Way back in 2004, when the Iraq war was just a year old and Dubya's approval ratings had yet to reach septic-tank status, a game called Full Spectrum Warrior arrived. Originally designed for the military as a training tool, the game was an odd bird: part military sim, part guns-blazing glory, with a steep learning curve and a heavy tilt toward realism. As a video game, it was an interesting experiment, shackling players used to overwhelming force with squad-based minutia, and encouraging thought instead of an itchy trigger finger. It was also quite creepy—an über-patriotic piece of propaganda delivered into impressionable bedrooms via the Xbox.
Now comes the sequel, Full Spectrum Warrior: Ten Hammers, which arrives at an inopportune time. The war in Iraq—which the game can't escape comparisons to, despite taking place in the fictional country of "Zekistan"—is not going well, and public support for the endeavor, still relatively high even in 2004, has eroded significantly. All of which makes the game's major flaw—unchanged since the first installment—even more glaring. There remains a lack of even a hint of skepticism toward U.S. interests in Ten Hammers, which only serves to amplify the overall feeling of the game being nothing more than pro-military—and by bank shot, pro-Bush regime—propaganda. Realistic military shooters are nothing new—Tom Clancy's polygon empire was largely built on the backs of sweaty-palmed gamers—but none are as faithful to military tactics nor do they have the official cred of Full Spectrum Warrior. And in these suitably cynical times, when the majority of Americans believe their sons and daughters are dying for (at best) a mistake, or (at worst) an unconscionable deception, the game's general rah-rah-ness (outside of some indefensibly cheesy dialogue) makes Ten Hammers feel less like a game and more like a dazzling recruiting tool.
At least developer Pandemic has carried over the innovative gameplay of the first installment, which served to elevate the game well above its trigger-happy counterparts—and helped temper the ill feelings the original left behind. Once again the emphasis is heavy on strategy and a leave-no-man-behind mentality, forcing players to guide two squads from cover to cover, laying down suppression fire as you try to outflank the enemy. The result is an often nerve-racking experience, with frantic switching between squads in the midst of firefights leaving you panicked, your heart racing. And even though enemy A.I.—not the sharpest in the first game—seems to have been dumbed down (moving from safe cover behind a brick wall to a brittle apple cart ain't the wisest of moves, even for video game villains), the game still manages to offer more of a challenge than its predecessor.
But while there's no doubt Ten Hammers is an engaging, and often brilliant, game, for some players, including this one, it leaves an unfortunate aftertaste—no matter how much fun it is.