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Lines Blurred in War Games

'Operation Flashpoint' captures the terror of battle; 'Silent Scope 2' has speed without thrill.

November 08, 2001|AARON CURTISS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Wags are fond of comparing warfare to video games in these days when soldiers sit at computer terminals and guide precision missile strikes from hundreds of miles away. But such comparisons don't really hold up as video games become more like warfare.

Titles such as "Silent Scope 2: Dark Silhouette" for Sony PlayStation 2 still treat combat as a sterile shooting gallery with militaristic music. But a new breed of games, embodied by titles such as "Operation Flashpoint: Cold War Crisis" for the PC, does an eerily wonderful job of simulating the confusion, terror and boredom of war.

"Operation Flashpoint" takes place in 1985 on the remote island chain of Everon, where Soviet and NATO forces eye each other nervously. Without warning, the Red Army attacks--and players are thrust into the field to face a foe with vastly more men and greater firepower. Over 38 distinct missions, players beat back the Soviets on foot, in tanks and from the air in helicopters and fighter jets.

The game offers both first-and third-person perspectives, as well as a range of play that includes solo combat and squad-based command. Sometimes players have the luxury of worrying only about themselves. Other times, they're responsible for an entire unit.

Either way, it's stressful. That might sound ridiculous because it's just a video game, but "Operation Flashpoint" excels at creating tension within the missions. Players get briefed on their objectives. They get maps. They even get a few hints. But, as in real battle, few things work out as planned.

For instance, squads sometimes get dropped well away from their intended targets. So players spend several minutes just humping it through a forest or crawling through fields, only to get mowed down at the edge of town by a line of enemy machine gunners.

Bullets are not to be trifled with. Most video games let players get hit multiple times before they really start to take damage. In "Operation Flashpoint," though, players sometimes drop dead for no reason. Maybe it was a sniper hiding in a loft. Or a mine buried by the side of the road. Whatever the origin, a single, well-aimed bullet can drop a soldier--and the bullets often seem to come out of nowhere.

In addition to the battlefield scramble, players frequently get to command other soldiers with an easy-to-use interface that gives digital warriors broad orders. The artificial intelligence of some of the soldiers leaves much to be desired, but they generally do as told.

More fun, though, is the ability to drive and pilot all manner of vehicles--from tanks to jets designed to blow up tanks. All are realistically drawn, but the control scheme is pretty similar from one vehicle to the next, making it easy to skip from vehicle to vehicle.

Despite its considerable strengths, "Operation Flashpoint" suffers from sloppy controls that borders on the maddening. The mouse is sluggish--even on a box with far more horsepower than demanded by the game's minimum system requirements. It can be difficult to move from place to place on foot. The problem is compounded in vehicles.

A clever system of sub-menus that gives players a seamless sense of control also has its quirks. When players get near a vehicle, for instance, a menu pops up offering the choice of driving the vehicle or climbing aboard as a passenger. It can be a nice feature, but when it pops up during a frantic firefight, it's one more distraction.

Even more frustrating, though, are the cut scenes that bracket each mission. The graphics are nothing special and the acting is terrible. The soldiers and commanders look and sound as if they flunked out of some B-grade war movie. Worst of all, there's no easy way to skip the scenes, meaning players spend a good chunk of the game doing absolutely nothing.

Just like in real war.

"Silent Scope 2: Dark Silhouette," on the other hand, never slows down.

Based on the coin-op arcade game, the home version offers super-slick play but fails to deliver the visceral thrill of its inspiration.

That's because the original incorporates a life-size sniper rifle that players use to pick off enemies. But selling a rifle-size peripheral for a home console is expensive, so designers instead settled for a system in which players use the standard PlayStation 2 controller to move the sight.

The sight moves fast enough, but it's just not the same. What seems completely natural at the arcade feels detached and awkward at home.

And because each round is timed, players must rush to get the sight lined up quickly. It's easy to get frustrated.

"Silent Scope 2" is a lovely weekend rental, but it fails to offer the kind of long-term play to justify dropping $50.

*

Aaron Curtiss is editor of Tech Times. He can be reached at aaron.curtiss@latimes.com.

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The Skinny

"Operation Flashpoint: Cold War Crisis"

* Genre: Combat simulator

* Platform: PC

* Price: $40

* Publisher: Codemasters

* System requirements: A Pentium II 266 with 64 MB of RAM, 300 MB of available hard disk space and a graphics accelerator with 8 MB of video RAM

* ESRB* rating: Mature

* The good: Tense and realistic

* The bad: Boring cut scenes

* Bottom line: A true challenge

*

"Silent Scope 2: Dark Silhouette"

* Genre: Shooter

* Platform: Sony PlayStation 2

* Price: $50

* Publisher: Konami

* ESRB rating: Mature

* The good: Lightning-fast play

* The bad: Awkward controls

* Bottom line: Weekend rental

*

* Entertainment Software Ratings Board

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