Video gaming has always been considered a future-looking and ground-breaking medium – so it’s intriguing that many of its most popular series, going back more than two decades, have focused on revisiting the past. Below we chart seven gaming series which enable you to relive famous eras and infamous conflicts, using a simple keyboard or joypad as your weapon.
The daddy of historical gaming, first introduced for PC back in 1991 and still going strong three decades later. While its settings have evolved over time, the fundamentals remain in place: use urban development, trade and warfare to steer an entire civilisation over the course of several millennia.
Every game on the series fits a turn-based ‘4X’ template, where you’re tasked with outlasting human and AI-controlled opponents through the actions of “eXplore, eXpand, eXploit, and eXterminate”. Series pinnacle Civilization V still commands a huge following 11 years post-release, thanks to its colossal scope, switch from square to hexagonal gameplay tiles, and focus on tactical combat rather than sheer force of numbers.
2. Call of Duty
The seventh-best-selling gaming series of all time built its brand on enabling shooter fans to relive World War Two from the trenches in 2003’s debut, before expanding to include the Cold War via 2010’s Call of Duty: Black Ops, and elements of late-90s conflicts in the Middle East, albeit in the fictional nation of Urzikstan, via Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (2019).
Also of note is the incredible All Ghillied Up level in 2007’s Call Of Duty 4, in which you get to explore a lifelike version of Pripyat, deserted in the wake of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Most recent entry Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War is the first on PS5 and Xbox Series X, and returns it to an early 1980s USA vs Soviet Union setting.
3. Age of Empires
First introduced on PC in 1997, the original Age of Empires offered gamers the chance to play as one of 12 civilisations based on East Asian, Mesopotamian, Egyptian and Greek architecture. While that debut spanned Stone Age to Iron Age, its 1999 sequel shifted events to the Middle Ages, before Age of Empires III dropped explorers into the European colonisation of the Americas between approximately 1492 and 1876 AD.
A fourth game, which we know to feature medieval warfare between English and Mongol forces, is due at some point in 2021. The series’ real-time strategy gameplay is both deep and moreish, although not always completely accurate – with original Age of Empires designer Bruce Shelley admitting that most of the reference material for that game came from the children’s sections of libraries.
4. Assassin’s Creed
Where to start here, other than to play pin-the-tail-on-the-historical-period? If an era has been taught in GCSE History then you can bet Assassin’s Creed has been there at some point since its 2007 inception on PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360.
That curtain-raiser primarily took place during the Third Crusade, before Assassin’s Creed II carried us to Renaissance Italy, Assassin’s Creed III the American Revolution, and Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag the 18th century Caribbean’s golden age of piracy.
However, the franchise’s best games of all have no number in the title. 2020 effort Assassin’s Creed Valhalla takes players on an incredible open-world tour of the Viking era, but even that is pipped by
2017 offering Assassin’s Creed Odyssey, in which you get to gleefully spear your way through the Peloponnesian war between Athens and Sparta.
First released in 2002, Battlefield has long been considered the shooter of choice for the more discerning console gamer when compared to rival Call of Duty. That hasn’t stopped both games from mining similar periods for content, with early Battlefield efforts also focused on World War Two, until surprise a futuristic jump forwards via 2006 release Battlefield 2142.
Subsequent outings took the series into fictional current-day territory, before the exceptional, teamwork-focused Battlefield 1 headed back in time to World War One and a world of tanks, aircraft and torpedo boats. 2018’s Battlefield V brought the series full circle and, disappointingly for some, back to World War Two.
6. Hearts of Iron
A four-game grand-strategy franchise noted for its inconsistency. Hearts of Iron (PC, 2002) was seen as ambitious yet flawed, and Hearts of Iron III launched as a buggy mess. Yet the series’ second and fourth entries nailed the tension and tactical challenges of World War Two perfectly.
All four games enable you to select a country and play through the entirety of World War Two, from arms production and diplomacy to every facet of the conflict itself. 2016’s Hearts of Iron IV took the series towards a more open-ended narrative, meaning it could be modified in ways such as having the Axis powers win the war. Other official expansions have added the ability to experience events as minor Balkan nations such as Greece and Bulgaria.
7. Total War
Originally set in 15th and 16th century Japan (2000’s Shogun: Total War for PC was the series’ first entry), this colossus of turn-based strategy and real-time combat has since taken in the Middle Ages, ancient Rome, early modern colonisation and most recently the Bronze Age, via 2020 release A Total War Saga: Troy. Amazingly, in 2016 it also branched out to the fictional world of Warhammer.
Total War: Shogun 2, released in 2011, just edges out the Rome-based games as the series’ best, with Japan’s Sengoku period the perfect sizeable-yet-claustrophobic backdrop for intense clan interaction and intimate tactical decision-making.