Xoldiers, by Cactus and Terry Cavanagh, is so damn fun you might not even notice it's an artgame. The premise -- you simultaneously control an entire squadron of soldiers who must kill everything that stands in their path -- is simple, entertaining, and proven surprisingly deep by the level design.
I won't say any more, suffice to say that you'll get out of Xoldiers whatever you put into it: whether you just want to play an above-average action shooter or if you're willing to make yourself aware of the cleverly integrated anti-war message, you'll find whatever you want to find.
Enough of my babbling: go play Xoldiers.
Or, alternately, hit the jump for a great deal more of my babbling.
Xoldier's anti-war (or more specifically, anti-military) message becomes totally entwined with the actual objectives around the game's halfway point, without ever feeling overt or didactic.
My first time through Xoldiers, I reacted to the beginning levels of the game as I would with any Cactus release: I was impressed by the excessive explosions, and entertained on a visceral level by the sensation of blowing away dozens of pixelated tanks and houses with my collectively-controlled squadron of soldiers. My objectives feel clear, and recognizable: kill as many enemies as I can before taking out their base, and try to keep all of my soldiers alive.
A few levels later, the game starts throwing in alternate routes to the enemy's final base that can't be navigated with a full squadron of soldiers. An unharmed 3x 3 squadron of soldiers, since it moves as one entity, is too thick to fit into the small shortcut the player is presented with around the third or fourth level. Given how effectively the first two levels put the player into a gung-ho, kill-em-all-and-let-god-sort-em-out frame of mind, my immediate reaction to the first shortcut came out of this mindset. "Eh," I thought. "I guess you can take that shortcut if you suck and lose half your squadron on accident, or something." I paid it no mind, and continued to unsubtly blast my way through the enemy ranks without losing a single soldier. And things were pretty standard.
Until the game forces you to start killing your own men.
After a while, the narrow corridors and too-thin shortcuts become mandatory. Around the game's halfway point, your entire play style is forcibly thrown out of whack. Where I used to think it was possible and encouraged to make it through a level with all my soldiers alive, their survival assumedly representative of my skill at the game, Xoldiers slaps me -- subtly -- across the face and says that in order to win, I must decrease the size of my squadron. I must start killing my own men in large numbers. I must start treating them as disposable tools whose individual existences are meaningless to me except as a means to an end.
I felt like Ulysses S. Grant.*
The whole "ra ra ra kill the enemy fuck those guys" vibe suddenly becomes dark and ironic, and more than a little unsettling. Since you're taking orders from a guy who seems to have no empathy whatsoever, and the nature of your missions forces you to kill off your own men, one has to wonder -- why am I even fighting this enemy at all? If you don't have this question in your head before playing the final level, you will once you're through.
It's not as if "war is bad, don't trust the military" is a particularly fresh theme, but Xoldiers is just so goddamn good at delivering it almost entirely through its mechanics and level design that I have to recommend it to action and artgame fans alike. Metal Gear Solid uses eight hundred hours of cut scenes to put across the same anti-war message that Xoldiers does with just a few well-designed levels, and Xoldiers still manages to deliver that message more effectively through its mechanics.
*Cause he was like that.