around 200 meters across, and given that Day of Defeat featured only eight-on-eight multiplayer, it didn’t provide for the most intense experience, but teamwork was still crucial to victory.
In addition to the D-Day map there was town fighting in Italy, a village in France and other locals that mixed up the action. As the first World War II FPS it set the bar for those games to come.
However, by the time the “final” version came out the time had passed for Day of Defeat however, and it was overshadowed by Medal of Honor and Call of Duty (see below). Yet, few remember this was the initial game to kick off the wave of WWII shooters.
What made this one stand out is that it featured multiple classes of soldiers and that included a variety of weapons – ranging from a bolt action sniper rifle and M1 Garand to the MP-40, Thompson, BAR and StG44.
While the game is a bit limited, the guns look excellent with a solid attention to detail. You can even read the words stamped on the top of the receiver of the M1 Garand and the M1 Carbine from the FPS POV. However, the environments look like something out of a 90s VR nightmare. Textures are bad, angles are sharp, and the lighting is pretty bad.
Buildings look OK, but foilage and trees are tough to look at—but at the time, it was easy to gloss over, but there were games that came out even earlier with far better environments and graphics.
The game also features an impressive 30 playable small arms from the U.S., British, and German WWII arsenals.
Medal of Honor: Allied Assault (2002)
Developer: 2015, Inc.; Publisher: Electronic Arts; Platform: Windows PC/Mac OSX
This was actually the third game in the popular Medal of Honor series, but the first for the PC. Upon its 2002 release, it offered a single player campaign that included a landing on Omaha Beach that was pretty much a game version of the opening sequence from Saving Private Ryan. It’s incredibly similar, and it could be argued that’s because both the game and the movie made great efforts to be accurate. But, that opening shot in the game looking around the Higgins Boat—you can’t help but think of the opening of the landing scene in SPR.
The game also includes missions in North Africa and German-occupied Norway, as well as plenty more action in the single-player campaign after the beaches were cleared. While the campaign was a bit on the linear side, and at times it felt like you’re an army of one as there were no real NPC soldiers to help you, the story was largely grounded in reality.
Medal of Honor: Allied Assault also offered a compelling multiplayer mode that included the Omaha Beach map, where the U.S. Rangers need to take out enemy artillery within a set amount of time. This provided a sense of urgency for the players on the Allied side and required a determined defense by the players on the German side.
Medal of Honor: Allied Assault scored high with the small arms, and included most the principal weapons of the late WWII era. This was one of the first games to offer that iconic “ping” when the empty en bloc clip of the M1 Garand ejected from the gun on the last shot.
The game included over 30 playable small arms, including some rare in real life guns, along with a bunch of historically accurate grenades and launchers.
As far as the rendering goes, they aren’t…great. But that’s judging by today’s standards. We have to remember, back in the day, guns in video games were mostly a rough assemblage of pixels into something that sort of looked like an M9, like in Doom. The fact that you can not only tell the guns apart in MoH, they look pretty close to the real thing, even if they are a bit boxy and the texturing is bad.
But the hands holding the gun—which is something you end up looking at a lot in an FPS—look pretty bad, but that was just the limits of tech at the time.
Medal of Honor: Frontline (2002)
Developer: EA Los Angeles; Publisher: Electronic Arts; Platform: PlayStation 2, Xbox, GameCube, PlayStation 3
Back in the early 2000s there were PC exclusives of popular shooters, so game publisher EA opted to deliver much of the D-Day action from Medal of Honor: Allied Assault to console gamers with this fourth installment in the series.
As a member of the 2nd Ranger Battalion the player storms Omaha Beach in the opening part of Medal of Honor: Frontline and then joins the OSS to operate behind enemy lines.
The D-Day sequence, while handled well, does feel tacked on to the rest of the, game but it actually is even more intense than the Allied Assault version though the graphics are about the same, depending on the console you played it on.
Console gamers had a robust arsenal of small arms. During the D-Day sequence the M-1 Garand is the player’s main weapon, but Frontline provided plenty of other options including a Thompson, BAR, M1897 Trenchgun, StG44 and MP-40. Some weapons such as the Bren, MG-34 and M3 “Grease Gun” are seen but not useable by players however.
Overall, the game only has about half the number of playable guns as the PC version, but consoles couldn’t handle as much as PCs back then, so it makes sense.
