Outside an almost deserted town I crawled through mud from bush to bush, steadily moving toward my objective. As I tried to run across a clearing into an empty house, I heard a shot and saw a flash of red, and I was dead. Not wounded, dead.
I was playing Operation Flashpoint: Cold War Crisis, a game that gives the player a disturbingly realistic vision of war. My reaction to such a game might once have been, "That is so cool." But this time I did not feel that way. With US troops fighting in Afghanistan, I could only wonder whether this was perhaps what war is: real people crawling on the ground and dying without ever seeing who shot them.
Starting off as a simple foot soldier, a player will later command squads and tanks and fly fighter planes and helicopters. The game is so real and so comprehensive that the US Marine Corps is using a modified version called Virtual Battlefield Systems 1 as a tool to train troops.
The fictional plot of Flashpoint, set in 1985, centers on an attempt by rogue Soviet troops to take over a NATO-protected island. You ride toward a hot spot in the back of a truck with your comrades as they trade war rumors in hushed, scared voices.
On the battlefield, missions are chaotic, with shifting goals. You see war from a soldier's perspective, trying to capture a town or protect an encampment for no other reason than because you have been ordered to do so.
In early missions, I did what I would probably do in real combat: I crawled on the ground, hid behind bushes and let my companions do all the shooting. Thrown onto the battlefield, barely able to see the camouflaged soldiers firing from more than 100m away, my only strategy was survival.
* Operation Flashpoint: Developed by Bohemia Interactive Studios and published by Codemasters for Windows 95 and higher; US$39.99; for ages 17 and older.
* Halo: Developed by Bungie and published by Microsoft for Xbox; US$49.99; for ages 17 and older.
After allowing me to coast through a few missions, Flashpoint raised the difficulty level. I found myself alone in a forest, surrounded by enemy forces, with my fellow soldiers all dead. It was no longer possible to hang back and let other soldiers kill the enemy. If you fail to complete a mission, you can be discharged for incompetence.
There are other games in which you can be killed by a single bullet; in that regard, Flashpoint follows a tried-and-true model of realism.
But the game goes beyond simple realities like ballistics. It is not afraid to risk being boring, for example. At times you may find yourself driving for miles through a peaceful area. What saves such sequences from tedium is a pervasive sense of danger that gives the game emotional depth.
Flashpoint is not a fun game, just as Saving Private Ryan was not a fun movie. It is disturbing and engrossing, an adult game, not because of the bullets, but because of the profound and unsettling horror of the unexpected.
On paper, Operation Flashpoint is similar to Halo, a game developed by Bungie for the Xbox. Both games allow players to fight side by side with soldiers who are remarkably skilled and to steal enemy vehicles and take command of mounted guns. But if Flashpoint gives players the kind of ground-level view of war offered in films such as All Quiet on the Western Front and The Steel Helmet, Halo is more reminiscent of movies made during World War II, which depicted war as a noble adventure fought by fearless, tough-as-nails soldiers.