Which war games are worth your time? It’s a tricky question to answer since war is sort of the default here in the world of PC gaming. The fighting in Counter-Strike will never cease, and Call of Duty will always find another geopolitical reason to nurture conflict. PC games are, as DC Comics eloquently once put, in a state of Infinite Crisis.
We’ve chosen to dig out the war games that don’t use conflict as a convenient backdrop, but treat it as a serious theme deserving of examination. Some of these greats recreate historical catastrophes in pedantic yet moving detail, while others concern fantastic beasts and wizards, but nonetheless simulate something real about the struggles of wartime.
This war games list also features a wide range of genres, so expect to find everything from indie adventures to grand strategy games, not to mention plenty of shooters. We also update our lists regularly to ensure the games presented below really are the best war games around.
The best war games are:
After seven years of continual updates and improvements, there are few multiplayer war games as complete as War Thunder. Whether you prefer aerial dogfights, tank combat, or naval battles, War Thunder is essentially three simulation games rolled into one. So you really don’t have to choose – recent updates have even added helicopters and modern military vehicles to the mix.
More of the best: Read our roundup of the best plane games
Whichever battlefield you elect to play on, War Thunder’s realistic ballistics modeling and attention detail promise as authentic an experience as you could want. Every vehicle has been painstakingly modeled, inside and out, so every shot yields a different result based on factors like range, shell type, the angle of the enemy tank’s armour, its thickness, where the crew are located within the enemy tank, and much more. That damage modelling is consistent across the whole game, so whether you’re strafing the canopy of an enemy fighter plane or lining up the perfect torpedo strike you’ll need to do plenty of quick maths before pulling the trigger.
There are some political climates under which you don’t really want to play war games like DEFCON. This is perhaps the bleakest way you can while away an evening on Steam with your friends. Inspired by 1983’s cinematic cult classic Wargames, DEFCON is one of the oddest strategy games around, utilising multiplayer to pull on the paranoia and high stakes of the Cold War.
You’re cast as a general playing with the lives of millions from the safety of an underground bunker. You soon come to learn that mutually-assured destruction isn’t as simple a concept as it sounds, and that strategic nuclear warfare is a psychological game of intense pressure. You’re looking to wipe out your enemies and disable their capacity for retaliation, while knowing that doing so will expose the positions of your own silos and submarines.
Alliances form fast and break down quicker in the wake of terrible betrayals. But if you do it right, you’ll manage to exterminate your opponent’s civilian population while saving your own. Hooray?
Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30
Authenticity is a questionable ask for all the best war games – how can any immaculately recreated battlefield capture the experience of living through its horrors? The first Brothers in Arms made a great go of it, telling the true story of a parachute infantry regiment in the United States’ 101st Airborne Division, dropped behind enemy lines on D-Day.
Levels were designed around historical reconnaissance photographs taken in ‘40s Normandy, and research included both interviews with veterans and classroom lessons on combat tactics. The result remains the closest thing we have to an interactive Band of Brothers, and that most rare of things – a respectful shooter and one of the best WW2 games.
Valiant Hearts: The Great War
By the time a game’s given you a gun and sent you on your way, you’ve already been encouraged to start thinking in kill counts – to take on the opposing role in whatever in which you are involved. Valiant Hearts is different to most war games: a procession of gentle puzzles and occasional rhythm action that simply has you witness the Great War as it ravages France.
It is to Rayman’s Ubisoft Montpellier’s credit that Valiant Hearts doesn’t do the usual and try to capture the reality of combat – instead opting for cartoon abstraction. But don’t think it holds back on the harrowing detail due to its art style, as its environments are filled with snippets of shiver-inducing real-world history.
The principal characters in this sometimes heartbreaking adventure game are, without exception, just trying to find their way back to each other. Torn apart by the most widespread war ever fought, borders and battle lines are irrelevant to these soldiers and civvies, yet they are shook by them to a distressing degree.
This War of Mine
In war, not everyone is a soldier. That is the tagline of This War of Mine- a game based loosely on the experiences of the citizens of Sarajevo, who lived under siege for 1,425 days during the Bosnian War.
Practically speaking, that means you’re presented with a cross-section of charcoal-coloured buildings and an unflinching view of the people eking out an existence within. Sampling elements of survival games, you manage their lives, directing them to craft and trade during the day, and then – once the snipers are gone – sending them out to scavenge for food and medicine at night. Think of it as the war games equivalent of Fallout Shelter, but with less busy work and much more to say – as we found in our This War of Mine review.
There is no way for you to win this war or to contribute to it. Your role is simply to keep going, and somehow reconcile your needs with your conscience. This War of Mine isn’t fun, per se, but it’s uneasy brilliance makes it one of the most important videogames to confront war and has paved the way for Call of Duty: WW2 and Battlefield 1’s more thoughtful breed of war games in the process.
Tyranny sales might have been poor, but it;s still one of the best RPGs when it comes to its depictions of war in gaming. You might have been encouraged to think of Tyranny as Obsidian’s fantasy title about evil, and it is that. But that evil comes about because of where it puts you: at the frontlines in a brutal conquest that has ripped a land to shreds.
At the game’s opening, The Tiers have been at war for several years – their people displaced, conscripted, or made to pull carts in the slave army of the Scarlet Chorus. Surely there are no other war games where you can have a child soldier as a companion – the damaged Sirin, kidnapped by an overlord keen to harness her innate powers of mind control.
