We at Continue Play love our history. It’s just so exciting to be able to think that you’re facing the same decisions in the same conditions that people hundreds of years ago faced as well. It’s great for the ego: (“phwoar! I’ve just made the empire of Alexander the Great in half the time! What a noob that guy was!”) and it’s a fascinating insight into the challenges the real people face. Inevitably some periods in history are over or underexposed and often it can be extremely difficult to find a game that focuses on a particular period that might fascinate you. Fear not! Continue Play has the answers! Today we look at one of our favorites: the Eastern Front.
The Eastern Front is easily the most important front of the Second World War. More fighting and dying took place there than the rest of the war combined. At its center, the two ideologies of Communism and Fascism finally came together for the ultimate show down. Probably no other area has seen as many terrible atrocities committed than on the Eastern Front. It’s sad then how few games represent the Eastern Front in any great detail, in comparison to the plethora of shooters and RTS games representing the Western Front.
Gaming the Eastern Front presents problems for all sides (a bit like in reality). On the one hand, it being relatively unknown in the West precludes mass interest, meaning that inevitably many people shrug their shoulders and head off to the next D-Day game being released. On the other hand, from a developer’s standpoint, it is extremely difficult to do the arena justice. The sheer scale of the fighting makes it difficult to recreate faithfully while at the same time making sure it’s friendly to new players. Gaming on the Eastern Front isn’t for the faint of heart then, but there are some excellent games out there for those willing to dive into this most epic of conflicts. We hope that this small sampling of games will enable you to dive into one of the most frightening, devastating and important wars ever fought.
1. Red Orchestra 2: Heroes of Stalingrad.
Developed by Tripwire Interactive, Red Orchestra 2: Heroes of Stalingrad is probably the only modern shooter that deals only with the Eastern Front – more specifically, Stalingrad, which saw a million dead over the course of the fighting. Primarily a multiplayer game (the campaign is only survivable if you use it for training purposes and little else), for the twitch shooters out there, this game represents a major change. The game captures (conveniently for an FPS) the brutal close-quarter urban combat of Stalingrad, with every room and hall the site of vicious fighting. What’s more, most of the weapons you’ll be using are your bog-standard bolt action rifles, which even by World War II were almost half a century old.
To survive in a world of heavy machine guns, sub-machine guns and the odd assault rifle requires something special from you and your side when you’re in action: teamwork. (I know… that again…). There is a fairly detailed command structure with players being divided up into squads, each having their own roles to perform, from fully kitted out squads with a full selection of light machine gunners, assault infantry and engineers, to your average rifle squad with nothing but rifles. In an effectively run team each of these squads will have different and important roles to perform. One heavy weapons squad, with the covering fire of their light machine gunners and a supporting rifle squad might go for the objective. Another rifle squad might hold the other objective. A lot of teamwork will ultimately have to come down to the players. A poorly led team, with a commander typing out orders and the squad leaders (who you can spawn on to get closer to the action) is unlikely to do well. An effectively led team, with the commander and squad leaders speaking through the game’s voice chat and each squad knowing what they’re doing, is almost guaranteed to do well against the opposition.
Tanks and Armored Personnel Carriers are also realistically represented and there are a large number of official and community maps, some of which are extremely impressive and with some (the community map “Univermag” comes to mind here) the spirit of Stalingrad’s intense combat is represented very authentically, perhaps even more authentically than the maps that come with the base game. Your grenades and bayonet will be used just as much as your bullets. Artillery will panic your soldier and you yourself will be able to feel real fear as your rush forward hoping that the enemy doesn’t manage to hit you, bullets whizzing overhead. The cries of the dying and the brutal wounds suffered by your soldiers in action make it possible even to claim that Heroes of Stalingrad is even an anti-war FPS, if it is even possible to use such a term.. Take this game too seriously and you’ll begin to see Germans in every bush.
2. War Thunder Ground Forces
In the grand scheme of things, War Thunder Ground Forces by Gaijin Entertainment is a bit of a grey area. (This is a theme with many games featured here, the Eastern Front just isn’t interesting enough in comparison to other games, meaning many are forced to branch out elsewhere). Unlike other games we’ll mention here, Ground Forces isn’t strictly devoted to the Eastern Front and the battles that were fought there. Indeed, whilst for the moment War Thunder Ground Forces is an entirely Eastern Front experience, this will soon be changing as they add new nations and tanks.
War Thunder Ground Forces doesn’t set out to represent particular battles as accurately as perhaps Red Orchestra 2: Heroes of Stalingrad might; instead it looks at the hardware. T-34s, Tigers, Panthers, IS-2s, Ground Forces has them all (and their variants). What’s more, all of them are tricked out with gorgeous exterior detailing (right down to the key holes in the hatches being modeled) and their damage and performance are designed to accurately reflect the real thing. It is a crying shame however that the interiors of these tanks aren’t represented as well, considering the incredible attention given to their exteriors.
The joy of War Thunder Ground Forces are the sights to be seen. If you’re in an aircraft over the battlefield, you’ll be able to marvel at what is going on below as well as marveling at how every vehicle down below is player controlled. Then the smugness comes when you swoop down, unleash a hail of rockets and blitz the now burning tank. Just watch out for anti-aircraft guns, they’re can be particularly mean.
There are no health bars in Ground Forces. Hit someone once in the right place and his ammunition explodes with flames leaping from his hatches. Ground Forces won’t transport you back to the Eastern Front, you won’t necessarily get the feel of a clash between two gargantuan powers (apart from the Kursk map, which is epic and should be the style Gaijin follows), but you will get a great feel for the hardware and the equipment used by both sides and the relative effectiveness of these units.