Oddly enough, the game’s cover art features a U.S. soldier charging through the surf on Omaha Beach holding a Thompson M1928A1 loaded with a 20-round magazine, though only the M1A1 Thompson is playable in the game.
Battlefield 1942 (2002)
Developer: DICE; Publisher: Electronic Arts; Platform: PC, Mac OS
Over the past 17 years, the Battlefield series has focused on the modern era. Recently it went back to the First World War in 2016 with Battlefield 1, but that’s a whole different story.
When the popular multiplayer franchise first stormed onto the scene in 2002, it was all about World War II. Battlefield 1942 featured locations and missions from throughout the war, and included the D-Day landing as one of its original maps (even if D-Day occurred not in 1942 but in 1944).
With a 32 vs. 32 player map, the action on Battlefield 42‘s Normandy Beach was as intense as it could get—at least at the time. This one also put players in specific classes, which included sniper, assault, anti-tank, engineer and medic.
Unlike other shooters, where players begin the Normandy Invasion already in the LCVP “Higgins Boats,”alla Saving Private Ryan in this one, the Americans started out on a Fletcher-2 Class Destroyer and must make their way to shore. The Germans have bunkers with machine gun emplacements including fixed MG-42s and their withering fire was a little terrifying if you played this for the first time in the dark and really got into it.
Omaha Beach was one of more than a dozen other maps, which is why all these years later, Battlefield 1942 remains one of the best multiplayer games to date.
Battlefield 1942 was also more expansive than the other games that came out in 2002, as the base game follows the main theaters of World War II, focusing primarily on the Americans, British, and Soviet forces (patches later added a mission for Canada as well) facing off against the Axis powers, Germany and Japan.
Each class had a unique weapon – so the options are more limited than some of the other games, but this was also one of the first video games to record the actual weapons to ensure a greater level of authenticity when it comes to the in-game guns, and it really shows when compared to other shooters that came out around the same time, especially during the reload animations, which are spot on. Even the iron sights on all the firearms are correct.
While limited, the arsenal is pretty solid, though it interestingly only features two handguns, the Walther P38 and the Colt M1911.
Call of Duty (2003)
Developer: Infinity Ward; Publisher: Activision; Platform: Windows PC
Whether in the single or multiplayer mode don’t expect to see any beaches in the original Call of Duty, because, while the action takes place on June 5 and June 6, 1944, this game features the exploits of the 101st Airborne Division, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment – the same unit made famous in the HBO mini-series Band of Brothers.
As a member of the unit, the player had to undertake a solo mission to establish a landing zone, and later drive the Germans out of Sainte-Mère-Église before being charged with destroying several German artillery positions to aid the landing force at Utah Beach.
The game did mirror some of the action from the aforementioned Band of Brothers, but as it also included some action on the Russian Front, pretty much recreating some sequences from the film Enemy at the Gates as well, which was set in Stalingrad.
Since this very Call of Duty game was release, the series has become one of the most popular FPS franchises to date—and it is partially because every game has offered this level of quality gameplay.
In this series players could hold two primary weapons including the primary bolt action rifles from the major powers, semi-automatic rifles, submachine guns, support weapons and various sidearms.
There are 20 playable firearms from the U.S., British, and German arsenals, covering the bases most WWII games do, along with additional explosive devices and the Panzerfaust.
The weapons detailing in Call of Duty was excellent and the series has improved with every release.
Call of Duty 2 (2005)
Developers: Infinity Ward/Aspyr Media; Publishers: Activision, Aspyr Media; Platform: Windows, Xbox 360, Mac OS X)
As with the original Call of Duty, this sequel offers the chance to head to the Russian Front to take part in the Battle of Stalingrad and then to North Africa with the British just prior to the Second Battle of El Alamein.
If there is a complaint it is that while Sainte-Mère-Église and Caen are offered in the multiplayer Pointe du Hoc is absent.
Normandy was included as part of the downloadable map pack.
The game’s campaign mode includes the perspectives of four soldiers: one in the Red Army, one in the U.S. Army, and two in the British Army. There are four separate campaigns, each split into three stories for a total of 27 missions—that’s a significant amount of gameplay. Some of the most notable features added with the sequel are the game’s regenerating health system and an icon that indicates a nearby grenade that’s about to explode.
It was extremely popular—by November 2013, the game sold 5.9 million copies.
