NEW YORK – By this time next year, "BioShock," "Halo 3" and "Call of Duty 4" might be considered totally tame.
Three new shoot-'em-up games coming out in 2008 plan to pull the trigger on unique new machinations that could rouse some "Manhunt 2"-type controversy.
"Army of Two," "Turning Point: Fall of Liberty" and "Kwari" are aiming their cross-hairs, respectively, at plots involving Blackwater-style private military contractors, a fictitious Nazi invasion of New York and good ol' fashioned greed.
Will these games explode the boundaries of this megapopular gaming genre — or just shoot blanks?
With a focus on cooperative teamwork, Electronic Arts' third-person shooter "Army of Two" for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 will put players in the boots of Tyson Rios and Elliot Salem, a couple of globe-trotting post-Sept. 11 private military contractors — commonly known as PMCs — hired by the fictional Security and Strategy Corp.
"These guys operate in a gray area," says Reid Schneider, "Army of Two" producer at EA Montreal. "They're mercenaries. They're all about getting paid in cash. It's fun to play because this is obviously something people are thinking about, not only in the U.S. but in many countries around the world."
Real-world private military company Blackwater Worldwide is currently the subject of high-profile federal investigations. One of those is examining whether Blackwater guards violated use-of-force rules during a shooting in Baghdad that left 17 Iraqis dead.
"Two years ago, when we came up with this idea, we had no idea how big this stuff was going to get," says Schneider. "Obviously, the stuff that happened in Iraq with Blackwater is really unfortunate, but it's brought all this to the headlines. So, for us, it's pretty cool."
Schneider and his design team consulted with Woodie Mister, a real paramilitary special operations contractor and former Navy SEAL, to inject a sense of realism in the game.
Making the protagonists two PMCs instead of the standard-issue military soldiers or special-ops officers found in many video games was trigged by a Time magazine article about the private military industry.
"We're not making a political statement in the game," says Schneider. "But if it causes players to do some research and delve more deeply into this whole world, then that's pretty cool."
In the game, players control the skull-masked Rios or Salem, with either the computer or an online player commanding the other team member.
After successfully completing missions, in-game cash is earned and can be used to purchase and "pimp out" specially designed weapons and gear.
What if Winston Churchill died in 1931, never rallying the British to stand up against the German threat?
That's the question poised in Codemasters' alternate-history first-person shooter "Turning Point: Fall of Liberty" for PS3, Xbox 360 and Windows PC.
Players assume the role of a construction worker caught in the middle of a fictitious Nazi invasion of New York in 1953. His battle against the Third Reich takes him to such places as London and Washington, D.C.
The beginning of "Turning Point" notably features the destruction of the Statue of Liberty and Chrysler Building.
"Obviously, it reminds me of what happened on Sept. 11," says Dean Martinetti, producer for game developer Spark Unlimited. "We followed closely along the lines of that devastation and what it caused because we wanted to evoke that emotion in people."
Martinetti and his team created blimps, warships and weaponry based on prototypes commissioned by Adolf Hitler, according to historic reports.
In "Turning Point," players have to fend for themselves and scavenge for supplies.
"We wanted anybody who played this game to think this could really happen," says Martinetti.
Besides firepower, gamers can dispatch enemies by grappling against them and harnessing their surroundings, like throwing a Nazi soldier off the top of a building or smashing his head into a table.
Martinetti says his favorite environmental kill allows players to kick a Nazi into a fireplace, close the door and burn him alive.
This free online multiplayer game for Windows PC marries trigger-happy gameplay with greed.
Instead of simply purchasing "Kwari" or paying a subscription to play the minimalist first-person shooter, participants will be able to download it at no cost.
However, players must use a credit card or PayPal account to buy bullets. Successful aiming in "Kwari" will also earn players real cash. Think: "Doom" meets online poker.
"If I shoot a player, I get a small amount of money from that player's account," says Clive Hibberd, CEO of London-based game developer Kwari. "If he shoots me, he gets a small amount of money from my account."
Virtual bullets will cost gamers $5 for 5,000 rounds.
Hibberd says most players will use between 300 and 500 rounds of bullets per match, using such weapons as shotguns, flame-throwers and lasers.
"`Kwarmi' is not a violent game in the same way that some other first-person shooter games are," says Hibbard. "There's no gore. There's no blood. The goal isn't to kill somebody."
Within the game's futuristic world, players blast away at each other and battle for control of a sphere called The Pill.
When players are hit, gold coins flow out of their avatar's pockets. The player holding The Pill at the end of the match will earn more moolah.
Despite the injection of real-world flow, Hibbard doesn't expect anyone to "get rich over night" playing "Kwari."
"Most of the amounts you play for in the game tend to be very small," says Hibberd. "A one-cent per-hit game really does stimulate you and give you a very good gameplay experience. It's not the amount of money that gives you the adrenaline buzz."
Hibberd believes high rollers will eventually want to do battle in one-dollar per-hit tournaments.
"Kwari" is expected to launch in Europe later this year. Hibberd anticipates the game will be available in the U.S. sometime next year, pending legal approval.