3. Il-2 Sturmovik – Battle of Stalingrad
We were unsure whether to include 1C/777 Studio’s Il-2 Sturmovik – Battle of Stalingrad or not. It’s tempting to write about its spiritual predecessor, Il-2 Sturmovik 1946, but if we did then you’d miss out on a lot of the Eastern Front experience. See, the problem for Battle of Stalingrad is that it is in Early Access and a lot what will eventually make it a proper Eastern Front experience simply isn’t in the game yet – roughly only 50% of it has been developed so far. For the moment, if you are looking for a proper Eastern Front game, then you can safely ignore this for the time being – but you’d be missing out on a fair few things.
First are the superb accurately modeled aircraft, from the classic Il-2 Sturmovik, to the Bf-109. The come lovingly detailed, even to the point of the squeal of air as you hit the brakes. Second is the truly superb rendition of the city of Stalingrad. Smoke rises from buildings and burning oil tanks, streets are accurately modeled and dozens of famous landmarks are reproduced. Red Orchestra 2 players will find it especially impressive as many of the maps in Red Orchestra 2 can be found within Battle of Stalingrad, though at a obviously on a much different scale. Several user made videos have used these to excellent effect.
Air combat in Battle of Stalingrad is cold and hard. The game so far features only the winter map of Stalingrad so everything is in shades of white and grey. At times you will feel genuinely cold from it yourself, as the lack of any warm color to speak of takes its toll. The only time there is ever a bit of warmth in the game is in combat and generally then, it’s not the sort of warmth you’re looking for. Then it becomes a crazed fight between you, your aircraft and the enemy. As you put your aircraft through the most desperate maneuvers, you can feel the aircraft unhappily reacting to it, straining against your movements. But on the other hand, if you hadn’t done that last manoeuvre, then you’d be a nice warm bonfire in the sky.
For the moment, if you are at all interested in sight-seeing (and the Eastern Front is full of amazing sights) then Battle of Stalingrad is for you. If you’re looking for game play proper, then for the moment, just put it on your waiting list.
4. Company of Heroes 2
Company of Heroes 2 by Relic Entertainment is a Real Time Strategy game dealing with the war on the Eastern Front from beginning to end (though with a few choice anachronisms to suit what was happening). Company of Heroes 2 is primarily focused on a small area of the front, with you leading up to a platoon of soldiers with various support options available. Company of Heroes 2 does a great job at summoning up the feel of the Eastern Front, with good graphics, awe-inspiring explosions and effects, and an excellent soundtrack to boot.Primarily, this is a multiplayer game, but the single player elements are good, if not without controversy, particularly with how they deal with Soviet actions and war crimes during the war. The story-driven campaign provides a decent account of the war from beginning to end and some of the missions are quite challenging.
Ultimately however, the multiplayer is where it’s at. The balance here and there is a bit out of whack, but it’s constantly improving, with impressively regular updates to it every month or two. With a bit of cunning and luck, the multiplayer becomes an extremely rewarding experience which, if you overcome the odd bit of rage-quitting is definitely worth spending an extended time in. The feel of the fighting on the Eastern Front, with your troops reactions and replies to your orders becoming increasingly terrified the worse the fighting becomes and some of their comments really help provide an emotional attachment to your poor soldiers as you send them off to their deaths.
It’s worth noting to that recently an expansion has been added to Company of Heroes 2 that brings two Western Front armies, the American army and the OKW, the OberKommando De West. For the German players out there, this is great news for representing your elite armored formations fighting against the Red Army and for Soviet players, it means that help is finally on the way from the other side of the front. Whilst matches between US and Soviet forces aren’t possible normally, for the truly dedicated Operation Unthinkable planners, it is entirely possible to turn the Cold War into a hot one in a custom battle.
5. Hearts of Iron III
If you want to know what chaos is, then playing the Eastern Front in Hearts of Iron III by Paradox Interactive is perhaps the closest you’ll get. With thousands of units, the knowledge that you’ll be fighting battles with literally millions of soldiers along a huge front, trying to bring order out of a crazed chain of command, (and if you’re Soviets) millions of Germans bearing down on you and (if you’re like us) not with much of a clue at all about what to do about it; Hearts of Iron III revels in detail.
Soft attack, hard attack, combat width, organisation, supply, and morale make up just some of the dizzying array of statistics that you’ll have to deal with in order to be successful. If (like us) you don’t understand them, then sit back and enjoy the show as you watch your front line collapse and fall back in disarray, and hundreds of thousands of your troops will be lost and your nails become progressively shorter as you wait for winter. The true glory of Hearts of Iron III is that you can make the war – your war. Fancy teaching the Germans who’s got the fancy hardware with superior tanks and elite infantry? Perhaps not the best idea, but certainly worth a try. Following your glorious victory over the fascist hordes, do you feel the need to spread Communism to those filthy capitalists? By all means! Or if you’re Germany, do you fancy avoiding the whole mess and concentrate your efforts elsewhere? Probably best!
The ability to meld history to your vision of how you think it should have been done is perhaps Hearts of Iron III’s strongest point. If you’re feeling really professional, then the battle planning system included in later DLCs of the game is definitely worth a shot, the pretty arrows and pictures of tanks can truly make you feel like you’re at the operations map at the OKH (OberKommando das Heer, the German headquarters devoted to fighting in the East) or the Stavka (The Soviet High Command), planning your next hammer blow (although it’s too bad that my tanks get bogged down in the first attack).
So there you have it, 5 games worth your time if you have an interest in the Eastern Front of the Second World War. Did we miss any out? Is there anything you’d like to mention about the titles included here? Let us know in the comments.