"If it's all the same to you, I'm glad I joined the f**king Air Force," says a man who just glibly told two teams of US infantry waltzing into Zekistan's capital, Zafarra, that the region they're about to occupy is 'US-friendly'. In an astonishing turn of events, he's completely wrong. Homer, Iron Man, Rabbit, Delta Boy, Bot, Nova and Crawdaddy are about to get shot at by Middle Eastern types with rocket grenades and AKs. And you are about to lay eyes on the most technically advanced, flag-waving war simulation ever made.
Full Spectrum Warrior is as spellbinding in its sensational depiction of 'real world' conflicts as it is dumbfounding in its insensitivity. Borne of a commission from the US Army to create a 'game' to teach young American troops tactics on their 'downtime', it is the product of lots of US government money and a healthy, undisclosed dollop from publisher THQ. It uses the Havok physics engine from Half-Life 2. It runs on Xbox because it can't run on any other console. And, moral issues aside, it's so far ahead of the curve of other games of its ilk that it's practically ignored the bend entirely and has shot off into the stratosphere. At near-completion stage, we can safely say that it's "a bit good".
Seeing the game today demonstrated by THQ in London, the amount of work piped into the project since its first showing at E3 last year has generated what will almost certainly become an instant classic, and a benchmark. From a gameplay perspective, Full Spectrum Warrior is as fresh as the gilding on Saddam's toilet taps, combining the immediacy of in-your-face combat with the methodical strategy of a God game. There's no turkey shoot. You move cursors around on the floor of the fictional city and place your units, switch between alpha and beta teams and set up fire zones with ridiculous ease. You don't point and shoot. This is a superior war game: targets are best left to poorer fare, such as Conflict Desert Storm.
Live from the scene
The missions we see involve teams - each including a grenadier, an automatic rifle, a normal rifle and a team leader - covering each other as they move through cities shooting people in the head. And getting shot in the head. When your boys do the killing, it's with gung-ho explosions and bodies flying through the seared air. When a soldier gets capped, it's in full slow motion with groaning, close-up, claret-spilling, tear jerking, heartstring-pulling, hawk-loving sincerity. It's that kind of game. Really PC. Not.
Mission objectives include rescuing fallen soldiers and pulling them out of hotzones (dude) and taking airports. The realism is incredible. When the camera moves it jiggles as if on the shoulder of a newsman, giving the authentic CNN feel. The music sounds Middle Eastern (we told you it was less than sensitive) and American soldiers shout "wooha" when people die. Can't see the snipers? Call in a chopper and it'll scout the area and update your GPRS system to give their location. In the middle of sandstorm? No choppers, no help, no backup. Shoot to kill, Crawdaddy. Horrible? Yes. Thrilling? Damn straight.
Then there's the fog of war. Basically, everywhere your team isn't looking is a blurry mess, representing the fact that legions of evil types could be sitting with guns trained actually up your backside and you wouldn't know. You can turn soldiers round one by one, so, like, you don't end up in the great cinematic slow-motion death grave in the sky. It's just another example of how while Full Spectrum Warrior is a game, it was originally designed to train troops. You know what happens if you all look one way? You die. You learn this very quickly.
And while the gameplay looks tantalising in the extreme, the technical aspects of the game almost, almost made us sign up to go and see smoke grenades and trees waving in desert storms ourselves. Havok, to employ the vernacular, KICKS ASS. Splash damage from grenades blows car doors around and bodies rag-doll against walls as AKs tear away in a separate direction, none of it scripted. Smoke drifting in the wind as cover as you push your teams further against the insurgents sets an atmosphere that will have you grabbing for the controller like a despot for an oil can. Or should that be... never mind.
Then, obviously, there's Xbox Live play. Full co-op throughout the whole game will let you take control of one patrol while the other is played by someone else, with you talking through headsets. You must play this in full camo gear, develop a thousand-yard stare and put your feet in a bowl of leeches in front of your Xbox. And shout very loudly, loud enough for your terrified mother/sister/wife to hear from where she's cowering in the kitchen. Like Rainbow Six 3, Full Spectrum Warrior with a headset one will turn you into a raging male hormone. Be sure to wear tight pants to avoid embarrassment.
More Live stuff: you can upload replays of your missions as well as scenarios for other players, such as "you're in the middle of a desert, you've got three rounds of ammo, your commander is bleeding to death and you've got a nasty rash. GET OUT OF THAT." Xbox fans are going to love it.
Morally minded people won't. That's all we're going to say on the subject now, but expect this to cause more than a few raised eyebrows from the media this June. For the purist, however, Full Spectrum Warrior is likely to demonstrate quite what a huge budget given to a Western game can achieve.
Right, we're off to shout "firezone!" and "man down!" in the mirror. It must be the shellshock...