In Tyranny, what little good you can do is less about individual acts of kindness than fostering a little order amid the chaos – enough that the people of The Tiers stand some chance of returning to normality. Or, at least, of not being blasted en masse from across the continent by an Old Testament spell. Yeah, there’s fantasy here, but Tyranny’s themes are starkly real.
EA had its work cut out when it came to surpassing the seriousness of Battlefield 1’s Great War. Few war games have depicted the horror of that conflict as well as Battlefield 1 did, placing you in the boots of a series of young men as they each meet their untimely demise in a desperate last stand against against the Imperial German Army. Battlefield V continues this sombre tone as you gear up for the killing fields of World War 2. Each of Battlefield 5’s War Stories are single-player vignettes intended to “create feelings of despair”. With each death your character’s name, birth date, and death date loom out to remind you that this war game is about more than just entertainment.
When it comes to gameplay, however, Battlefield V rivals the best FPS games on PC. Weapons feels refreshingly janky compared to the futuristic fare of Call of Duty: Black Ops 4, offering up a satisfying rattle and kick with every shot you fire. The battlefields themselves change constantly throughout a match as destructible buildings are torn apart, showering players with rubble.
Battlefield V pushes graphical boundaries, too. Real-time ray tracing is only available on the dearest Nvidia graphics cards at the time of writing, but gives us a glimpse into the future of triple-A gaming. Hellish infernos glint nightmarishly in puddles and muzzle-flashes from a rifle reflect in nearby windows – it’s only natural that resident hardware nut Dave James chose Battlefield 5 as his personal game of the year for 2018. When it comes to big-budget first-person shooters, Battlefield V is the complete package.
Unity of Command
Unity of Command is a turn-based war game set on the Eastern Front of World War II, and one of the brightest lights in the genre’s recent renaissance. If you can find it bundled with the expansion campaigns, you’ll have access to everything from Operation Barbarossa to the Soviet drive into Germany.
Unity of Command is one of the best war games thanks to its merciless focus on your ability to manage supplies across distance. Winning is about reading the map and planning bold, decisive campaigns that will keep your army rolling, despite perilously long supply lines and the constant threat of being cut-off.
It’s a great introduction to the sub-genre of operational war games, and a welcome change of perspective for those of us wondering what really makes a war run. If they can’t be fed or equipped, it doesn’t matter how well a soldier is shooting.
Sometimes the most sobering thing you can do to drive home the vulnerability of battle in war games is to strip away everything we’re used to in a shooter – regenerating armour, piles of hit points, copious cover – and show how quickly we’d really last under fire. Operation Flashpoint is a concerted effort to do just that.
At the start of each mission you’re presented with a briefing, handed a map, compass, watch, and notebook. Then you’re booted onto an unforgiving island in 1980s Eastern Europe. You might be guarding a base, engaging in reconnaissance, bearing down on an objective, or simply driving a truck – but all the time, you’ll be acutely aware of the sudden death that awaits you if you slip up. Bohemia’s Arma 3 is a successful (and far prettier) continuation of the same feel.
The Witcher III
Here’s a description of an unassuming hamlet on The Witcher 3’s map: “The inhabitants of this village were relieved when they learned the path of the marching armies had shifted slightly and passed their village by. Then, one night… they changed their mind.”
That cruel sense of circumstance and (sometimes literal) gallows humour is typical of The Witcher 3, and its Velen area in particular. In a country reduced to mud by forces battling to reach more strategically important settlements, the focus is placed on the people trampled underfoot. The indiscriminate cost of war is weaved into quests, incidental descriptions, and the world itself.
“As Poles, we’ve a strong folk memory of World War II,” CD Projekt writer Magdalena Zych tells us of The Witcher 3’s depiction of war. “Even if it’s something we heard from our grandparents or great grandparents, we can relate to people living under foreign occupation. It’s not hard to imagine for us.” Sure, what is seen by many as one of the sauciest sex games on PC doesn’t initially leaps to mind when you think of the best war games, but The Witcher 3’s sobering depiction of life in a war-torn nation makes it more than worthy of inclusion.
Sadly, there is no The Witcher 4 release date yet, so it may be some time before we see this fascinating fantasy world expanded upon. Instead, you could return to Geralt’s final adventure but tweaked with the best Witcher 3 mods.
Company of Heroes
Carentan is a rural town in northern France with a lovely old church. It was also a strategic objective in the Second World War – perched as it was between Utah and Omaha beaches – and hosted perhaps the finest RTS level ever crafted in Company of Heroes.
Relic spent many months pacing that one mission before pitching the demo to publishers. Evidently, THQ saw the game for what it was – a push towards making real-time strategy experiential rather than mechanical. The developers intended players to feel empathy for their enemies, even as – especially as – they encircled the Germans during the decisive Falaise Pocket. A number of real-life battles are rendered from above in Company of Heroes.
Company of Heroes is one of those war games where your concerns weren’t abstract resources but manpower, munitions, and fuel. For the first time, RTS encounters felt like desperate skirmishes rather than cold strategic manoeuvres. For the first time, they felt human. If you’re still looking to scratch that itch, Ancestors Legacy’s brutality is much inspired by Company of Heroes.
Hopefully this list has shown you there’s much more to war games than RTS strategy or scoring multiple headshots. Conflict is a huge part of games, and there as many ways of exploring it as there are games in the genre. So from thoughtful explorations of violence to intense firefights, the PC really does have it all when it comes to war games. If you prefer your fights a bit more mechanical, why not check out the best tank games? But until next time, make… videogames… not… war? Well, playing is almost like making, right?