Maybe this setting's too real

Times Staff Writer

Eight American soldiers trudge through an urban valley of dilapidated structures, uncertain of what awaits them around the next corner. They've been assigned to help lead an invasion of this Middle Eastern country in an effort to topple its dictator and his regime. The enlisted are from wildly diverse backgrounds; some are more reluctant than others to be in this conflict.

Still, they march on, following orders, hoping with all hope they will make it through alive and get home to see their families again. The danger is very much palpable for these recruits.

But this isn't the conflict in Iraq. It's the fictitious republic of Zekistan. And this isn't real life, it's just a video game.

Produced in cooperation with the U.S. Army, Full Spectrum Warrior is unlike any other title in the increasingly crowded war simulator genre. More role-playing simulator than button-mashing actioner, Warrior oozes with realism.

Perhaps a little too much.

This is not to say that Warrior isn't a fun title. On the contrary; the environments that the soldiers explore are incredibly well detailed, and the story and characters are very well crafted. Although the controls are clunky at times, the problem-solving nature of the missions should challenge even the most avid gamers.

But because the similarities between the war in Iraq and the war in Zekistan are so numerous, at times it's hard to view this game as entertainment. Those with loved ones on the front lines could find the simulator unsettlingly realistic. When a member of your team is hit, the game goes into slow motion to show the solider taking the lethal round complete with a stream of blood. Anyone who questions the reasons for sending our troops to Iraq surely will cringe when another soldier dies, real or not. Being forced to watch it in excruciating detail is jarring.

Separating what is real from what is make-believe gets even more difficult during the second mission, when gamers are asked to secure an international airport that could easily be a stand-in for Baghdad's. When a team member remarks that the fictitious dictator is "gonna be hiding in his outhouse and we'll have to dig him out with our own hands," one can easily imagine the words coming from a serviceman or -woman.

Once you eliminate any negative feelings — this is a game, remember — actual play is quite enjoyable. Rather than controlling a single member of the team, players control two four-man teams. Instead of furious button tapping to take out the hostiles, simply order the team where and how to shoot and they do the rest. The real strategy lies in how to use both teams to keep each other out of harm's way.

Complete all the missions (or find the Internet cheat code) and you'll unlock the actual U.S. Army training game, a scaled-down version of Warrior but with completely different controls.

Before March 20, 2003, this title would have been lauded for its original gameplay and attention to detail. Now, however, it feels wrong to play something that seems so real.

It sounds good What does it say about the quality of a game when the best thing it has going is its sound?

Welcome to the world of Shadow Ops: Red Mercury. In this run-of-the-mill first-person shooter, gamers play as Frank Hayden, an elite operative trying to track down a suitcase bomb.

Luckily, for most missions, Frank is not alone. Unluckily, the two guys who are there to help him just get in the way most of the time. Trying to make your way out the door to find cover? Sorry, there's a teammate there.

The levels are expansive, which is good. That you are forced to restart the level from the beginning when you die, because there are no save points through the mission, is bad.

But listening to the THX-certified sound almost makes you forget how ho-hum the gameplay is. Almost.

Finally... G-Phoria, the video game industry's version of the Academy Awards (or at least the Golden Globes), was taped last weekend at the Shrine Auditorium.

Awards were handed out in such noble categories as "hottest character" (for the sexiest pixel vixen) and "best Easter egg" (for the best hidden feature).

We'll be interested to see if award presenter Anna Nicole Smith looks as out of it when the show is televised as she did during the taping.

Carmen Electra and Dave Navarro are the hosts of the show, which will be televised at 5 p.m. Friday on the G4techTV cable network.


The games

Full Spectrum Warrior

Good: A true war simulator with outstanding graphics

Bad: Too real to be fun

Details: Xbox platform, $49.99

Rating: Mature (blood, strong language, violence)

Shadow Ops: Red Mercury

Good: Hear that? It's some of the best video game sound around.

Bad: Choppy cinematics add to the disappointment.

Details: Xbox platform, $49.99

Rating: Teen (violence)

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