Non-Virtual Reality, Really


Calabasas-based NovaLogic, a maker of military simulation games, promoted its upcoming tank game, “Armored Fist 2,” by giving reviewers the ultimate comparison: a real live M-1 tank. The company sent a dozen journalists along with NovaLogic staff to Ft. Hunter Liggett, about 50 miles northwest of San Luis Obispo, for a two-day “boot camp.”

* Day 1--July 15, 0930 hours

When I first heard about this game promotion, it sounded outrageous. Dorky computer gamers playing with multibillion-dollar military hardware at a military base. But when I get to the rendezvous at San Francisco International Airport, I discover that these National Guard guys are taking it all pretty seriously. They want proof of employment in case of injury. We will be observing “live fire.” Hmmmmm.

1550 hours

We arrive at King City, a glorified pit stop on U.S. Highway 101. We check into the cheesy Courtesy Inn and stop by the “Desert Storm Room,” a suite set up with high-end computers and finger food. The NovaLogic team greets us and we have a light schmooze. The vibes are very computer convention.

Then in walks some soldiers and everything changes. Captains Rory Aylward and Dave Manzi from Liggett step in from the heat. Aylward is an engaging character with a very dry wit. He’s a part-time soldier, as are most of the personnel at the nearby National Guard post. He makes a living helping Hollywood producers make realistic military movies and was an advisor on “Courage Under Fire.”

He tells us that the military is endorsing neither NovaLogic nor its products, but that the tank sim is great publicity for the Army.


“If the game is very realistic, and it sells well, you have a lot of people being exposed to our experience,” he says. “We can say, ‘Hey, if this appeals to you, then why not try the real thing.’ ”

Then we’re off to the fort. I ride in a van with Tom Hays, audio director for NovaLogic. He’s brought along sound equipment and is planning to snatch some sounds of M-1 tanks firing and rumbling along so it can be added to the game.

1650 hours

We reach our final destination, a 40th Infantry Division post in a hot, dried-out valley between the Santa Lucia and southern Diablo ranges. There are a couple of wooden towers, an array of camouflaged tents and assorted military hardware. Our jaws drop when we spot M-1 tanks moving toward a training range.

Aylward cracks jokes during our safety briefing. “Drink lots of water, because it’s hot and because I say so,” he says as we struggle to hear him through our standard-issue earplugs. “By the way, do everything I say. If I say something, pretend I’m the burning bush. The tank is 70 tons of angry. If a tank bumps you at 3 mph, it will kill you.”

With those happy words, we’re off to watch tanks doing shooting exercises--and it’s not just for us. These guys are in the last stages of training to become qualified tank crews.

A couple of tanks are parked near the TOC (tactical operation center), and with no less than four Army lawyers looking on, we’re allowed to climb aboard and poke around. The hot metal is incredibly solid, and the controls inside are mind-boggling. It’s no wonder NovaLogic CEO John Garcia later would tell us, “Though we want our game to be realistic, we don’t want to re-create the tank exactly, switch by switch.” I do my best Mike Dukakis pose, with a thumbs up from the driver’s hatch.

2100 hours

We have filled up on Army chow and are heading for the ultimate engagement: tank rides. Lt. Col. Jeff Kramer says it’s like “Disneyland, only more so.” A rare opportunity to experience our tax dollars at work.

After a few others take five-minute rides down the trail and back, it’s my turn to climb aboard, along with Gamespot Editor James Glave. We take turns, one riding inside at the gunner seat, the other sticking his head out of the hatch as the wind and grit blow by. The stars and moon are out in the dusty night, and we can see faraway tanks shooting targets, with bolts of fiery light.

All I can say is, what a ride. No matter what you think about the military budget, you immediately want to vote for anything after riding “the Beast.”

* Day 2--July 16, 0830 hours

Everyone’s playing demos of “Armored Fist 2,” the M-1A2 Abrams simulation game. Though we rode in an M-1IP tank, an earlier model, many of the controls are similar. Now we know some terms intimately, like Sabo rounds (a common ammunition type) and firing commands.

Unfortunately for NovaLogic, it’s hard to compare the real thing to a simulation. Though the game looks and sounds realistic, and the graphics are top-notch, even in this early version, I can’t help but remember sticking out of the tank hatch, hair blowing beneath the Kevlar helmet, wondering whether anyone could simulate that feeling.

NovaLogic’s Garcia is touting the game’s multi-player capabilities and MMX graphics support. We’re suitably impressed--but our thoughts are on the battlefield.

Soon we’re at a different training range, at Camp Roberts, which connects to Ft. Hunter Liggett by tank trail. We go out to a field where there are M-109 self-propelled Howitzers, their 155-millimeter guns pointing skyward. The tank-like vehicles are manned by four-man crews, with teamwork just as important as in the M-1. We don earplugs and observe as the 155s fire rounds at a distant hillside.

I’m one of the lucky volunteers who gets to take the “No. 1" position and pull the lanyard on a Howitzer, sending a high-explosive charge into enemy territory. Soon the crew is making me comfortable, showing me how to load the artillery round and powder bag. Everything is checked, double-checked and triple-checked for safety, but I can’t help eyeing the fire extinguishers.

Not to worry. I swivel my hips to pull the cord and the 155 goes ka-boom, sending a charge to the appointed spot. The soldiers shake my hand and give me a beef stew MRE (meal ready-to-eat) as a souvenir.

1350 hours

Everyone else is itchy to shoot, so we find an old friend of Kramer’s who is willing to lend us an M-60 machine gun and M-16 rifle. We take turns on the shooting range, loading the machine guns with belts of ammunition and aiming at targets a short distance away. Bill Donahue, managing editor of Ultra Game Players magazine, impresses the enlisted men by nailing the intended targets. The rest of us struggle with the M-60s’ powerful kick and its aiming mechanism.

Even the marketing women from NovaLogic get past their fears and blast away with the M-16. But now we have to head for home, with a final parting word from Kramer and MREs for the road.

Playing tank sims will never be the same.