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Tuesday, December 19, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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War games: In this crop of video games, you can play God or a hero

Seattle Times staff reporter

If politicians are going to start talking about a draft, then we need to learn how to fight. And preferably at home on a couch, in our Underoos, in front of a TV screen. Besides, if you're going to spend the holidays with family, it's a good idea to brush up on your combat skills anyway.

We did a recon of a few current war games to prep you for wherever you're headed. If it's outside, put on some pants, soldier.

"Left Behind — Eternal Forces" (LB Games, rated T, for PC)

In the live-action prologue, a boy vanishes during a game of catch with dad and a couple of guys disappear after giving a hobo a hot dog — for surely, he who giveth freely of the tube steak shall ascend.

You may not have thought that the best-selling novels about the post-Rapture war between God's Tribulation Force and the AntiChrist lend themselves to the video-game experience. And you'd be right in this case. It's not festive to dump on a Christian game right before, uh, the birthday of Jesus. But I'm dumping on it because it's a lousy, creepy game, and not because it's Christian.

In the real-time strategy action — and by "action," I mean "tedium and frustration" — you control puny humans from high above. (You're not God, or the controls would be less awkward and you'd be able to see everything better.) Your goal: convert as many people in New York City as possible to the side of God, and keep them through prayer. Things that weaken the converts include guitar music and swearing. Just think what HBO would do.

Along the way to spiritual warfare, you buy buildings and convert them into banks, cafes, hospitals and training centers for your soldiers. Your builder can only be a male convert. Likewise with the soldiers. But medics can be either male or female.

Controlling the game is so frustrating that Job would have bailed on it. Even corralling passers-by on the streets is hard — although this may unintentionally mirror what it's like to stop real New Yorkers for theological discussions. As you try to move characters around the city, the game's perspectives will make you, by turns, blind or seasick. The graphics are downright prehistoric. And worst of all, the game is prone to frequent crashes. For instance, at certain points you're invited to step out of the game to learn more about why evolution is a crock, or to buy the Christian pop music you're hearing, only to find out that there's no going back to the game without restarting.

It's worth noting — although I'm not sure what this means philosophically — that you can only play on God's side in the game's single-player mode, but in multiplayer mode online, you can switch sides and play for Satan.

"Call of Duty 3" (Activision, rated T for teens, Xbox, Xbox 360, PS2, PS3, PS3, Wii)

After dipping into the WWII well about as often as The Hitler Channel — I mean The History Channel — you'd think the franchise would start showing battle fatigue. But nein!

First-person-shooter action takes you through trenches, bombed-out houses, villages, and lovely, Nazi-infested Gallic countryside. (There are the basics of a story — about the Normandy Breakout — but exposition and lame drama will just make you impatient to get to the fray.) It's broken up by other tasks such as driving and firing from jeeps, fighting in an unwieldy tank and using a mortar to clear out enemies before you can move on — not to mention picking off Germans who have the nerve to use their mortars on you.

Graphics of 1940s France are top-notch, and the firefights you're plopped into are downright ferocious. Cutting frustration but not the challenge, "COD3" is forgiving, healthwise. If you take too many hits, the game will tell you to find cover; and if you can, your health returns to normal. Members of your squadron would never get slapped by Gen. Patton; you can often avoid getting ventilated by letting your artificial-intelligence buddies charge around a blind corner or into a room ahead of you.

The flipside of the firefights is that often you'll find yourself hunkered down trying to maneuver your gunsight onto countless enemy pinpricks in the distance. Occasionally, a Nazi will bushwhack you from around a corner and there'll be some hand-to-hand grappling — pressing your right and left buttons really fast to make him let go of a rifle, which you can then whack him with. Adds nothing.

"Gears of War" (Microsoft, rated M for mature, for Xbox 360)

If the Second Amendment covers big guns with chain saws on the ends, our Founding Fathers were geniuses. This is your most reliable of several weapons in a campaign through — and beneath the surface of — a beautifully rendered planet overrun by a species called Locust. You play as a burly badass — on a team of the same — with a shady backstory, but again, irrelevant.

"Gears" hinges on taking cover behind walls, posts and any random debris, to pop out to fire at enemies. Not to mention scooting or rolling from behind one obstacle to another.

For action, visuals, variety and sheer nastiness, this is the winner among winners. It even sports a running feature that replicates a shaky, handheld-camera look — though it can be nauseating.

In the single-player campaign, you can team up with another player and go split-screen. But online multiplayer action is especially good — it's one of Microsoft's selling points. Death matches boast plenty of gorgeously grungy locales. And that chain-saw attachment on your rifle comes in especially, gloriously, disgustingly handy when opponents get close.

Health is merciful as with "COD 3," but still no cakewalk. Plenty of things can smoke you fast, including swarms of flying bat-thingies that engulf you when you step from light into dark patches.

Your A.I. comrades aren't useless, but if one falls to enemy fire and you're tempted to rescue him, just remember how that panned out in "Full Metal Jacket," bub.

"Marvel Ultimate Alliance" (Activision, rated T, for Xbox, Xbox 360, PC, PS2, PS3, PSP, GameBoy Advance)

Even if you find these role-playing button-smashers tiresome, you'll play right to the end if you grew up with Marvel comics.

We're talking serious Nerd Gratification. You get to choose your quartet of heroes from more than 20 Marvel tights-wearers — including Spider-Man, Wolverine, Thor and such fun B-listers as Moon Knight and Ghost Rider. Then Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. sends you on a mission to stop an evil plot of Dr. Doom's that takes you to all corners of the Marvel Universe. See even the most obscure places and characters come to life. Scenic Asgard. The Watcher on the moon. Planet-devouring Galactus. Giant floating head M.O.D.O.K. Even the preposterously named dragon Fin Fang Foom. The soundtrack's cool, too.

Oh yeah, the gameplay: Choose a quartet and fight lots of enemies and their bosses. Repeat. It's sometimes hard to figure out exactly what you need to do to defeat a boss (I needed a hint to take down Mephisto), but that keeps it from getting too predictable.

Characters have different powers and strengths. For instance, Captain America does a lot of damage with his shield, but Daredevil, while fast, is a bit of a wuss. Rack up victories and upgrade your powers, unlock different costumes (nobody said this stuff doesn't have a fetishistic element) and get access to more heroes.

Online play was too awkward to bother with for long. The characters are hard to control and seemed like they needed Ritalin.

Now off to the front lines with you. Or make that standing in line.

Mark Rahner: 206-464-8259 or mrahner@seattletimes.com

Copyright © The Seattle Times Company

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