As the United States heads into the sixth year of the war in Iraq, Hollywood still hasn't figured out how to deal with the subject. Audiences have stubbornly avoided films like Redacted and In the Valley of Elah. Steven Bochco's Iraq war TV series Over There flopped, while less ambiguous dramas like 24 and The Unit — where the bad guys are more clearly defined — have fared better. ¶ For the most part, video game developers have avoided Iraq too, largely out of concerns that the medium might be seen as too frivolous. But combat games are more popular than ever — it's just that the enemies are one-dimensional versions of real-life foes (as in Call of Duty 4) or another species entirely (Halo, Gears of War). ¶ It's probably too much to ask the video game industry to tackle the tough issues surrounding Iraq. War games won't go away — they'll just take place in the past or the future against enemies, like Nazis or giant insects, that everyone can agree on.
Army of Two
Electronic Arts, for the Xbox 360,
PlayStation 3, $59.99, M (mature)
Army of Two takes some swings at recent U.S. military history, beginning in 1993 Somalia and popping in on 2001 Afghanistan and 2003 Iraq before veering off in an entirely different direction. The protagonists are Salem and Rios, two commandos for a Blackwater-ish military contractor called the Security and Strategy, and they're motivated more by money than by patriotism.
The game's distinguishing feature is right there in the title: It's designed to be played cooperatively by two people. Typically, one player needs to raise hell and attract attention while the other sneaks behind enemy lines and takes out their defenses. If your partner gets injured, you can drag him to safety. If the twosome gets surrounded, they can line up back-to-back and shoot in 360 degrees.
The single-player game isn't as much fun, mainly because the artificial intelligence controlling your partner makes some weird choices. But the co-op does bring some fresh ideas to the genre, and it would be great to see more two-player adventures. Three stars out of four.
Frontlines: Fuel of War
THQ, for the Xbox 360, $59.99, T (teen)
This first-person shooter takes off from a politically charged premise, as narrated by a journalist for the "Affiliated Press." In 2024, the world's supply of oil has just about vanished, and the Western Coalition (the United States and the European Union) and the Red Star Alliance (Russia and China) are battling over what's left.
Unfortunately, developer Kaos Studios doesn't run very far with the concept. What would our war machines look like if they ran on steam or solar power? Frontlines doesn't bother answering the question, settling instead for scattering a few vaguely futuristic items among its mostly familiar weapons.
The individual levels are wide open, generally taking place in huge areas with a variety of objectives that you can tackle in any order. The single-player campaign is only about six hours long, though, so you'll need to round up some online buddies to get your money's worth in multiplayer. Alas, Frontlines feels too generic to draw enthusiasts away from Call of Duty or even Gears of War. Two stars.
Turning Point: Fall of Liberty
Codemasters, for the Xbox 360,
PlayStation 3, $59.99, T (teen)
It's the most hackneyed of alternate-history storylines: What if the Nazis won World War II? In Turning Point, they follow up by invading New York City, laying waste to the Statue of Liberty and the Chrysler Building with their attack zeppelins.
You are a humble construction worker named Dan Carson who's drafted into the resistance.
Somehow, despite your lack of any military training, you can easily outgun any Germans you stumble across, thanks to the enemies' awful artificial intelligence.
The levels are almost completely linear, so you can run straight through them, picking off Nazis like ducks in a shooting gallery. Potentially interesting sequences are marred by choppy graphics and inconsistent controls.
The developers of Turning Point have said they did the best they could with the time and resources they had.
That's not good enough in this age of first-rate shooters. One star.