As in any other entertainment medium, historical backdrops are often featured in video games to establish a particular flavour or motif among their chosen setting and cast of characters. It really is one of the oldest world-building tricks in the book and one that continues to serve a variety of developers as they continue to lure gamers from one time period to the next. With the imminent release of Far Cry Primal and its stone age antics, we thought we’d take a look at some of gaming’s most memorable historical series.
For me, having just reviewed Far Cry Primal, it seems like an apt choice of game to begin this discussion. Where Ubisoft Montreal has previously aimed for modern settings that mimic real-world locations, the prehistoric land of Oros feels like a complete departure. With no comprehensive records on what life was like for humans at this early stage in our existence, the developer had just as much freedom here as with its more parodical Far Cry playgrounds. Aside from blessing the open world series with a contrasting aesthetic, the change in time period also has a noticeable impact on gameplay, which feels quicker and more brutal as melee weapons coming to fore. This sense of immersion is bumped up a notch thanks to the game’s ingenious use of the Wenja language, a reconstructed dialect spoken between characters.
Aside from other, more obvious examples of historical video games like Total War and Age of Empires, another stand-out example has to be Koei’s Dynasty Warriors franchise. For more than a decade, developer Omega Force has continued to retell the same story over and over while expanding its roster of playable characters. Set in ancient China, the series traces a time period referred to as the Three Kingdoms era, triggered following the collapse of the Han dynasty. From here the games chart an expansive saga as three clans continue to wage war upon one another, rolling the carpet out for a long line of brave warriors and cunning tacticians.
Following Dynasty Warriors’ success, Omega Force followed up its flagship franchise with Samurai Warriors, this time taking place during the Sengoku Jidai period in feudal Japan. This setting has become particularly popular in its home nation, spawning entire series of games with several of these making their way overseas. In the past we’ve seen grand strategy titles like Nobunaga’s ambition as well as more cartoonish depictions, as seen in Devil Kings, Tenchu, and Sengoku Basara.
Another prominent example, as Dave points out, is the Onimusha series which fans are still waiting on for a reboot. Compared to other games that adopt the Sengoku setting, Onimusha was far more fantasy-based, transforming the powerful ruler Nobunaga Oda into an actual demon. God of War pretty much did the same in its depiction of ancient Greece, combining both historical and mythical elements. Other titles, like Spartan: Total Warrior, Age of Mythology, and Rise of the Argonauts are similar in this respect, though Sony’s visceral action series is perhaps the most memorable.
Although we seem to forget, thanks to all the jump packs and exoskeletons of the last few years, Call of Duty is another series with strong historic roots. Before its daring leap into the realm of militaristic sci-fi, CoD used to be the go-to alternative for Medal of Honor fans, next to Battlefield 1942 and Brothers In Arms. With the release of Modern Warfare in 2007, however, everything change for the series as it made one final visit to World War II the following year before severing its ties with this period completely. That didn’t stop Treyarch from revisiting later military conflicts, however, poking its nose in the Vietnam conflict before committing to a somewhat convoluted Cold War setting. Sharing the same timeline is another favourite series of Tef’s, though he accepts that No One Lives Forever has fallen on hard times despite its kitch charm and humour.
As Dom and Kris argue, one franchise that is easily relevant to this conversation is Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed. From the Third Crusade right up to the Industrial Revolution, the series has taken us to a variety of historic periods and locations including Victorian London, colonial America, and more exotic locations like India and China. Dom’s favourite of the lot, however, has to be Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag. Swapping the congested streets of a capital city for the vast open water of the Caribbean, it continues to stand-out as the most unique instalment to date. For many, including Kris, the Ezio trilogy is where Assassin’s Creed really came into its own.
Now it’s over to you. What are some of your favourite historically grounded games? Are there any time periods and settings that you’d love to see developers adapt into a videogame? Let us know in the comments below.