Saturday, February 26, 2005

A few hours with the Colonel

I'd never been to HMS Belfast before - I'd always wanted to go, for no reason in particular except that it's there - and a very big there at that. When Ubisoft invited me to their press event for Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30, which would be on board the mighty warship, I thought I may as well kill two birds with one stone.

I was prepared for the enormity of the place, the bumbling 'crew' and the reams of tourists that blight my home town of London so. What I wasn't prepared for was the Colonel.

Yes the Colonel.

Colonel John Anstal, a retired US army vet of over 30 years, is doing the PR circuit for the games upcoming release. Gearbox (of Halo on the PC fame) have made him a full-time executive in charge of getting all the military stuff exactly right.

A couple of things about the Colonel first. He's very American, and very Colonely(?). He's in your face, loud, abrasive, over the top, enthusiastic, compelling and lovable all at the same time. He's exactly the kind of person you want on a press tour publicising your game, and exactly the kind of person to win over all the cynical game hacks that sat around the briefing table on board HMS Belfast on Wednesday afternoon.

Here's my interest - Ubi claim the game is the most authentic/realistic tactical action game ever. And it's all down to the good Colonel. He put the poor Gearbox dev team through basic military training so they could better express the reality of war to gamers. He advsied on tactics. 'Flank him!' he kept shouting as we bumbled our way through a playtest. He researched the event in WW2 that the game is based on - a period just after D-Day. He even chose the real-life soldiers the games central character is based on. Most impressive, and, in my opinion, necessary, the Colonel has the backing of vet's associations, thus minimalising accusations of trivialising the war.

And so, it seems, games are becoming a valid method for telling historical stories. Forget documentaries and historical textbooks, I'm comparing these games to films like Saving Private Ryan, which, although not telling a true story, are based on fact, and really give the viewer a sense of what it was like to be at war. This game, Colonel Anstal would have us believe, is the best game available to this end. It will be a very interesting feature, I think, that discusses games as storytelling mediums.

I questioned the Colonel on these subjects. His dialogue is full of slogans - 'brilliant software', 'excellent representation', 'this is why I believe . . .', but underneath all the fluff, he genuinely believes in the game, and has a passion for it. Nothing can give you the interactive experience a game can and thus nothing can give you the feeling of being at war as well as a game. With graphical power rapidly improving, military advisors being employed to make sure everything is as accurate as possible, you can learn a lot about humanity's brutal past from electronic entertainment.

Of course, Ubisoft's main concern is to make a fun game, and, from my playtest, that remains a sticking point. But the good Colonel seems to have done his part. Leaving a windswept HMS Belfast, I felt like I'd just had a history lesson, and it didn't bore me at all.

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