By Joseph Luster

Though recent years have seen a bit of a back-and-forth with the annual Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles—big changes transformed the convention into a smaller, more exclusive event, only to completely rebound—things are more or less back to normal. That means lots of hype across all platforms, from portables to consoles to PC, and of course lots of shooting. Seriously, if one thing has continued to grow over the years, it’s the proliferation of shooters in the market. This is no surprise, since blasting away everyone from soldiers to chunky aliens to demonic babies (see: Dead Space 2) is as popular as ever; however, there’s been a relative decline in supersize World War II-based games, for better or worse.

This might not be as significant were the market not saturated with them in years prior. Trends go up and down, however, and right now modern military action is the smokin’ hot stuff, while WWII has been relegated more and more to PC-based strategy and similar genres. Still, despite the downturn, the show floor wasn’t completely bereft of relevant titles. A combination of classic and unorthodox approaches to the genre show that somewhere, in some form, we’ll always be able to get our fix. We’ve outlined a couple very different titles below, while also looking ahead at the ways in which the industry is diverging.

Company of Heroes Online

Company of Heroes may already be an established real-time strategy hit on PC, but Relic Entertainment is trying something a little different as they take the title online. One of the most welcome changes overall is the pricing: Company of Heroes Online is a free-to-play game. Though that may already send people clamoring for the arrival of the beta, don’t think there isn’t some form of monetization.

CoH Online implements microtransactions, each meagerly priced item coming as some sort of weapon or upgrade. The initial reaction to something like this tends to be one of apprehension. After all, doesn’t Johnny Deep-pockets benefit most from such a system? He or she with the most money should logically hold the battlefield advantage, buying up the strongest items and wreaking the most online havoc with their boosted wares. The folks at Relic have taken measures to alleviate concerns, as it looks like the same weapons and upgrades will also be unlockable through normal play.

Overseas gamers have already gotten a taste of the title and its system that puts the player in the role of a World War II commander—choosing from one of six divisions, from the Allied Airborne to the German Blitzkrieg. After the setup, it’s all a matter of taking those strategic brainmeats of yours into head-to-head battle against up to eight players. China was the first country to receive access to an open beta, followed by Korea. Look for Company of Heroes Online to come our way this fall.

1942: First Strike

Not every announcement at E3 spells long waits throughout the summer months and beyond. Capcom may not be the immediate company that comes to mind when World War II pops up, but they’ve actually been flying the skies of war for over 25 years. 1942 first hit arcades in 1984; perhaps you’ve heard of it. Since then, it’s been ported to countless platforms in one way or another, and was last seen in fresh form with the downloadable 1942: Joint Strike, a fancy remake developed by Backbone Entertainment (Wolf of the Battlefield: Commando 3).

For those still unfamiliar with the series, it would be safe to say that it’s a vertical shooter very loosely based on World War II. Sure, it features many era-specific elements, but I’m almost positive there weren’t any screen-clearing bombs or tiny companion aircraft that boosted a plane’s firepower in WWII. Correct me if I’m wrong.

1942: First Strike scales the top-down acts of derring-do down to a portable level, developed specifically for the iPhone. This brings touch-screen action into the mix, though it might not be implemented in the most traditional of ways. Rather than using your finger as an anchor for the plane—placed arbitrarily on screen and dragged accordingly—it acts instead as a destination point. Place your finger in one spot on the screen, and the plane begins to fly toward it. This may make certain areas difficult to fly to, especially if your hand ends up in the way of the action, but we’ll have to see how successfully it works in the final product.

Speaking of which, you should be able to give it a spin right now. All eight chapters, four bosses, and three selectable planes are available in 1942: First Strike in the App Store as you read this.

Brief Departure

Don’t think of this as a grim-faced elegy for a fading sub-genre, because things come and go in all aspects of the medium. Admit it, we’re somewhat of a fickle bunch. Still, aside from PC strategy games, the upcoming World War II titles—at least those shown at this year’s E3—remain fairly thin. Instead of M1 Garands and Thompsons on your gaming platter, look for a continued surge of tweaked-to-all-hell M2s and unmanned aerial vehicles.

Some of the chief examples of this departure were well received at the expo. Developers and publishers are clearly making modern, and even future, combat into flagship efforts. As you may be well aware (especially if you were with us last issue), the latest Medal of Honor game is the first to take the fight out of World War II and into Afghanistan, ending an 11-year streak of virtually reliving past conflicts.

Thing is, EA knows they need to compete with Activision, who will be rolling out Call of Duty: Black Ops this November. Developer Treyarch—well-versed in taking the bi-annual reins from chief Call of Duty developer Infinity Ward—last did so with World at War, making this their first attempt at exercising modern military might. They’re certainly capable, even if the set-piece-laden template from which they’re working is pretty sturdily in place.

THQ, publisher of the aforementioned Company of Heroes Online, is also pushing things a bit beyond modern military, into a slightly scary future war. Taking place in 2027, Kaos Studios’ Homefront paints the dark portrait of a nuclear-armed Korean People’s Army successfully invading the United States and defeating our armed forces. Fans of Frontlines: Fuel of War will find themselves in familiar, but revamped territory. The single- and multiplayer effort is centered on a story by Red Dawn writer and Apocalypse Now co-writer John Milius. Guerrilla warfare will be on the plate of many a gamer when Homefront hits PC, Xbox 360 and Playstation 3 in February of 2011.

No matter how many of these wars are waged, both far-flung and close to home, World War II remains one of the settings that established the standard of military combat in gaming. We’ll no doubt all be ready for the next salvo; for now, it’s probably best to fire up your computer and get mental with one of many commanding strategy gems out there.

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