The recent loss of the cruiser Moskva by Russia during the Ukrainian conflict has put naval combat back in the spotlight, and made the general public aware that beyond the fascination exerted by a fighting fleet, an instrument and symbol of a nation’s power, a modern warship can still sink… And if the cinema has long taken hold of the symbol, from Red October to Battleship to Das Boot, video games have not yet fully exploited the naval dimension of conflicts.
Illustration above: presentation of the “Naval Strike” DLC of Battlefield 4 (2014).
A complex video game object
Naval military history is fascinating because it is made of innovations, adventures, fascinating personalities and tragic battles. But if naval, aerial and amphibious battles have long been part of action games (as in the great landing scenes of Call of Duty or Medal of Honor), this is not what true naval warfare fans are looking for.
In fact, it is perhaps the “Total War” series of strategy games that has best exploited the power of the great fleets of the past in its various opuses. Thus, in Empire, in 2009, fleets are of paramount importance in the control of the world in the 18th century, and this is also the case in the episodes concerning Rome (notably in the control of the Mediterranean basin and the fight to the death against Carthage) and Ancient Greece (where my Athenian triremes are indispensable in the fight against Persia).
Assassin’s Creed Odyssey offers some epic moments in the Aegean Sea !
Ubisoft also tried to capture the fury of boarding in its Assassin’s Creed Black Flag. If the management of naval artillery is totally wacky, let’s admit that the knife fights lend themselves perfectly to assaults on the decks of Spanish galleons. Origins (2017) and Odyssey (2018) tried to reuse the recipe (who could have imagined anything else from the publisher?) by transposing it to Antiquity, but the result is quite disappointing… Let’s hope that Skulls and Bones, the arlesian of the pirate game, will come to rectify the shot !
The Second World War, a market of its own
If there is one period of naval warfare that is over-represented in video games, it is the Second World War. It is true that it offers two major scenaristic axes, with the advent of naval aviation (with the Pacific War and its epic confrontations, especially rendered in aerial simulations) and especially the submarine and its alter-ego, the destroyer (Battle of the Atlantic), but also.
In fact, the Silent Hunter series (published, then developed by Ubisoft) has had, for almost 30 years, unconditional fans who continue to model games that are always striking in their realism and technicality. Today, it has various heirs, such as “UBOAT” which allows you, in addition to fighting, to manage your entire crew in faithfully reconstructed submarines. Or “Destroyer – The U-Boat Hunter“, which will soon offer to play the pack hunter like its distant ancestor, Advanced Destroyer Simulator.
Uboat (2019) allows you to manage your submarine crew.
To be completely objective, let’s not forget the great successful multiplayer games such as “World of Warships” or “War Thunder” which have managed to make confrontations that had long remained austere accessible to the general public. Above all, they ensure the transmission of a certain naval culture to the players.
Today we reach an impressive level of detail : here the USS Arizona in War Thunder.
World of warships, rare game giving access to the magnificent French battleship Richelieu.
Modern naval combat: as exciting as it is misunderstood
Maritime combat is therefore rather to its credit in video games, but there is one period that remains rather under-exploited: the contemporary period, despite some attempts like in “Battlefield 4”.
Yet it, too, offers exciting scenarios, with state-of-the-art fleets and complex missions, from intelligence to special forces extraction to large-scale conflict.
This lack of interest is perhaps due to the modern combat ships, much less badass than their battleship and cannon-armored predecessors, but which actually offer a much greater strike force with their discreet but formidable missiles, and soon their hypersonic missiles, or even their railguns, initially planned to equip the stealth destroyer Zumwalt.
Some opuses (still in the world of RTS) have tried to include naval combat in their gameplay and narrative, such as “Wargame – Red dragon” (2014), or the very sharp “Command: Modern Operations”, a game certainly austere, but with one of the most incredible military databases on the market. We can also mention the mythical Fleet Command, edited by the world leader of the military database Jane’s, which tries to launch itself in the video game at the end of the 90s.
The next generation is undoubtedly assured: “Sea Power“, wisely subtitled “Naval Combat in the Missile Age“, will propose this year to plunge you into a fictitious naval war of the Cold War. A very interesting choice, especially since this context has often been the basis of anthology techno-thrillers, and especially those of and especially those of Tom Clancy !
Sea Power will put you in the 1980s. And yes, the F-14 Tomcat is there !
Let’s hope that this article will give ideas to the editors: there is no lack of inspiring scenarios, from the Falklands war to the “Praying Mantis” operation, the famous confrontation between the USA and Iran in the Persian Gulf in 1988…