The arsenal increased significantly with Call of Duty 2 and notable semi-automatic rifles such as the Gewehr 43 and SVT40 were included, as were the usual assortment of bolt-action rifles and submachine guns.
It includes 25 small arms along with a large number of explosives, grenades, launchers, and mounted weapons. This is, I believe, the first WWII FPS to include the Winchester Model 1897 shotgun.
Call of Duty 2: The Big Red One (2005)
Developers: Gray Matter Interactive Studios, Treyarch, Pi Studios; Publisher: Activision; Platforms: PlayStation 2, Xbox and GameCube
Despite its title, this wasn’t an expansion for Call of Duty 2, but a different game made for console systems.
Instead of merely porting over that game for the PS2, Xbox 360 and GameCube, Activision served up this original game that focused on the exploits of the famous First Infantry Division – nicknamed The Big Red One.
The game followed the unit from the landings in Algeria and the baptism of fire at Kasserine Pass to the Italian Campaign and then to the D-Day landings.
The player didn’t charge the German defenses on Omaha Beach, but instead had to utilize binoculars to relay the positions of enemy bunkers and call in artillery barrages, before advancing and seizing German positions. That’s a bit of gameplay we hadn’t seen in these types of games before.
This one had more of an arcade feel than past Call of Duty games, but still delivered the action.
This game included the usual mix, but given that this included action in North Africa and Italy, gamers were able to see some Italian small arms include a Carcano M1938 rifle, Beretta M1938A submachine gun, and interestingly this one included the French MAS 38 submachine gun. Not all these weapons could be wielded by the player, but the inclusions are still notable.
A couple years also made a big difference in how the guns looked. In this game, you really see a leap forward in texturing. The metal parts on the guns look like they’re made of metal, the wood has a realistic grain, and all this works well with improved and more realistic lighting throughout the game.
Call of Duty: Roads to Victory (2007)
Developer: Amaze Entertainment, Publisher: Activision; Platform: PlayStation Portable
There is some irony in the name of Call of Duty: Roads to Victory since it was developed exclusively for the Sony PlayStation Portable (PSP) handheld system – hence it was the Call of Duty game you could take on the road.
This one also featured the 82nd Airborne Division on the early morning hours of June 6, 1944 around the French town Carentan. It also included a mission with the Eighth Air Force and then turned to focus to Operation Market Garden, which took place in the Netherlands with the objective of creating an Allied invasion route into northern Germany by seizing a series of nine bridges across the Rhine River by Airborne forces, with land troops to swiftly follow.
There are eight playable multiplayer maps, including two in Normandy.
In the end, the exploits of WWII proved not to be well suited for the handheld PSP system, which offered a clumsy control scheme. It wasn’t the worst of the WWII games, but Call of Duty: Roads to Victory didn’t really live up to its potential.
The arsenal of Road to Victory is more limited than other COD titles, including about a dozen small arms plus some explosives. Given the platform, everything felt like a step backwards, including the detail level and texturing on the firearms.
Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30 (2005)
Developers: Gearbox Software; Publisher: Ubisoft; Platforms: PlayStation 2, Xbox, Windows, Mac OS X
Technically, Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30 is not an FPS in the traditional sense—instead this game allows players to issue commands to one or two separate fire/assault teams.
Players also don’t get perfect snap-to-target aim, a detail meant to simulate the difficulty in hitting targets in combat situations. The game was noted for its intensity, which presented a learning curve that many FPS players had to overcome, but once mastered, made for an experience that was truly more than just more of the same.
Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30 also differed from Call of Duty or Medal of Honor in that it is focused solely on the events of D-Day.
It began with members of the 101st Airborne Division, 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment dropping in on the early morning hours of June 6 and having to destroy several Flak 38 anti-aircraft guns before clearing the road leading to Utah Beach.
It follows the unit to the attack on Carentan on D-Day+6, highlighting the combat in the early days of the invasion.
The choice of weapons in this game is more limited, but the key American small arms – from M1 Garand to BAR to Thompson all play an important role. There are about 14 firearms from the U.S. and German sides, plus a couple explosive devices.
Determining how to use the weapons with the fire/assault teams was part of the key to victory.
The guns in this game look pretty good, but the characters, especially their hands, are comically bad and boxy, even by 2005 standards.
Call of Duty: WWII (2017)
Developer: Sledgehammer Games, Raven Software); Publisher: Activision; PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows)
After several years of focusing on modern combat—and even one title that focuses on future combat—the top selling series returned to its World War II roots in 2017 with Call of Duty: World War II.
