Who knew there were so many video game nerds in the military?
The Army recently cranked out its second video game, and the Marines are apparently cooking up their take on virtual urban warfare. The latest title from the Army is Full Spectrum Warrior ($49, for ages 17 and older) for the Xbox.
This title was originally developed as a simulation to train troops in the basics of street combat, and publisher THQ has released a more civilian-friendly version of the game.
You get to command two three-man teams through a nasty spat in the capital city of the mythical Middle Eastern nation of Zekistan.
You don't play as a soldier. Instead, you view the action from a floating, over-the-shoulder perspective, and you can order each team to advance to a certain point, fire at the enemy, throw a grenade or evacuate a wounded comrade from the area.
The main focus is on leapfrogging each team from one cover to the next, making sure not to expose your troops to a line of fire that you haven't investigated yet.
If you get too confident and jog your team past two or three corners at a time, you're likely to walk right into a fortified machine gun nest and get torn apart.
While you can still carry on with one incapacitated soldier, any more casualties mean that you've blown the mission and must restart it from your last save point.
This is not a game for bloodthirsty Rambo-wannabes, but a precise and deliberate strategy game that lets you watch the action from a grunt's-eye view.
It's also incredibly engrossing, if occasionally simplistic.
There are usually a couple of ways to take out enemy soldiers. Sometimes you can catch them out in the open and mow them down. Other times, if they dodge behind a destructible object, such as a wooden crate, you can obliterate the object with machine gun fire and then shoot them.
You can also lob a grenade over a heavily fortified position or fire a grenade out of your launcher for more distant targets.
Ammunition isn't infinite, though, and outflanking your opponent with one team while keeping him pinned down with the other is the best way to conserve your explosives for use on tougher foes.
Despite all those options, you'll still feel constrained at times.
For example, you can't enter any buildings; all action is confined to streets and alleys, even when rooftop snipers are firing away at your squad.
Also, while you do occasionally get to provide cover fire for tanks and armored vehicles, you don't get to order your troops to commandeer a tank or hop into a machine gun turret.
Also, your men don't always follow your orders as quickly as they should. Occasionally you'll order your men to open fire, and a couple of them will pop up from behind the car they've hunkered down behind, aim their rifles, and then drop back down to reload without firing.
These peek-a-boo confrontations are frustrating, but don't really affect the outcome of the battles.
For Xbox Live aficionados, you can also play cooperatively online, with each player commanding one team, and you coordinate your movements via the voice headset.
Full Spectrum Warrior isn't the only video game product to come out of the U.S. military recently. America's Army (www. americasarmy.com) for the PC - and eventually PlayStation 2 and Xbox - is the Army's officially endorsed - and free - commercial game. And GameSpot reports that the Marines want in on the fun, too (www.gamespot. comc/action/closecombatfirst tofightreview-6101400.html).
Close Combat: First to Fight, for Xbox and PC, will be similar to Full Spectrum Warrior, but will put you in the shoes of one of the Marines on your team and let you manually fire your weapon.
Close Combat will supposedly be set in a real Middle Eastern country and will force you to consider civilian casualties and media coverage, which may give gamers a taste of just how multifaceted modern combat has become.