The voice cracks with urgency in the headset. "Hostiles on the move, sir!"
Your recon squad of Navy SEALs prowls the bowels of a freighter off the coast of Alaska that's making a rendezvous with Russian terrorists. Your objective: Intercept and eliminate terrorists, scuttle the vessel.
"Order Bravo to hold position. You need to kill the two guards!" HQ commands over the headset just as two guards appear through a dark doorway. In quick jarring bursts of M-16A2 fire, they fall.
You hear footsteps. Two more guards approach from the corridor behind you and exchange fire. They drop to the deck. You hold your headset mike close and whisper that you're moving to the ship's bridge. Alerted by the gunfire, terrorists await.
Though set in 2006, "SOCOM: U.S. Navy SEALs" is one of several new, ultra-realistic combat video games that play on current international tensions and the war against terrorism.
Published by Sony Computer Entertainment America for PlayStation 2, packaged with a headset to communicate with off-screen operatives, "SOCOM" (Special Operations COMmand) poses a series of dangerous antiterrorist missions, from the jungles of the Congo to the marshes of Thailand, where couch-potato combatants participate as elite Navy commandos.
The best of these combat "shooters" is nearly authentic enough to pass as basic training in military special ops. Whether or not there's a war in Iraq, it seems America's escalating virtual militarization is a certainty. Consider these recently released war games:
* "Conflict: Desert Storm" (Gotham Games; PlayStation 2, Xbox and PC; rated Teen) -- Positioned behind enemy lines during the 1991 Gulf War, you lead a British Special Air Services or U.S. Delta Force commando squad on 14 missions. Make it to the end and try to assassinate a Saddam Hussein-like character.
* "Tom Clancy's Splinter Cell" (Ubi Soft; Xbox; rated Mature) -- As a secret field operator with the "black-ops" NSA sub-agency, infiltrate terrorist strongholds, secure critical intelligence, "neutralize" the enemy "with extreme prejudice," and get out without leaving a trace in 14 missions.
* "Soldier of Fortune II: Double Helix" (Activision; PC; rated Mature) -- As an antiterrorist mercenary, you undertake missions to stop a bioterrorist group from unleashing a deadly virus.
* "Delta Force: Black Hawk Down" (NovaLogic; PC, PS2 and Xbox in early 2003; rated Mature) -- As a Delta Force operative, you take part in daring raids against Somali warlords in Mogadishu, engaging in close-quarters battle through city streets.
"There does seem to be an increase in interest in the military-based games," says Seth Luisi, producer of "SOCOM: U.S. Navy SEALs," which has sold more than 450,000 copies since its release in late August.
But battle lust in video games is nothing new. There have been military simulations since the first-person-shooter genre was introduced with "Castle Wolfenstein 3D" more than a dozen years ago. But now mature-rated combat strategy games appear to be selling better than ever.
"Soldier of Fortune II," for instance, has sold 152,000 units since its release last summer, according to market research firm NPD Group. Since its September release, "Conflict: Desert Storm" has sold 129,000 units.
And game players aren't only enlisting for current engagements. Codemaster's WWII title "Prisoner of War" has sold more than 30,000 units since August, according to NPD Group, and Electronic Arts' WWII sequel "Medal of Honor: Frontline," which has sold 1.2 million units, ranks fourth among the year's best-selling video games, behind "Grand Theft Auto 3," "Madden NFL 2002" and "Grand Theft Auto: Vice City."
Douglas Lowenstein, president of the International Digital Software Association, says there's always been "a steady niche market" that loves a first-person shooter in uniform. "The bang-the-drums-for-war backdrop," he says, "is not having a material impact on the types of video games people are going out to buy."
What is having an impact, he says, are the technological advances that create abundantly more realistic combat. "This is adding a significant level of realism," he says. "The defining element of video games is interactivity in which the user has direct control on how the experience unfolds."
Making "SOCOM: U.S. Navy SEALs" took Sony, which consulted with the Naval Special Warfare Command, three years from concept to release. "People are expecting more out of the games as a real in-depth experience," says Luisi. "We wanted to get away from the stereotypical video game of a one-man army running around and everyone falls over when you shoot them."
Not that there isn't shooting in "SOCOM." But other elements lend to the realism. Besides such details as movielike graphics of actual Navy SEALs and accurate weapon sounds, the buzz feature is the game's voice-recognition headphone.
But Luisi says war games are still just games that require balance between the realism of combat and fun. "We didn't go totally realistic because that would mean you are crawling through brush for days," he says, "and that gets boring."
A 22-year veteran of the British Special Air Service, Cameron Spence knows combat realism. He spent six weeks behind Iraqi lines during Desert Storm.
"It was hairy and it was boring," says Spence, whom Gotham Games hired as a technical consultant to upgrade the "short spurts of fear, fighting and adrenaline" in "Conflict: Desert Storm."
To lend authenticity, Spence borrowed from heart-pounding moments during the SAS's attack on Victor 2, an Iraqi Scud missile command facility where the British ground forces were outnumbered 10 to 1 in fierce fighting. "We even looked at how individuals react and work in a firefight, what do they say to each other," says Spence, who wrote about his Iraq adventures in the 1997 book "Sabre Squadron."
The Army entered the virtual combat fray in July when it released a free video game called "America's Army: Operations" (available at www.americasarmy.com). Since then, it has been downloaded more than a million times by armchair soldiers.
"The continuing war against terrorism only serves to increase the public interest in this type of game," says Chris Keeling, a 14-year Army veteran and one of the developers of the game.
But the Army didn't spend an estimated $6 million just for fun and games. "The U.S. Army saw [video games] as a potential recruiting tool," says Keeling, whose MilitarySim.com Web site supports "AA:O" and, eventually, other military simulation games, providing articles on tactics, equipment, news and reviews. The site, which went online in July, receives more than 3 million hits a month.
The game itself is an elaborate 3-D role-playing exercise that depicts Army life from boot camp to dangerous combat missions. It features two components. One, "Operations," is the popular multi-player, first-person-shooter available now. The other, a separate but linked game called "Soldiers," is due early next year and will cover Army life, ethics, values, and career planning from infantry to military intelligence.
The Army, which released the latest version of the game last month, plans to add content to it over the next few years. Players can live-chat about missions -- and, with a click, contact Army recruiting.
As the game's slogan puts it: "No other Army game is this real -- because nobody gets the Army like the Army."
Unlike some commercial combat gamemakers, however, the Army softened the gore in its Teen-rated game, blunting potential criticism for violent content. It made kills less gruesome -- no pools of blood, no body parts -- though enemy bodies fall and buddies die next to you.
"We wrestle all the time on the whole issue of violence," says Lowenstein. "But games are a virtual world. You're not killing anybody. You're killing pixels. This leap that it has the same impact emotionally as if you killed a real person, I've found that unconvincing."