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New U.S. Army game is 'tip of the spear'

Special Forces unit added to realistic military title

By Daniel Sieberg
CNN Headline News

Daniel Sieberg holds empty shells in front of one of the U.S. Army's simulation buildings.

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NEAR FORT MCCLELLAN, Alabama (CNN) -- Body armor is heavier than I imagined.

That's my first thought as a member of the U.S. Army's Special Forces team helps me prepare to watch a live-fire exercise on a hot, muggy afternoon in eastern Alabama.

The Army is expanding the first version of its video game, "America's Army," by adding the elite role of the Special Forces into the mix, and members of the media have been invited to watch how game developers get close to the action for added realism.

And I feel pretty close, all right.

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Inside a wooden simulation building, we position ourselves along an overhead walkway about 4 feet above the action. I'm hoping none of the soldiers on the ground slips, since nothing stands between a stray bullet and me. (Team leaders promise us they're expert sharpshooters with sturdy boots.)

After a five-second countdown, the four-member group breaches the door below with explosives. Despite wearing earplugs and bracing for the impact, it's a jarring event.

They storm the first room with M4 semi-automatic guns, shoot at targets, and call out commands to work in unison. The entire structure is cleared within two minutes, and dozens of empty shells lie scattered about the floor.

It's the closest I've been to any military assault, and while it's hard to imagine that a video game could ever reproduce the volatile, dangerous nature of actual combat, the in-house team behind the Army's latest title says that's what they're trying to do -- while admonishing that nothing can substitute for the real thing.

The original "America's Army" game was released July 4, 2002, and the Army is preparing to issue a new download in late October. It will again be free, whether as a download or as a CD-ROM from a recruiting center, and players will be linked over an Internet connection to act as a team.

A U.S. soldier participates in a simulation mission.

Designers say the concept is meant to incorporate many facets of military life, including basic training, marksmanship, life-saving techniques -- all without revealing any tactical or classified information.

Chris Chambers is the deputy director of development behind the game and a former major in the Army. He says he even went to Afghanistan armed with a camera to capture both the terrain and the tension.

Chambers says the game acts as a recruiting tool, but only at the "tip of the spear," to coin a Special Forces phrase about being the first unit of soldiers in a potential combat zone. There is no direct sign-up in the game, and Chambers dispelled any rumors that Army officials monitor the online game to look for potential soldiers.

While Chambers acknowledged that a virtual soldier might not make a good transition to the real military, he says "America's Army" does tap into the mindset of the younger generation and gives them some insight into its operations. If that adds a "cool" factor, he says, then that's OK, too.

"America's Army" is rated "T" for Teen, and Army officials say the new game with Special Forces operations will retain that rating and keep the parental controls. That includes eliminating any blood from the game and deciding which missions can be carried out.

Strap your helmet on, soldier: Keep watching "Big Video Game Hunting" every Thursday on CNN Headline News as we'll take you behind the scenes of the U.S. Special Forces exercise.


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