"Act of War: Direct Action"
By Columnist
updated 4/22/2005 3:44:06 PM ET 2005-04-22T19:44:06

"Act of War: Direct Action" kicks off with videos of terrorist attacks, riots against high oil prices and slimy oil executives pow-wows.

Are we playing a game here, or watching the evening news? As the planet heads to hell in a hand basket, game developers, ever the optimists, are busily mining the bad news for game ideas. 

When this works, gamers reap the benefits of a thrilling story and more exotic locations than a Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue photo shot. When it doesn't, well, it's still not as depressing as the evening news.

Three recently released video games have the action bouncing from Lima to unknown urban streets populated by crooked cops. 

"Act of War: Direct Action"
As the title indicates, the energy crisis fueling the plot in this old-fashioned strategy game won't be solved with car-pooling. 

Like "Command and Conquer" and "Warcraft," "Act of War" is a real-time strategy game where play revolves around using available resources to build a military infrastructure, including things such as factories and oil refineries. You then use this infrastructure to create ant-like armies and tanks that you take to do battle against enemies assembling just beyond your field of view.

The enemies in the single-player version are the "Consortium," a shadowy army of terrorists who may or may not have a role in the energy crisis. Players assume the role of the U.S. Army or Task Force Talon, also U.S. military but in tighter clothes.

The press release that accompanied my copy of "Act of War: Direct Action" boasted that Dale Brown, a "New York Times bestseller," wrote the original story.  I'm not familiar with Mr. Brown's work, but it's evident that the game makers believe they have a good story to tell.

Cinematic cut-scenes, some lasting longer than three minutes, are interspersed throughout the game. We see oil executives debating conservation, China's supply and the glories of drilling the hell out of the world. News bulletins report on riots and recent terrorist acts.

Cut-scenes break up video games and can often be as exciting as dirt. But "Act of War's" scenes are scarily relevant. 

Adding to the relevant factor are "Act of War's" finely detailed environments. Central London, for example, is a city of lush green parks and Georgian and Tudor buildings. Too bad it's gotta burn. As do parts of San Francisco, Berlin and half-a-dozen battlefields around the world. At least the cities look good as they slowly degrade into smoldering blocks.

The graphics are a main selling point, but "Act of War" also offers a couple novel features to the genre. Now players can be taken prisoner, or take prisoners of their own. It's also possible to occupy buildings and use them to direct fire. 

These improvements may mean little to anyone new to this type of game.  In fact "Art of War" appears almost hostile to the newbie players. Because games of this type offer the flexibility to control elements as large as a platoon and as small as a single sniper demand, it's required that they offer intuitive keyboard and mouse control.

"Act of War's" interface fails in easing the jump from large to small elements.  Expect to lose many, tiny army men as you stare, baffled, at the screen.

But what's a budding apocalypse without massive confusion?

"Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory"
Like BBC World News, Ubisoft's "Splinter Cell" fulfills the occasional desire to hear place names like "Kuala Lampur" roll off the tongues of sexy accented voices.

In "Chaos Theory," the third game in the series, more exotic place names are dropped in the first five minutes than a month's worth of the Beeb.  Peruvian terrorists have stolen an important mathematical formula: "Imagine if Che Guevara kidnapped Oppenheimer in 1959," intones one character. Off in Asia, meanwhile, a spitting match develops between China and Japan.

The locations serve as little more than a sexy backdrop for Sam Fisher, the gizmo-loaded NSA agent that players must sneak past a bewildering array of Third World terrorists and other assorted baddies. 

"Chaos Theory" follows the stealthy game play of previous versions: patience trumps gun play, sneakiness is next to godliness and no problem can't be solved by a high-tech gadget.

Helping Fisher stay sneaky are two on-screen gauges.  One to measure the noise of his footsteps as he pads down the dark hallways — bad guys in "Splinter Cell" never turn on the lights — the other to detect whether Fisher strays too far from the shadows. Built-in sensors for heat vision, night vision and Electronically Enhanced Vision also serve a stealthy purpose.

"Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory"

The game looks and more importantly sounds great. Sound has always been one of "Splinter Cell's" main selling points as only makes sense considering the role sound has in a stealth game of this sort.  Actor Michael Ironside once again lends his gravelly voice to Sam Fisher. AmonTobin, a well known British musician, lends sounds and beats that make "Chaos Theory" a techno thriller in every sense of the word.

The only misgiving gamers may have with "Chaos Theory" is that it is little different, in single-player mode at least, from previous "Splinter Cell's."  Levels are bigger and there seems to be more options available for any one situation, but how many dark hallways does Sam Fisher have to navigate before players hang up the night vision goggles?  

Provided those hallways are in Tokyo and not the suburban Staples, it's most likely that Fisher will be padding those hallways for a long time.

The 1980s arcade game original was a cop vs. drug dealers guilty pleasure. The so-called selling point of this remake is so grade school literal that it's shocking that the irony-deficient media and various politicians haven't jumped all over it yet.

In "Narc" players who opt to play the "bad cop" — and who wouldn't — gain special powers when they ingest street drugs. LSD brings on hallucinations that help spot the bad guys.  Crack turns your cop into a "crack" shot. 

There are two points of irony here. First, "Narc" has succeeded in the impossible: They have made taking drugs dull.   

The second point is that the original "Narc," although bloody, painted a stark black and white picture. Cops good, drugs bad. The 21st century "Narc" rips a page out of the "Grand Theft Auto" canon and tries to tell a tale of moral ambivalence set in a sprawling cityscape.  The problem is that the city isn't sprawling in "Narc" and so-called ambivalence means little when the characters are digital cardboard cut-outs.

At least “Narc” is priced right.  $20, the price of two dime-bags, buys you the game.

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