The 9 Best Games Set in the Cold War
The Cold War was a time of espionage, conspiracies, and government cover-ups—three things we can all agree are super awesome. Yet, despite being a veritable spring of compelling ideas, there are surprisingly few video games that take place during that period.
Fortunately, that scant library of Cold War games does include a varied mix of genres. And despite the rather grim atmosphere of the time, which is reflected in a lot of the media that covers that era, there are a fair few that delve into the campy and comical.
Below, you’ll find our picks for the 9 best games set in the Cold War. From psychological thrillers and political sims to globetrotting superspy adventures, it’s an eclectic assortment that has something for everyone.
Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater
The third mainline game in this series about covert-ops and convoluted conspiracies takes you to a Soviet jungle in 1964. This being a Hideo Kojima joint, you can expect a particularly knotty tale involving secret government projects, unexplained superpowers, and lots of backstabbing (oh my god, so much backstabbing).
With Snake Eater, you get Kojima’s unique brand of expositional storytelling (of course), which makes it a lore geek’s dream come true. Just prepare to sit through a lot of dialogue.
If long-winded preaching isn’t your thing, though, Snake Eater has some of the best sneaking in the series, adding light survival mechanics that add depth to the series’ familiar stealth gameplay, making it one of the best PS2 games of all time.
The jungle is a wonder to explore. Not only do you have to creep through brush to avoid the gaze of Soviet soldiers, but there’s also all sorts of bite-y wildlife ready to ruin your day, from venomous snakes to man-eating crocs.
This is one of the best games set in the Cold War for fans of story-driven, dramatic stealth games, and it’s well worth your time to check it out.
No One Lives Forever
No One Lives Forever (NOLF) is a stylish first-person shooter set in the 1960s that follows secret agent Cate Archer as she travels the globe on a James Bond-esque counter-espionage campaign against a supervillain organization.
NOLF is campy and clever, with an important message about sexism beneath a veneer of gunplay and go-go boots.
NOLF truly stands out with the quality of its writing. Cate is an international superspy but also a working woman in a time before sexual harassment laws. Her male colleagues are dismissive of her achievements—many are actively demeaning—but Cate handles it all with an unrelenting professionalism (and the occasional quip) that makes her easy to cheer for.
Cate’s a radical with a quick tongue, challenging the old boys’ club through sheer excellence. And who doesn’t like a good underdog story? If you’re a fan of games set in the Cold War, this is an essential game to check out.
Call of Duty: Black Ops
While the Call of Duty series has some of the most iconic moments in video games, their plots tend to be generic ‘save the world’ campaigns with some light patriotic moralizing. Instead, Black Ops focuses inward to tell a captivating psychological thriller that subverts expectations and challenges the series’ own narrative conventions.
Black Ops isn’t quite as innovative with its gameplay, but fans of the series will love its distinctive stop-and-go gunplay. There’s a heft of movement and a kineticism that make the morally reprehensible acts you commit immensely satisfying. Then, there are the set pieces (Black Ops has some of the series’ best), which are always good for a rush of adrenaline.
Despite releasing more than a decade ago, Black Ops still has a thriving multiplayer community. If you’re looking to get good at the game, check out our Call of Duty: Black Ops guides.
Destroy All Humans!
The Cold War was an era of espionage and distrust of the government. So, what better premise for a game set in Cold War America than the ultimate federal cover-up? We’re talking, of course, about aliens on Earth.
In Destroy All Humans!, you step into the moon boots of Crypto-137, an evil alien with evil alien objectives. Players take Crypto-137 on a suburban rampage using an array of futuristic weapons and crazy psychic powers to annihilate every human in sight.
Destroy All Humans! was recently remade for modern hardware, bringing the game’s visuals into the latest generation of consoles. It looks better than ever, and the writing holds up, too. Destroy All Humans! is full of gags, quippy one-liners, and a few cheap jokes that will have you laughing out loud.
This is a quirky pick for fans of games set in the Cold War, and it’s worth checking out if you’re a fan of anything alien-related, too.
