- 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?

Also, Activision misses the simplest way to add educational content. Why not throw in a bonus DVD with any one of the dozens of History Channel programs devoted to the Civil War. Even National Geographic figured that out with its panda game.

Age range: The missions are geared for players 13 years old and older, and mainly involve eliminating enemy soldiers using a variety of weapons. None of the violence is as graphic as the average first-person shooter on the market. No blood is lost, but bodies do fly through the air during explosions. Soldiers just melt away after they have fallen.

Parents uncomfortable with their teen pointing a weapon at another human in a virtual world should, of course, keep him away.

Final advice: As one of my Confederate comrades kept telling me, “Something’s wrong.”Yes, something is really wrong in a game about the Civil War that does little to clearly explain, analyze or even put into perspective why so many died and suffered.

Game Bytes

Here’s an abbreviated look at some multimedia titles for aspiring singers in the family.

Lips (for Xbox 360, rated T for teen, from Microsoft Game Studio, $69.99, microphones require two AA batteries each) - Karaoke gets even more interactive with Microsoft’s new singing game.

A pair of motion-sensitive, wireless microphones add some flash to a player’s performance as he follows the flowing note bars and croons his way to virtual stardom. The magical mics are not only for singing, but a performer also mimics movements when prompted on-screen.

Most important, the basic set of 40 music tracks is a diverse lot and each includes its music video equivalent. The choices are a spectrum of classics ranging from the Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated” to Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” to Aly & AJ’s “Potential Break Up Song.”

Turning Lips into a potent party game are options that go well beyond simply singing along in standard, duet and competitive modes. A pair of cooperative games requires on-key and on-rhythm singing from both players.

Even folks not in the mood to perform can use a standard controller’s button arsenal and just add some percussive moments, such as a tambourine or cowbell hits, over the songs.

Finally, more tunes are available for download at Xbox Live Marketplace (160 points, $2 each) to keep the vocalizing fresh. A singer’s personal catalog of MP3s also can be hooked into the system and sung over (sans word prompts).

Unfortunately, performers cannot shoot and upload videos via the Xbox Vision camera. That might be a good thing.

SingStar ABBA (for PlayStation 3, from Sony Computer Entertainment, $39.99) - The Swedish super group from the ‘70s gets another tribute in a song pack for Sony’s karaoke franchise.

Anyone familiar with the theater musical or movie “Mamma Mia!” will appreciate most of the 25 pop songs available, including “Dancing Queen,” “SOS” and “Does Your Mother Know.”

However, before I truly embrace the ABBA groove, I need a couple questions answered. Is it child abuse if I make my 9-year-old sing with me on “Fernando”? Is it spousal abuse if I force my wife to listen?

Singers can even replay a performance, always a hilarious - and sobering - experience.

Those with an EyeCamera can post snippets of their accomplishments. Let me tell you, watching performances from around the world is well worth the price of admission. Even better, serious ABBA fans sing along to the original videos of the group in action. I call that access to priceless musical history.

Joseph Szadkowski’s ROMper Room is a place for children and their parents to escape the world of ultraviolent video games and use that gaming system or computer to actually learn something while having fun. Send e-mail to jszadkowski@washington times.com.