No video game properly captures the military experience, so don't expect any miracles on this list. That's because nothing can truly capture moments like the immediacy of real combat or even the deep-in-your-bones fatigue of a ruck march, followed by a stress shoot.
But based on my own Army experience, there are games realistic enough to teach trigger discipline, to make you wrestle with the risks to civilians on the battlefield or to practice coordinating actions between fire teams and squads.
Here are five that are realistic enough that you might even get a training plan using them approved.
1. Arma 3
Let's get the queen of the military simulator genre out of the way first. Arma 3 is almost 10 years old now, but it's still a top-rated staple of milsims and military gaming for a reason. It can be modified until it's literally unrecognizable, but the base game has realistic vehicles, weapons and physics that encourage real warfighting techniques.
While its vaunted graphics are, in my opinion, overstated, Russia has tried to pass off its game footage as real multiple times. Part of the reason that works is the deep attention to detail in Arma, including good foliage, animals and people on the battlefield. You can even add civilians on the battlefield and practice the Law of Armed Combat with the right mods.
The learning curve is steep, but your squad could really, actually plan and rehearse battle drills or operations in this game, especially since some of the modified versions of the game are to bring in real terrain maps from GIS mapping software, the same stuff geographers use. Someone even added and maintains a version of the National Training Center at Fort Irwin, California.
Squad has a number of elements that make it easier for a player to pick up but is slightly less realistic than Arma 3; most annoying is a big marker for where your squad leader is as well as any markers they put down on the map. There's also a slight issue with most everything on the map being indestructible, including buildings.
But those quibbles aside, it's a simulator with decent ballistic physics, realistic weapons, tough-to-pilot vehicles and up to 50 players per team. Your whole platoon could take on another one, and the team with better communications, coordination and discipline will likely win.
This is not a game of sprinting across open areas, jumping to dodge enemy fire and using quick reflexes on tight maps. It's a game of carefully providing overwatch for one another, setting up ambushes and blocking positions, and using discipline to get an advantage. The only thing this simulator doesn't make you do is pack and unpack the Conex three times before you deploy.
Verdun is a painfully true-to-history World War I simulator. No, modern troops will likely never have to fight trench warfare like their great-great-grandparents. But the game features elements that can drive home the pains of trench warfare, like the player being highly exposed on the move and killed by just a few hits from enemy fire.
But Verdun is valuable as training mostly for the history of it. It features some distinctly unrealistic elements common to video games, like health regeneration within seconds of being hit and seemingly arbitrary loadout limitations. (The Marines get the shotgun famously used by American troops in the trenches, but not the Doughboys.)
And perhaps most inaccurately? The French Chauchat light machine gun routinely works, something it famously didn't do in real life.
DCS, the Digital Combat Simulator, is a well-received and successful flight combat simulator. It's free to play, but many of the aircraft have to be paid for a la carte. As an Army veteran, this writer has never flown in an air battle or even been close to a real one, but Hasard Lee, a real F-16 pilot, did some dogfights against an AI opponent and was impressed.
The game gets a lot of the tactics, techniques and relative advantages of aircraft right. Players have to manage their energy, angle of attack and positions against adversaries. This isn't an arcade game like "Ace Combat." Good players can easily maneuver against each other for minutes before either gets a shot off.
But as Hasard points out near the start of his video, there are some things the game ignores, probably for player convenience. The two planes were pulling 9Gs with full bomb loads but didn't suffer any damage.
5. Hell Let Loose
Another history game, this one set in World War II, Hell Let Loose features up to 100 players in destroyed European cities. Team17, the publisher, leans very hard into the fact that it created the maps using actual reconnaissance materials from the war. And it even has decent combined arms warfare.
The game's realistic elements encourage careful strategy and communications. The game boasts nested communication nets, huge maps and realistic cover and concealment. The HUD (heads-up display) is minimal and it doesn't give you the "free intel" of other games, like when you get a kill confirmed from 200 meters away, thanks to the little "[Your player] killed [Enemy player]" message.
Like all games, there are caveats, such as the blue dots over top of friendly players. But the massive maps lead to a moment that reminded me of my actual Afghanistan deployment: A distant hill was engulfed in smoke from multiple explosions, and my heart stuttered a little as the violence over there clashed with the relative peace where I was at.
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