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When the U.S. Army first announced that they would sponsor a computer game as part of a recruiting drive, liberals and conservatives alike fretted that kids would think of war as a game. The first thing I thought of was "The Last Starfighter," the fantastic 1984 film about a kid who gets recruited via a coin-operated space shooter to fight aliens.
The result of the Army's efforts, "America's Army," has been out for free on the Internet for some time now. After playing it, two things are clear: One, it's actually a pretty good game. And two, it's much creepier to play a recruiting game for a real life army that fights real life wars than it is to fantasize about protecting the galaxy from Xur and the Kodan Armada.
"America's Army" consists of two parts, a series of training missions and a set of "deployments," actual missions performed with other online soldiers. The training missions are typical tutorials, except that they parallel, one assumes, real-life boot camp locations. Also, significant portions of them are spent in a classroom listening to a 3D teacher blab at you about first aid, recognizing certain tanks and operating certain weapons. Then, unbelievably, there are digital, 3D paper tests. Tons of text about Army history and detailed information about various forts is also included. It's a testament to the armed forces that they can turn dull as bricks even a subject as inherently interesting as grenade launchers.
But then you actually start playing. The settings range from snowed-in convoys to urban rescues, and the average number of players per game is about 15 to 20. Naturally there's variety of real weapons, each with different ammo, reloading methods and recoil. Smoke, frag and flash grenades are well-simulated. Another nice feature is the sights, which look the same as real gun sights instead of the zoom and crosshairs that typifies computer shooters.
The graphics, powered by the Unreal 2003 engine, are actually surprisingly good. The models have been surpassed by more recent titles, and I did have some trouble picking out the information on one of the slides during a classroom test, but the game can hold its own against others of its graphics generation. Lighting, physics and level design are also good enough.
Now we come to the creepy part. Each player is required to sign in using an online handle, even for the offline missions, and your progress in training and in the field is recorded on a Web site. Normally this would be a cool idea, but the latest footage out of Iraq combined with recent reports that this same U.S. government is unapologetically spying on thousands of its own citizens makes it all more than a bit unnerving.
That said, I think I'm safe from any midnight visits by recruiting officers ― I failed my special forces test at least four times, and I can’t count how often I broke both my legs falling off the parachute tower.
So if you're already in the Army (in which case you get a special logo on your game profile) or don't have any qualms about playing into this kind of recruiting ploy ― or if you simply don't have $50+ to pump into a new commercial shooter ― you could do worse than "America's Army."
As for me, I'll stick to zombies and space aliens. Maybe one of these days NASA will give me a call.

by Ben Applegate
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