The 14th game in the franchise also returned to Omaha Beach with the 1st Infantry Division and the players had to blow the seawall with Bangalore torpedoes, clear German bunkers and take out a GPF cannon, all with graphics designed for modern PCs and consoles.
Unlike past Call of Duty games, which covered multiple fronts, this one’s campaign sticks just to the American efforts from D-Day to the Hürtgen Forest, with a large multiplayer component.
With improved photorealistic graphics, better physics engine, and improved artificial intelligence (AI), which creates a sense of teamwork, this is simply the best single-player D-Day game experience to date, as well as being a remarkable multiplayer platform.
While the campaign is limited compared to other Call of Duty games, the developers went all out for the multiplayer mode and included numerous firearms from around the world, including Japanese and Soviet small arms.
The arsenal is diverse and deep, including a plethora of mounted weapons and some bizarre and rare guns of the era, and some that are plain made up, like the “Jupiter” variant of the M1911A1, which actually appears to be a Colt Model 1902 Sporting Model that is fitted with a stock and foregrip similar to that of the aforementioned M1911A1 machine pistol conversion. It also lacks rear sights.
In addition, little seen real guns such as the Volkssturmgewehr and M2 Carbine are included! For small arms fans this is the game.
And like the rest of the game, the guns are photorealistic—its hard to imagine them looking much more real within the confines of this game.
STRATEGY AND TACTICAL GAMES
For those who’d like to test their strategic and tactical skills rather than being on the front lines, there have been several notable games worth revisiting.
Close Combat (1996)
Developer: Atomic Games; Publisher: Microsoft; Platform: Windows PC
The history of this 1996 tactical combat game is almost as fascinating as that of D-Day. This game was originally developed to be the computer version of board game maker Avalon Hill’s Squad Leader, but when the deal fell through it was released as Close Combat. Played in real time with a top down view it focused on the exploits of the 29th Infantry Division during Operation Cobra in the weeks after the Normandy landings.
The game became a commercial hit and spawned 16 sequels in total!
While the graphics are dated—this originally ran on Windows 95 after all—Close Combat introduced a new type of real time tactical play that focused on realistic battlefield tactics as opposed to the plethora of real time strategy games (RTS) that came out at the time.
To ensure a level of realism that would determine what would result in troops retreating, the game’s developers even hired a military psychologist, Dr. Steven Silver, to develop “psychological modeling.” This, in addition to accurate ammunition levels, physical state and experience gained from past actions helped create a more engrossing game.
To say that this one is for the hardcore wargamers is truly an understatement.
Close Combat: Invasion Normandy / Close Combat: The Longest Day (2000 / 2009)
Developer/Publisher: Matrix Games; Platform: Windows PC)
Driven by the success of the original Close Combat and its sequels the game’s developers turned its attention fully to Operation Overlord.
Originally released in 2000 as Close Combat: Invasion Normandy, it was remade and updated by its new developer/publisher Matrix Games in 2011 as Close Combat: The Longest Day.
The updated version, which has single and two-player mode, features 60+ individual small unit actions, as well as both an operations and campaign mode.
Players can command either U.S. or German forces and the game offers everything from the beach landings to the initial in-land fighting. If there is a complaint with this on it is the steep learning curve – scaling Point du Hoc without a rope might seem easier than mastering this one at first.
However, for those who enjoy the old time turn-based board games but desire something faster pace this is the game. It remains simply the best real time tactical series to date and this is simply the best of the bunch.
Company of Heroes (2006)
Developers: Relic Entertainment; Publisher: THQ; Platform: Windows, Mac OS X
The single player campaign of this 2006 real-time strategy game involves the Battle of Normandy and the Allied liberation of France, and the player takes command of the 29th Infantry Division’s 116th Infantry Regiment or the 101st Airborne Division’s 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment.
While not a strict RTS like Age of Empires or Starcraft, taking control of certain points on the map provided more resources—including manpower, munitions, and fuel.
Company of Heroes not only allowed players to experience the D-Day landings at Omaha Beach, but it also charged them with taking Carentan and Cherbourg, as well as taking part in the later breakout as part of Operation Cobra and fighting in the Falaise Pocket. The multiplayer mode also allowed for head-to-head as well as team-based play with up to eight players.