It’s weird to think that only 10 years ago the World War II first-person shooter was the most played-out genre in all of gaming. The setting propped up multi-million dollar franchises (Call of Duty, Medal of Honor), adored cult favorites (Brothers in Arms) and abysmal, industry-destroying shuffleware (Hour of Victory). We were so ready for them to leave our lives when they did, and now I’m honestly a little bit sad that they’re gone. I’m not in mourning or anything, but there was something unambiguously fun about shooting Nazis.
The invasion of Normandy was the central showpiece of any World War II game worth its salt. We’ve all stormed that beach so many times over the last 10 years that it’s made one of the most singular images in history surprisingly mundane. However we should not forget those sequences—they’re responsible for igniting the WWII craze and videogames grew up in a lot of ways once they made it to D-Day. Here are my choices for the best Normandy scenes in the history of gaming.
4. Conker’s Bad Fur Day
The most realistic portrayal of D-Day in a videogame was Conker’s Bad Fur Day. Seriously.
While early Calls of Duty and Medals of Honor stuck to the safe, rated-T-for-teen massacre of goreless bodies getting tossed pre-ragdoll across the screen, the ever-dangerous Conker made sure that the blood of their woodland soldiers splattered across the camera. Yes, it’s a near shot-for-shot recreation of Saving Private Ryan, and yes it’s played for laughs, but you still see a poor chipmunk struggle for air beneath the waves before the rat-tat-tat of the pillboxes leave the water dark red. If Rare had gotten serious, and decided to make an actual honest-to-god war game, we might be talking about Conker as one of the most seminal moments in the art of videogames. Instead they made a poop boss. Oh well!
3. Battlefield: 1942
If you’re like me you have very fond memories of the tremendous un-epicness of Battlefield: 1942’s Normandy map. Guess what? 8v8 control point multiplayer doesn’t really translate the chaos. Most of my memories in 1942’s D-Day involved chasing each other around in landing crafts or climbing up a remarkably calm dirt ramp without needing to dodge mortar shells or machine gun fire.
Still, at a moment where non-splitscreen multiplayer was a novelty, this was awesome. Yes you had to use your imagination to fill in the gaps, but it was still very much D-Day. If nothing else, it filled us with hope for what was to come.
2. Company of Heroes
My all-time favorite videogame experiences feel like keystones sliding into place. Individual, professionally framed moments where a revolutionary mechanic makes perfect sense. Like reminding time for the first time in Prince of Persia, or seeing the experience points pop out of dead pvp terrorists in Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare.
My favorite version of this came in Company of Heroes, the great, semi-forgotten RTS from Relic. It’s an RTS set during World War II, which sounded entirely boring up until that moment you landed in Normandy and you found yourself navigating individual squadrons around beachheads, through trenches and behind sandbags. This was dynamic, top-down cover, and flanking, and everything you always thought real-time strategy should be. Overnight, the static tug-of-war firefights of Command & Conquer looked hilariously quaint. You’re telling me my space marines don’t effortlessly merge into ideal defensive positions at a click of a button? Yeah, I’ll pass.
So yeah, D-Day in Company of Heroes wasn’t much more than a prologue to let its players know that the rules have changed. Still, I’ll always remember that crackling, euphoric sensation when I first played it. The old guard was dead, and we got to rewrite the rules. My only complaint is that real-time strategy was never this good again.
1. Medal of Honor: Frontline
Number one with a bullet. I recommend not watching any footage of Frontline today, because it may leave you with a sense of epochal doom. Through modern eyes this 2002 inception of D-Day is hilariously sparse—seriously, there’s only like 12 people on the beach. But man, this was next freaking gen when it came out. EA intended to copy Saving Private Ryan as liberally as possible, and they made those Gamecubes, Xboxes and PS2s scream and cry until they mustered about 50 percent of it. But after a generation of two-fingered polygons, well, you took what you could get.
Frontline was a legitimate culture shift for the industry. I remember my dad being impressed with the gravity of tone. All tall, stoic, and Academy Award-baiting, videogames didn’t really look like this in the ‘90s. First-person shooters are trying to create the same parameter-smashing setpieces to this day. Killzone, Gears of War, hell, even Call of Duty wouldn’t exist without Medal of Honor’s D-Day. You can feel it’s influence with every million Infinity Ward makes.