- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 14, 2008

I usually do not review games of the shooter genre in this column, but thought the potential for learning might balance the violence in the History Channel - Civil War Secret Missions (for PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360, from Activision, rated T for teen, $49.99).

Just like 2006 title, Civil War: A Nation Divided, the attempt here is to educate while giving the players an exciting, hands-on, first-person perspective of the War between the States.

Unfortunately, the game fails at both levels.

What it does deliver is nearly a dozen missions split between the Union and Confederacy. Pre-mission briefings are in familiar documentary style with some opportunities to meet famous generals behind the war and a quick lesson in such battles as Gettysburg, Lynchburg and Chancellorsville.

A player joins a few elite, computer-controlled soldiers in each challenge and, in the most uninspired and convoluted means possible, attempts to kill the enemy or blow something up.

The battlegrounds are pretty impressive as the player visits forested spots, explores structures and glimpses battles from afar. He occasionally executes commands to revive fallen brethren, destroy cannons and cause mayhem to supply routes.

The soldier also will spend plenty of time hiding behind tree stumps, barrels and wooden barricades as he methodically picks off enemies using classic rifles such as the Henry, Whitworth Sniper and Colt.

Unfortunately, repetitious movements and comments from the soldiers, difficulty in aiming weapons, enemies that appear out of nowhere, an unending supply of ammunition, and a disconnect between the mission and briefing strip the strategy and emotion from the game.

Only the occasion to wield a cannon aboard a Union ironclad might maintain a player’s interest, except the difficulty in completing this mission is stifling.

Overall, Civil War: Secret Missions never provides any level of humanity or sacrifice in the action, seen brilliantly in the World War II Call of Duty franchise. Nor does it give the player a feeling that he is completely overwhelmed in a period battle.

Learning time: A stern narrator introduces each mission. He briefly touches upon its historical background and is backed up by a collage of actual photographs from the Civil War, animated maps and period musical accompaniment.

Briefings feel as if they were plucked from a History Channel documentary and introduce players to the likes of John “Grey Ghost” Mosby, the importance of sharpshooters at Devil’s Den during the Gettysburg battle and Dr. Richard J. Gatling’s famed rapid-fire weapon.

Regrettably, that is where the history lesson stops. Developers focus way too much on vapid action of the moment and completely miss incredible educational opportunities during the shooting.

Additionally, one area that should have been much better propagated was the bonus content.

Scattered among the terrain are photographs and letters that a player collects and revisits later. The photographs of such legends as J.E.B. Stewart, Stonewall Jackson and James Longstreet are interesting, but where’s the biographical information on these leaders?

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