HAVANA – Fight your way through mangrove swamps shoulder-to-shoulder with bearded guerrillas clad in the olive-green uniforms of Fidel Castro and Ernesto "Che" Guevara. Your mission: Topple 1950s Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista.
Out to foil you are helmeted Batista soldiers and police in mustard-yellow uniforms who pop out from behind trees and fire from trucks and farmhouses. You pick them off with a vintage Colt 45 or Springfield rifle in classic first-person-shooter style. If you're hit three times, the revolution over.
Cuban programmers have unveiled a brand new 3-D shoot-'em-up video game that puts a distinctly island twist on gaming, letting players recreate decisive clashes from the 1959 revolution and giving youngsters a taste of the uprising in which many of their grandparents fought.
"The player identifies with the history of Cuba," said Haylin Corujo, head of video game studies for Cuba's Youth Computing Club and the leader of the team of a dozen developers who created "Gesta Final" — which translates roughly as "Final Heroic Deed." ''You can be a participant in the battles that were fought in the war from '56 to '59."
The game starts with the user joining the 82 rebels who in 1956 sailed to Cuba from Mexico aboard the Granma, the creaky and now-iconic yacht that has become synonymous with the revolution.
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After a brief description of the historic landing — a spectacular disaster that very nearly derailed the rebellion when some three-quarters of the Granma's passengers were killed — you find yourself wading through the wetlands of southeastern Cuba surrounded by fellow guerrillas, identifiable by the black-and-red armbands of Fidel and Raúl Castro's revolutionary movement.
The keyboard-operated game has five levels, most named after battles like "La Plata" and "El Uvero," and the scenery is full of ancient vehicles and the ferns, canebrakes and mountain trails typical of the Cuban countryside. A metallic soundtrack of gunshots and explosions accompanies the fast-paced action.
Faithful to history, you never reach the presidential palace to take on Batista, who fled the island before Castro's troops reached the capital.
The goal is to survive through Level five, the most difficult, which recreates the key battle of "Pino del Agua II" months before Batista's departure.
The game lets you pick from three bearded player profiles, one in an olive-drab hat similar to the one Fidel Castro was known for; another wearing a "Che"-like beret; and the last with the kind of helmet worn by the ill-fated Camilo Cienfuegos in many revolution-era photographs. Programmers said, however, that they're not meant to be exact likenesses of the three famed rebel commanders.
"We didn't want the characters to identify any revolutionary leader, but we did want it to frame the moment," Corujo said.
In any case it wouldn't be Castro's debut in pixels: 2010's "Call of Duty: Black Ops," a U.S.-made game, elicited howls of protest in Cuba because the plot included an assassination attempt targeting the bearded leader.
Critics in Cuba also savaged "Black Ops" for its violence. One article in state-run media said it "stimulates sociopathic attitudes in North American children and adolescents."
Corujo declined to draw a parallel between the two, and noted that "Gesta Final" is tame compared to the goriest games on the wider market.
"We are not responding to any game that was made," she said. "We saw the importance of young people learning through play."
Video games have been booming in Latin America in recent years, and programmers from countries like Argentina, Brazil, Chile and Mexico are increasingly getting into the business, said Rolando Bozas, an Argentine software expert, though obstacles remain.
"It's getting better and better," Bozas said. "But there is a ton of piracy."
Rene Vargas, a 29-year-old gamer who tried his hand at "Gesta Final" when it was presented at a technology fair in Havana last week, said the graphics were surprisingly sophisticated.
"Bearing in mind the level of technical support there is in Cuba, it looks pretty good," Vargas said.
"It's obvious there was a leap in Cuban software," his friend Yoalex Legro added.
The Computing Club, part of the Ministry of Communications, has also developed six other games, most of them 2-D and designed for children.
It plans for "Gesta Final" to be the first commercial Cuban-produced game and sell in the local currency, which trades for 24 to the dollar, though no doubt it will quickly make its way into the thriving market for pirated CDs and DVDs.
Pricey gaming consoles like the Xbox are relatively rare on the island, so developers deliberately made "Gesta Final" a PC-based game to reach a wider audience.
While the game doesn't require a cutting-edge computer, designers say it should use at least 1 gigabyte of RAM, more than what's installed in many older machines on the island.
There are about 783,000 computers in this country of some 11 million inhabitants, according to government statistics from 2011. Private ownership of computers is low, but many Cubans access them at work, school or cyber cafes.
Mexican game developer Gonzalo "Phill" Sánchez said Latin American video games tend to fall into two categories: Those with highly localized appeal, and those that can reach broader audiences. "Gesta Final," he said, surely falls into the former.
The game is expected to be released on the island in the coming months, with no current plans to market it overseas. A price tag has yet to be decided, but nobody's expecting it to rake in piles of cash with most Cubans earning about $20 per month at their government jobs.
"We developed (it) keeping in mind the purchasing power and reality of Cubans," Corujo said. "It doesn't require incredible technological features."
Based on reporting by The Associated Press.