How well do modern computer games do history?



When broadly describing what predilections modern computer games have with various historic periods it can largely be summed up as follows: games set in the modern period have a predilection for wiping out Nazi's, games set in the early modern era have a predilection for violence in the Italian Renaissance and games set around the medieval period are predominantly filled with bad guys in expensive armor fighting so called 'good' magic wielding Elves and long-haired wizards who give pagan sex magic a bad name.

Well researched and meticulously crafted games set in a distinctive historic period can provide the historian with a simulated opportunity to see animated and interact with their favorite historic locations and people. However the historian being much more aware than the average gamer of the historic truth in game representation, may very well find themselves taking an overwhelming dislike to them because, like a movie perhaps, they have sacrificed authenticity for entertainment value. But games are not movies, what is it about true historical accuracy that hampers the general playability of a game? Surely non-historian gamers can still enjoy a 100% accurate historic simulation? Maybe some of the answers to this question can be found it looking at what some of the best games, which aim to represent the real world in the modern period, do well and what they don't do well.

The Saboteur

The Saboteur is an open world third person action-adventure video game set during World War II in German-occupied France. The game's protagonist, Sean Devlin (loosely based on war hero William Grover-Williams), is a cliché-ridden hard drinking Irish race car mechanic, a regular among the racing groups of Paris. After being cheated out of a win in the 1940 Saarbrücken Grand Prix by Kurt Dierker, a Nazi colonel, Sean and his best friend Jules Rousseau seek revenge and sabotage his prized race car. After being captured, Dierker executes Jules during interrogation under the belief they are really British agents sent to spy on him, but Sean escapes. The rest of the storyline chronicles Sean's fight to kill Dierker. He is recruited by the French Resistance and its leader Luc, and British SOE, who help him throughout the story. The story takes place during World War II and the German occupation of France, but the war itself is used as a backdrop to the main story, which is about Sean's fight to avenge Jules' murder, protect Jules' sister Veronique, and kill Dierker.
The player is able to explore Nazi-occupied Paris, some of the French countryside and parts of Germany. Colour is a key element in the game-play. Areas which are heavily controlled by the Nazis are represented in very film-noir black and white, with the exception of the irises of characters' eyes, city lights, blood and blue symbols of the French Resistance, and various German symbols, which are bright red and complete with swastikas. In order to make that district coloured ("inspired") again, players must weaken the German forces occupying the area. In doing so, that district's citizens regain their hope, visually represented by making the area vibrant and full of colour.

What it does well:
The games recreation of Paris which the player can roam at their leisure is remarkably authentic. I went on holiday to Paris a few years ago and was able to drive to the street in the Latin quarter where my hotel had been located in real life.

Oh dear
What it does not do well:
Well, apparently, wherever the protagonist goes in Paris he must come across constant evidence of the occupation and subsequently has lots of enemy installations and hardware to attack (or be attacked by) wherever he goes.  So the skies above Paris are littered with spotlight wielding zeppelins (they never heard of the hindenburg) sporting massive swastikas and all the lovely street corners in Paris are spoilt by massive POW-camp like watchtowers that must be blown up to liberate the neighbourhood, oh dear.

Empire Total War

Empire: Total War is a turn-based strategy and real-time tactics computer game in which players choose a contemporary 18th century faction and set out to ensure that faction's domination over the known world through military force, politics, diplomacy, espionage and economics. Although the campaign element of the game is turn-based, players can direct battles in real-time.



What it does well:
The sheer amount of research that has gone into making the armies and navies of the various nations look authentic and realistic in astounding, the warships used in the sea battles in particular, were painstakingly reconstructed from designs held by the National Maritime Museum. From British regulars to the Cossacks of southern Russia all the nationalities have the look, flavour and feel of the real thing.

Another feature I loved was that changes in government may occur during the campaign as the rise of republicanism over the traditional rule by monarchy becomes an issue throughout this period. For instance, the United States may only come into existence if the ruling British Empire is unable to maintain social order. Another example is that the French Revolution may occur if the people of France are no longer satisfied with their sovereign.

What it does not do well:
Unfortunately the player never plays against an opponent in the game who uses the authentic warfare strategies of the 18th century and the Napoleonic era. Your army may begin in a grand authentic formation but the computer enemy just gets confused and sends men randomly all over the place. It would be amazing if when fighting the French army it used infantry tactics reminiscent of the time, but it doesn't. The result being that, although it looks like it,  you never actually  feel like your plying against an army or navy of the period. Perhaps, for the game designers, this is a case of heavy research begets more heavy research and there simply reaches a point where they have to say if we don't stop somewhere this product is never going to be made.

Mafia II

The storyline for Mafia II is a gritty drama that chronicles the rise of the players character Vito Andre Scaletta, the son of Sicilian immigrants, from the late 1940s to the mid 50s. As the game progresses, Vito joins the Falcone crime family and becomes 'a made man' along with his best friend Joe Barbaro. The story begins with the player character Vito returning home from World War II. Vito had joined the U.S. military as a way of avoiding jail time for a botched robbery. Vito reunites with his old friend, Joe Barbaro, and the two quickly embark upon a life of crime. Their criminal ascension starts with Mike Bruski, a car mechanic who gets in a conflict with Joe. Mike also needs a certain type of car to chop for parts, and will pay $400 for one that the police are not tailing. Soon enough, Vito, Joe, and Henry Tomasino (already a made man) find themselves battling with, for, against, and around three crime factions: the Falcone, Vinci and Clemente families.

What it does well:
It is hard to describe just how visually stunning the period recreation of an American city is, in which the player subsequently get to ream-free in superbly replicated period cars. The city is called Empire Bay and is essentially an amalgamation of New York’s streets and Hollywood’s hills which is
interactively sterile as all other ‘open-world’ game-cities are, but it’s been coated in a veneer of 'dreamy credibility'. Each street and hallway has a feature – a man shouting at an open window; a
woman pressing her ear to a door; the sound of an argument.


What it does not do well:
The player’s supporting cast eschews any chance to get really creative, instead furnishing the game with another layer of dark-suited, dark-haired professionals, hit men and higher-ups that blur into one mass. Driven by his need for money and respect, Vito is encased in a series of ever-widening shells, each step up the mafia ladder, giving a new set of faces to watch in cut-scenes: but they’re all congealed clichés, culled from a hundred Bronx Tales and Godfathers. The dialogue is well written and excellently acted, but it feels mechanical, the spouting's of a supercomputer sat in a shady office with its dials set to ‘lightly-accented macho threat.’