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The Virtual Army Experience

The U.S. Army brings virtual reality to potential recruits with its touring Virtual Army Experience exhibit.

Virtual Army Experience

Five years ago, the U.S. Army launched America's Army, a free first-person-shooter (FPS) computer game based on the Army itself. It received solid reviews, and has been through multiple permutations, including retail versions for the PlayStation 2 and Xbox. A new Xbox 360 America's Army game, True Soldiers, ships later this fall.

The Army is now bringing its video game series out of the PC and console and to virtual reality with the Virtual Army Experience. America's Army: VAE is a traveling exhibit presented by the U.S. Army that lets people get a dose of VR combat through the America's Army: Special Forces (Overmatch) video game. At Digital Life, I got a chance to try the Virtual Army Experience for myself.

The virtual reality game consists of a handful of mock-up military vehicles and a set of several large projection screens. After a short mission briefing (go into enemy territory, get a captured terrorist with valuable information, and leave), the game's participants and I got into the vehicles and manned mock-up M-240 machine gun mounts. I sat in the roof turret of a Humvee, with a gun mounted on a huge, circular rail that let it slide and swivel back and forth. When everyone got settled in, the mission began.

Like a giant light-gun arcade game, the experience consisted mostly on training my fake gun on terrorists and enemy vehicles and blowing them up to the best of my ability. The fake M-240 produced satisfying kickback, rattling and shaking in my hand thanks to pressurized air. The Humvee itself also shook as it absorbed virtual rockets and IEDs. I had fun, sliding and spinning back and forth, training my gun on enemy targets and trying to gun them down before they could fire on us. We drove through the simulated landscape, picking off terrorists and protecting fellow soldiers' rides until we reached the end of the game. The screens flashed large "Mission Accomplished" logos and we all shuffled out into another trailer for "debriefing".

America's Army: True Soldiers (Xbox 360)
America's Army: True Soldiers (Xbox 360)

The "debriefing" consisted of a short recruitment video and the highest-scoring participant receiving an action figure of Sgt. Tommy Rieman, one of four real soldiers in the America's ArmyReal Heroesprogram and upon which a line of action figures are being based. Everyone also received a lanyard and a copy of America's Army: Special Forces (Overmatch), the PC game version of the virtual reality game. Finally, Sgt. Rieman himself, one of the consultants for the game, showed up to talk to the players.

I had fun during the intense but short experience. It felt surprisingly real, with the gun and Humvee shaking and rocking wildly as I shot at terrorists on a huge screen. Unfortunately, it didn't really present the same level of risk most video games offer. As far as I could tell, nobody in the simulation died or got hurt. Sure, bullets flew and bombs exploded, but nobody lost a life and had to respawn, or any other of the typical game conventions you'd expect from an FPS or a light-gun game. It was like I was playing through an Army mission in god mode.

America's Army: Virtual Army Experience will be touring through California, Texas, and Florida until November. America's Army: True Soldiers will be hitting the Xbox 360 later this season with a retail price of about $60. America's Army: Real Heroes action figures based on Sgt. Tommy Rieman, Maj. Jason Amerine, SFC Gerald Wolford, and SSG Matthew Zedwik are currently available for about $10. If you can't find them at a toy store near you, you can order them online from the figures' manufacturer, Jazwares. (Thanks to Slanderpanic for this find.)