But in today's games, total cinematic immersion is the key, and the Battlefield franchise has become a must-play series precisely because of all the realistic detail and freedom of movement built into the games. "Battlefield 1942," reads the promotional literature for the debut game, released in September 2002, "contains a specially produced game engine that handles dynamic models, scenery, land and air physics, and includes a system for 3D sound that provides an unrivaled feeling of presence. Suddenly," the advertisement promises, "you are just there!"
Certainly that "feeling of presence" is one of the keys to the series' success. In the original game and its add-on mods like Desert Combat and the recently released Vietnam update, gamers not only get to tote around realistic-handling, historically accurate firearms, they get to drive Jeeps, tanks, aircraft carriers and even jets and helicopters.
On Matt Bentley's personal Web page, the computer systems specialist and self-published sci-fi novelist keeps a journal of some of his most memorable games in BF1942 that reads like the vividly recalled tales of a real-life war veteran. In the stories, Bentley recalls saving online buddies from exploding bridges, charging tanks and torpedo-firing submarines as if describing real-life adventures.
"If you have a long day of playing Battlefield," Bentley admits, "you can find yourself looking around for other people, as if you're still in the game."
The realism of the game play, from the way the tanks roll when coasting down a steep sand hill to how fast helicopters drop when the player lets up just enough on the control key, can even make players wonder if the skills they acquire in the game might actually transfer over in the real world.
"A few of us like to go out in the desert sometimes and shoot the real guns from the game," volunteers one member of the LanCamp clan, a friendly 24-year-old City of Phoenix employee named Eric Young. "It's a lot of fun, being able to pick up a real 50-cal sniper rifle -- which is a big item in Desert Combat, a one-shot kill -- and say, 'Hey, I brought some ammo, can I shoot your gun?'" he says.
"It's surprising how close the real guns are to the game."
On a rocky hill located just off a rugged, unpaved stretch of Table Mesa Road some 38 miles north of Phoenix, Eric Young picks up the AR-15 semi-automatic assault rifle from the tray of weapons set up behind Major Tom's truck and holds it before him like a kid pawing the top toy on his Christmas list.
"That's the standard civilian model of the M-16," says Major Tom, an off-duty Arizona DPS officer who insists on giving only his nickname -- possibly because of all the "work tools" he has taken along on this Saturday afternoon shooting expedition.
"It's the exact same profile as the M-16 in the game," he says. "It's just a semi-auto version. But it shoots the same rounds. Go ahead," the good Major says, "I brought a ton of ammo!"
With a big grin spreading across his rounded face, Young pulls the butt of the AR-15 squarely against his right shoulder and digs his heels into the hill.
Although the former small-town boy from a tiny burg in southeastern Utah has never fired this particular gun before, Young handles the AR-15 like a trained special ops sergeant, locking and loading the magazine with a firm slap, slamming the bolt forward and resting his finger against the trigger as he leans into the scope.
Through aviator shades, Young, dressed in camouflage combat trousers and a white tee shirt, peers into the scope and centers the illuminated red dot on his target: a bright blue bottle of Bawls, favorite high-caffeine drink of computer gamers, balancing on a cardboard box across the ravine.
Until today, Young has only wielded an AR-15 -- or rather, its military brother, the M-16 -- as a computer-generated character in Battlefield 1942. But this afternoon, surrounded by about 20 other gamers with a similar curiosity about firing the real deals, Young's finger is not on the left-click button of a mouse but on the actual, cold steel trigger.
What's surprising, as he said, is how well the game has trained him to operate the real thing. From seeing how much slower his on-screen character runs while holding the gun, Young already knows the approximate weight of the weapon. By becoming familiar with the scope view on the PC, he knows how to manipulate the red dot in the actual scope and how far to expect the bullet to stay on that target before falling prey to gravity.