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Back to the Battle

Game On


Published May 16, 2007 at 4:00 p.m.

John Wayne would be proud.

War used to be a heroic venture, at least as far as popular media were concerned. All of our international conflicts were righteous, and the television shows and movies about combat focused on the brave men and women who leapt to their country's service.

While the conflict in Iraq tracks the contemporary media model of armed struggle - a slow-motion disaster that takes an unaccountable toll on people, families and entire nations - video games remain happily trapped in the past. Movies such as Flags of Our Fathers and television shows such as "Band of Brothers" try to get closer to the human side of war, even as video games merrily travel a path that is more The Green Berets than Apocalypse Now.

Two new PC games continue the long thread of exciting historical military simulations that are completely free of nagging political content. "Silent Hunter: Wolves of the Pacific" and "Whirlwind Over Vietnam" provide opportunities to command classic combat hardware. Whether you're working with "Hunter"'s Pacific submarines or "Whirlwind"'s Southeast Asia Huey whirlybirds, the goal is to figure out how to operate the equipment and then keep it in one piece while eliminating the enemy.

"Whirlwind" provides a simple premise: If you can master getting a Huey chopper off the landing pad and into the air, then you can roar across the countryside in search of Viet Cong and Northern Regulars. Jumping from the pilot's seat to the side gunner, you strafe fields and villages in an effort to bring democracy to the people.

Decent voice acting helps add dramatic flair to a style of play that otherwise remains as complex as it is routine. Flying a helicopter might seem like easy work. But a few minutes behind the stick of a vintage-era Huey, and you'll think fondly of the ease with which you can get an F-22 off the deck in other flight sims. As for the action itself, there's not much to say about the endless machine-gunning of the natives. True to life, maybe. Whether it is fun is another question.

Much more elaborate than "Whirlwind," and much more odd, is "Silent Hunter." You have to wonder about the sanity of men who agree to live in small metal tubes, surviving by hiding underwater, and whose only mission is to poke around the endless ocean for ships to sink. Beyond that, "Hunter" gives you plenty to do. You have to chart courses, manage on-board supplies of simple things such as battery power and air, locate Japanese ships and then solve the necessary math equation to triangulate a moving torpedo fired from a moving sub into a moving ship. Success earns you medals. Failure is likely to reward you with a set of depth charges.

Of the two games, "Hunter" seems best to understand the basic historical interest at the root of war simulations. That package includes charts of various subs and ships, a complex manual and in-game information to supplement the experience. 

Who's It For: If you don't start with a basic historical interest in either World War I submarines or Vietnam helicopters, the dull repetition of learning to run these machines will grow tiring long before you reach any interesting combat. For the history buff, this is the closest you're likely to get to recreating these moments.

If You Like This, Try That: The "Silent Hunter" series offers many more scenarios than the U.S. in the Pacific. Budding U-boat captains should try "Silent Hunter III."

Best Part: Watching the action from a free-roaming camera lets you examine the carnage from all angles and make your own mini-war movies on the fly.


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