There's no getting around this: Left Behind: Eternal Forces is a game that most people will have an opinion about, even if they never play it. That's because this real-time strategy game is based on the best-selling Left Behind series of novels about those who are "left behind" after the rapture takes Christians away to heaven. Obviously, with a premise like that, Left Behind represents the latest in the Christian-themed video game movement, or as developer/publisher Left Behind Games puts it, the "inspirational games" market. We got our first look at Eternal Forces recently to see what the game is like.
In the Left Behind story, those left behind after the rapture splinter into different factions. There's the Tribulation Forces, who are the "good guys" that have seen the light, and then there's the Global Community Peacekeepers, who are led by the antichrist. The Tribulation Forces seek clues from those who were taken, and that's the focus of the game. Eternal Forces is set in New York City, as the Tribulation Forces must battle the Global Community Peacekeepers to uncover certain clues. Though Left Behind authors Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins aren't involved in the story, key characters from the novels will appear as hero characters in the game's approximately 40 missions.
Since it is set in the modern-day world, Eternal Forces resembles other, modern-day real-time strategy games. You'll control infantry, armor, and other military vehicles as they battle it out, only this time the action takes place on the streets of the Big Apple and not some distant battlefield. However, Eternal Forces is also clearly designed to reach out with its message. The game will feature biblical facts between levels, accompanied by tracks from Christian rock groups. For example, we saw one screen that compared many Hebrew names in the Bible to their modern day meaning. Troy Lyndon, the CEO of Left Behind Games, told us that you can quickly skip over this by hitting the continue button, but they're also putting in a button to learn more if you're intrigued. There are other obvious religious themes in the game. For example, you may come across scrolls that bear a scripture from the Bible, but they also act as power-ups. If you're low on food, using a scroll to summon the angel of harvest will boost your food levels, and so on.
As you'd expect, you'll be encouraged to do good while playing the game, but you may also do evil, as well. Like many real-time strategy games, Eternal Forces features a variety of resources that you need to accumulate to build units. One of these resources is your spiritual rating, which measures how good or evil you are. If your troops kill civilians and innocents, your spiritual rating drops, and if it drops too much, you may see your units defect (each unit has his or her own spiritual rating), and if drops too far, demons will show up. While demons are incredibly powerful units, they're uncontrollable and capable of turning on you as well as the enemy. On the other hand, if you do good (by building churches), your spirit rating will rise, and angels may appear to help you out. This idea of consequences, as well as rewards and punishments, reinforce the game's sense of morality.
Left Behind does have some interesting gameplay mechanics. For example, the developers have meticulously recreated about 500 blocks of Manhattan to battle in and around, and you can clearly get a feeling for the urban canyons of New York City. What's also interesting is the way that you use buildings. Part of the real-time strategy mechanic in the game requires you to convert buildings and turn them into structures that you can use. For instance, convert a building into a bank and it generates cash. Or convert it into a combat training center, and you can send civilians that your evangelists recruit there to train as soldiers. What's interesting is that these buildings remain unmarked from the outside, which means that if you're attacking enemy territory, you might not recognize their structures unless you get close enough, or if you have a spy scouting around.
While you will play the single-player campaign from the perspective of the good guys, the multiplayer will let you play as either side. This will raise some eyebrows among some of the game's audience, but Left Behind Games felt it was important to represent both sides in the game. Each person in the game has his or her own life story, which explains their choices in life and how they got to where they were.
It'll be interesting to see how well the game does when it ships. The Left Behind novels have sold more than 60 million copies, so there's a sizable potential audience out there. And movies such as The Passion of the Christ show that there's a market, as well. Lyndon says that the company plans a grass-roots outreach to churches to generate buzz, similar to those used for Mel Gibson's movie and last year's The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Ironically, Lyndon also says that the game has its critics among some Christians, including longtime video game critic Jack Thompson, which goes to show the tricky line that religious-themed games must tread. Left Behind: Eternal Forces is scheduled to ship later this year.