Now available for Xbox.
Full Spectrum Warrior is one of the most impressive games I've ever played. It is a gorgeous and inventive piece of work, fully exploiting the power of the Xbox. It is also one of the most troubling games I've ever played--not because of content, but because of how it was made. Originally developed as a training tool for the U.S. military, THQ's squad-based tactical is more realistic than any other military game available on home consoles, and as such it borders on being something else entirely: propaganda.
The story takes place in the fictional country of Zekistan, which, as the game notes tell us, is "nestled between modern day Afghanistan, Pakistan, and China." It is a tiny patch of real estate, notable only for a dusty climate, decaying cities, and the presumed responsibility behind a series of recent terrorist attacks on U.S. and U.K. interests. Zekistan has fallen into chaos, you see, having been swamped with ex-Taliban and Iraqi loyalists, all under marginal control of the country's brutal dictator of a leader, Mohammad Jabbour Al-Afad. Which means it's time for a good ol' fashioned U.S. invasion, this time with an honest-to-God coalition on our side; video games are fantasy, after all--where's the fun in complete realism?
In Full Spectrum Warrior, you control a roster of eight men--two fire teams of four men each--with the occasional third group of one to two men joining you for special missions. Unlike other squad-based experiences, however, such as the Rainbow Six series, you don't actively shoot villains; order-based and completely tactical, your scrimmages are spent giving instructions--point fire, compression fire, frag, etc. --and watching your men implement them. This may sound like an exercise in tedium, but the gameplay of Full Spectrum Warrior is in fact one of its chief strengths. The feeling THQ has gone for--and nailed--is one of confusion and the exhilaration that can come from trying to rein in chaos. Players may not pull the trigger themselves, but overseeing eight men can often be far more exciting; bullets firing around your soldiers' meager cover, knowing that you need to act while unsure of any safe escape routes, you try--and often fail--to control your panic. And this tension the game achieves is only enhanced by the limitations the developers have put on players. If one of your men takes a debilitating shot, you have mere moments to lend him aid; after he's patched, your fire team moves at a snail's pace, since one of your men has to carry the wounded. And if you have two casualties? Mission over. Too many men down. Better luck next insertion.
As thrillingly realistic and fun as Full Spectrum Warrior is, however, its inception sends up a number of warning flares. It appears that not only is the U.S. military embracing video games as a training tool, it also intends to actively recruit through them, and THQ's foray may just be the first shots across the bows of young men everywhere. At one point in the game, after taking out a tank, after gunning down a number of Arabic-speaking enemies, your soldiers stumble across a mass grave, the reds and whites of blood and bone rendered with exquisite care. The men pause and reflect on the scene appropriately, but the implication of such an addition is a tad sinister. Full Spectrum Warrior has gone to great lengths to bring the experience of modern warfare into living rooms everywhere. It floods its players with patriotic glory. What it doesn't do, however, is give its thrill-seekers any perspective beyond heroism. There is no skepticism in Full Spectrum Warrior, only rah rah rah--but given our current state of affairs, and the military's constant need for fresh meat, shouldn't gamers be given at least a hint of reality beyond the chaos of combat? It may be unreasonable to hold a video game to any standards beyond enjoyment, but if the Army is going to recruit through an Xbox, developers should at least distance themselves, however slightly, from the government's propaganda. It's only fair and balanced, after all.