Is it possible for a video game to express an anti-war viewpoint? After all, most war games revel in jaw-dropping violence, from smoothly executed head shots to massive explosions. When you're mowing down hordes of aliens in "Halo" or "Gears of War," there isn't much time to reflect on the futility of the whole enterprise.
Still, amid all the gung-ho mayhem of the modern first-person shooter, there are glimpses of a more pacifist conscience at work. Even last year's best-seller, "Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare," had some uncomfortably grim moments, including the awful aftermath of a nuclear explosion. And lesser games like "Haze," "Army of Two" and "BlackSite: Area 51" have taken a more cynical, less heroic approach to war and warriors.
For unambiguous, rah-rah patriotism, there's always the Pentagon-sponsored "America's Army." And this is still a genre in which high kill counts outweigh any subliminal anti-war messages. If you're looking for a peaceful video game, go play "Harvest Moon."
_"Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway" (Ubisoft, for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, $59.99): Even the valiant troops of World War II, the so-called "Good War," have been granted a measure of doubt and anxiety in recent interpretations. The tormented hero of "Saving Private Ryan" seems to be the model; in Ubisoft's latest "Brothers in Arms" adventure, the sanity of stoic squad leader Matt Baker is occasionally questioned.
"Hell's Highway" simulates 1944's Operation Market Garden, an ambitious Allied attempt to secure a corridor through the Nazi-occupied Netherlands. This is a squad-based game, so you not only have to control Baker, you have to give orders to your team members. In a typical scenario, you order your men to lay down suppressive fire while you sneak around the back and take out Germans from behind.
The squad controls take some getting used to, and sometimes your guys don't respond as smartly as you might like. The missions that Baker tackles solo are more fun if less realistic. Overall, "Hell's Highway" is a solid, at times stirring installment of a fine series _ although, if you're tired of World War II games, it's not distinctive enough that it will change your mind. Three stars out of four.
_"Mercenaries 2: World in Flames" (Electronic Arts, for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, $59.99): The satirical "Mercenaries" series eschews the heroic approach entirely: Its psychopathic protagonists care far less about duty or honor than they do about money. As a player, the only thing you'll really care about is blowing stuff up. Remember that horrifying nuclear blast in "Call of Duty 4"? A similar disaster is played for laughs here.
"World in Flames" begins with a straightforward rescue mission, but after your employer tries to kill you it's all about revenge. And since your target is now the leader of Venezuela, your goal is essentially to turn the entire country into a parking lot. You have plenty of weapons and vehicles at your disposal, and may even be able to pick up work from oil-hungry countries like the United States and China.
While the large-scale destruction is undeniably exciting, the overall gameplay is disappointing. "World in Flames" is marred by bizarre graphic glitches, repetitive missions and really awful artificial intelligence. The stupidity of your enemies and the near-indestructibility of your own character kill any sense of accomplishment. Two stars.
_"Battlefield: Bad Company" (Electronic Arts, for the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, $59.99): The fellows in B Company are a bunch of misfits who are essentially doomed to be cannon fodder in a war they don't even understand. After they're abandoned by their own military, the guys discover something else to fight for: gold.
The comedy in "Bad Company" makes for a nice change of pace from previous "Battlefield" titles, although you may get sick of hearing some of the same quips over and over. Unlike "Brothers in Arms," you don't have much control over your squad mates _ which is appropriate, given what loose cannons they are.
Since just about everything is destructible, it's fun to just run around making things go kablooey. The firefights get quite exciting and there's a good variety of missions. And while the satire isn't exactly subtle, "Bad Company" is amusingly unpredictable. Three stars.
On the Net:
_"Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway": http://brothersinarmsgame.us.ubi.com/
_"Mercenaries 2: World in Flames": http://www.pandemicstudios.com/mercenaries/
_"Battlefield: Bad Company": http://badcompany.ea.com/