Crowned by clouds of dust and diesel, the German panzers clanked through the chalky Syrian plain, crunching the ripening crops beneath their tracks. Stone walls and orchard-strewn hills that had witnessed countless invaders over the millennia silently observed the long column of armored vehicles relentlessly advancing toward the city of Aleppo beyond the horizon.
But this was not Erwin Rommel's Afrika Korps thrusting into the Levant in the summer of 1942. The year was 2008, and while the tanks were Germany, they belonged to the modern Federal Republic of Germany. They were virtual vehicles, a part of Combat Mission: Shock Force, a computer wargame that depicts a 2008 invasion of Syria by U.S. and NATO forces in response to a wave of Syrian-sponsored terrorism. The premise of the game seemed unlikely when it was published in 2007; America was mired in two wars, and Bashar al-Assad's regime seemed firmly in control. But today, with Syria engulfed in near civil war and mutterings of Western and Turkish intervention, the game suddenly seems prescient.
Shock Force is neither a political-military simulation nor a video shooter game like Call of Duty. It's a highly detailed, 3-D game of modern tactical combat at the level of individual vehicles and small teams of infantry. You're not nation-building nor peering through a rifle scope; instead, you're stepping into the shoes of a company or battalion commander who must focus on the decisions that decide battles, such as where to position your tanks to achieve the best fields of fire, when to call in artillery, or when your infantry should dismount from the protection of their armored carriers.
The game shows the hallmarks of considerable research into the forces of the combatants and the capabilities of the weapons they use. But this is basically window-dressing for the game's purpose, which is to demonstrate the lethality of modern weapons, illustrate the importance of battlefield factors such as morale and command control, and last but not least, give armchair generals a chance to play with awesome armaments. Military buffs will love this game; the Western armies ooze enough high-tech weapons to make any hardware-head orgasmic. Even the Syrians get a few good weapons, like Kornet anti-tank missiles and upgraded T-72 tanks, though most of their equipment is older Soviet gear past its prime.
Players can choose to conduct their own brand of regime change from a choice of armies, including a U.S. Army Stryker brigade, U.S. Marine Expeditionary Brigade, and mechanized task forces from Britain, Canada, Germany, and the Netherlands. In this world, Syria is not fractured by civil war, but Assad's forces are a motley mix of elite "Republican Guards" (where have I heard that phrase before?), heavily armed special forces, mediocre regular army conscripted troops, plus assorted fedayeen volunteer cannon fodder. They also have a lot of armor; even if many of Assad's 5,000 tanks are obsolete models that the Israelis easily destroyed in 1982, a Cold War-vintage Soviet-made T-62 can still take out a Stryker.
Michael Peck is gaming editor at Foreign Policy.
The above article was published in foreignpolicy.com on January 10th, 2012.