We’ve talked about jet-setting superspies and aliens on Earth, but for those who want something a bit more cerebral and grounded in reality, Twilight Struggle is the perfect pick out of the list of the best games set in the Cold War.
This strategy game lets you take control of the USA or the Soviet Union during the Cold War. You play on a recreation of the world map of the era, and your job is to establish cultural and political dominance through secret operations, propaganda, and military posturing.
The coolest bit is watching borders shift and change as you and your rival superpower exert influence and forge alliances. Through the years, you’ll find yourself facing the same difficult real-world events as the leaders of the time: the Vietnam War, the US peace movement, and the Cuban Missile Crisis included.
Phantom Doctrine is a turn-based Cold War thriller that thrusts players into a secret world of conspiracies and paranoia. A global conspiracy has played the world superpowers like pawns, leading to a global standoff with the potential for nuclear holocaust. As leader of the mysterious peacekeepers, The Cabal, you must stop this secret plot before it’s too late.
It’s your classic spy thriller premise, chock-full of the twists and turns typical of the genre. The plot unravels slowly over the course of its 40-hour campaign, and you’ll be on the edge of your seat the whole way through.
Fans of games like XCOM and Invisible Inc. are certain to vibe with Phantom Doctrine’s setting and gameplay. The game has an incredible atmosphere and compelling stealth tactics that make playing through the game’s countless, procedurally generated missions a ton of fun.
The Bureau: XCOM Declassified
It’s late 1962 at the peak of the Cold War. You are an agent of the Bureau of Strategic Emergency Command, which, on paper, aims to protect the homeland in the case of Soviet invasion. What the Bureau actually does is protect America from The Outsiders, hostile aliens who have been secretly operating on Earth.
Declassified plays like a hybrid of Brothers in Arms and the 3D Fallout games set in the XCOM universe.
You can move and shoot freely, or swap to a slow-mo mode, which gives you more control over who and where you want to hit. This slow-mo mode also lets you command squad members to attack, take cover, or use a skill.
The Bureau: XCOM Declassified was met with mixed reviews at release, but it deserved better. It offers a new perspective of the XCOM world, with mechanics and gameplay nothing like other titles in the series, and its intriguing plot about an attempted government cover-up doomed to fail is a perfect fit for fans of games set in the Cold War.
Tropico 4 makes you the dictator of a tropical island paradise that’s totally not Cuba.
Building a happy, thriving island is easier said than done, and you’ll need lots of infrastructure and urban planning to do it right. Also, you deserve to skim a cut of the development funds (it was all your idea to begin with!), so consider a touch of martial law to quell the inevitable revolts.
While you’re busy keeping your subjects subjugated, you’ll also have to keep an eye out for troublemaking capitalists and commies who want to spoil your fun. Negotiate, concede to their requests, or oust them—that’s your prerogative. Just keep in mind that you’ll need a unified Tropico for when the Soviets and Americans come knocking at your door.
This long-standing series consistently makes up a large portion of the best city building games on Steam, but most fans will agree the developers hit the sweet spot with Tropico 4. There’s really nothing out there like it, and if you’re interested in a cheeky recreation of Cold War-era politics, Tropico 4 has got it.
World in Conflict
The USSR has successfully landed a military contingent on the shores of Seattle, and players can choose to lead either NATO or US forces as they battle the Soviets on European and American soil. It’s not a particularly compelling premise but enough to keep you hooked throughout the game’s long campaign. Alec Baldwin also voices the lead, so that’s something.
World in Conflict is a real-time tactics game that takes place in an alternate timeline during the tail end of the Cold War. Similar to games like Myth or Ground Control, you deploy troops onto a battlefield and use them to complete objectives.
Unlike a real-time strategy, you cannot easily replenish lost troops in World in Conflict, so each dead soldier hurts more.
The game uses a rock-paper-scissors system to add some nuance to the destruction. Tanks are good against vehicles but infantry can outdo them. Artillery tears through foot soldiers but are poor against tanks. Knowing who to bring to a firefight and how to use them is crucial for a successful campaign.