Converting war into a realistic first-person shooting game has always been a queasy proposition, like some sort of horrible carnival booth where the metal ducks have been replaced by Nazi Panzergrenadiers or a kick-line of Viet Cong. But the odd hypocrisy embedded in playing them is that some wars are easier to stomach than others: Leading an Allied campaign through the European front in World War II games such as the Medal Of Honor series and the recent Brothers In Arms: Road To Hill 30 feels like a solemn trip through history, if not the realization of a couch potato's patriotic duty. Yet getting dropped into hellish modern quagmires (coming soon: Razing Fallujah!: The Xbox Live Experience) doesn't do much for the soul, in part because U.S. involvement in these conflicts can feel less unambiguously heroic, but mainly because the memories they evoke are still too painful.
First a bestselling book, then a Jerry Bruckheimer movie, and now a console game, the exploits of brave U.S. Special Operations soldiers in Mogadishu, Somalia on October 3, 1993 have been well-documented, and with each new medium, given a greater you-are-there immediacy. In Delta Force: Black Hawk Down, you too have the opportunity to gun down scores of poor, emaciated Somali warriors loyal to peace-hating clan leader General Aidid, who at the very least may be the year's most substantial Big Boss. But if you're itching to get into the harrowing battle that left 18 U.S. troops and between 500 and 1,000 Habr Gedir clan members dead, you've got your work cut out for you: Of the 16 missions in single-player campaign mode, you have to blast through 10 of them before the famed helicopter gets shot down and intense street-fighting ensues. Until then, you're stuck guarding U.N. convoys, defending villages, crossing rivers that swarm with crocodiles, and leading units of top-flight soldiers who can't shoot straight.
Beyond the gameplay: Hey kids, what do you do when that term paper on Somalia is due tomorrow and you've squandered all your time slogging through a mediocre video game? Not to worry, because the instruction book for Delta Force comes with an informative three-page primer called "Somalia: A Troubled History." Turns out that famine and bloody strife have been plaguing the country for generations! Also, its chief crops include bananas and sugarcane.
Worth playing for: The immediacy of street combat—where the enemy lurks around corners and alleyways and in windows overhead—often lends Delta Force the frightening intensity of a horror game rather than the standard FPS. And the chaos only magnifies in the online game, which can accommodate up to 50 players at once.
Frustration sets in when: Sniper rifles fire with pinpoint accuracy, emphasis on "pin." Even when locked onto the enemy at 100 meters with sights activated, it sometimes takes several shots to take him down. Conversely, it doesn't take much more than a couple of stray bullets to extinguish your fragile mortality.
Final judgment: In war games as in life, it's best to choose your battles wisely, and there are worthier ones than Delta Force to fight.