The Day I Went To War And Crashed My Tank Into Malmesbury Police Station

War! Hurr! What is it good for? Well, not a lot, except dragging you out of bed at 6am and making you feel your age. Steve Hill spent the day playing soldier at the Land Warfare Centre In Warminster.
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If I wanted to get up at 6 ‘o’ clock in the morning I’d join the army. Through the magic of magazines, for one day only, I effectively have. It’s a brutally early start that sees me leave Waterloo station for a secret location in the south of England, otherwise known as Warminster, home of The Land Warfare Centre. Apart from the obscenity of the hour, an unscheduled tear-up the previous evening has left me feeling somewhat less than 100%. An excruciating period of internal turmoil ensues, finally coming to a head when body overrules mind and explosively pebbledashes a South West Trains toilet with a partially digested chicken jalfrezi and half a gallon of cooking lager.

Suffice to say, it’s a decidedly unkempt soldier who rocks up late at the barracks, much to the disapproval of the waiting generals. With formalities at a minimum, we’re straight into a stern lecture, essentially a bombardment of acronyms and abbreviations, occasionally peppered with Venn diagrams and bar charts. The upshot is that a while a vulgar amount of money is spent in protecting this sceptred isle from evil insurgents, a few quid can be saved through the use of new-fangled computer simulators.

Following the chat, we’re hands-on with one of those simulators, the obligatorily abbreviated DCCT, which of course stands for Dismounted Close Combat Trainer. According to the bumph, ‘It is a life-sized firing range simulator and is used as a training aid for troops to practise their shooting skills both as individuals as well as in small teams.’

In reality, it’s a cross between a light gun and Dragon’s Lair, involving up to five hapless berks firing away at video footage of a wartime scenario. The guns are anything but light though, being modified actual weapons fitted with a small compressed gas valve to reproduce recoil. I can barely hold a conversation, let alone an automatic weapon, and it’s much as I can do to lift the beast and point it in the general direction of the screen.

A more improbable soldier it would be hard to find: I am unfit, overweight, tattoo-free, lacking a strong regional accent, anti-morning and anti-war, not to mention caked in Indian food

The action starts in a generic Middle East setting, and when it become apparent that one of the locals is hostile, we gleefully unload on him, peppering his turban-clad body with the British Army’s finest virtual lead. If this was a game, he’d have been a mess of internal organs, but being a video, he disconcertingly goes about his business unperturbed. Out of the corner of my eye, I see someone flee from a building and instinctively mow them down. It turns out to be a mother and small child, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.

The next scenario starts with a squabble in a back alley, during which one of the infidels pulls out a gun. He is dealt with quicker than a Brazilian on a tube train, along with a number of surrounding bystanders and a few innocent chickens. There are always casualties in war.

Following the virtual killing spree, we are directed to a lecture room and shown photographs of tanks, along with their computer-generated counterparts, seemingly generated some time in the mid-90s. Part of the CATT program, we are now in the realms of the Combined Arms Tactical Trainer. Essentially a glorified version of Tank Battle, ‘CATT consists of 70 closed-down networked high-fidelity vehicle simulators.’

In real terms this consists of a massive room populated by sci-fi style pods, each housing a scale-size tank simulator, with the interiors barely distinguishable from the real thing, all connected together like a multiplayer LAN game. Assigned the unlikely role of tank commander, I am issued with a wily Jock and a youthful Scouser, who both eye me with military levels of suspicion. A more improbable soldier it would be hard to find: I am unfit, overweight, tattoo-free, lacking a strong regional accent, anti-morning and anti-war, not to mention caked in Indian food. It’s an uneasy alliance, but I break the ice with a familiar Anglo-Saxon word when I crack my head on a vicious piece of protruding metal.

Taking my seat in the command post, it’s a cramped affair, but I manage to look out of my slit at a rudimentary version of Salisbury Plain. The Dirties have attacked the town of Malmesbury, and it’s our job to flush them out through superior firepower and authoritative command. This involves me shouting at the Scouser to shoot anything that moves, and we get involved in a cat-and-mouse chase with a rival tank, finally taking him out despite running over an unfortunate pedestrian in the process. It’s a chaotic business, not helped by the scenery intermittently flipping upside down, and our war effort comes to an abrupt end when we plough into the side of Malmesbury Police Station.

Out of the corner of my eye, I see someone flee from a building and instinctively mow them down. It turns out to be a mother and small child, but it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Back on the real Salisbury Plain, there are real tanks to contend with, although I am severely reprimanded for referring to them as such. They are of course Armoured Fighting Vehicles, naturally abbreviated to AFV’s, you idiot. Either way, they can certainly shift, reaching speeds of up to 50mph, much to the delight of the masochistic driver, and the despair of the pasty media buffoon clinging on for dear life. At one point, it seems the jalfrezi may be making a reappearance, and it’s with some relief that I disembark, spattered in mud, bruised but unbowed.

The debrief is a sombre affair, a stark reminder that we are a nation at war, the bloodshed and bereavement of which seems a world away from playing toy soldiers on Salisbury Plain. One of the officers asks if I’d ever consider signing up. In true journalistic fashion, I make my excuses and leave.

So then, how realistic is Tom Clancy's Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter?

With its comprehensive approach to modern warfare, and spectacularly realistic graphics, this is a considerably cheaper attempt at simulating war than setting up 70 bespoke tank simulators in a warehouse in the middle of Wiltshire. With its strong emphasis on strategy and teamwork, the game was cited by a number of soldiers as something that they play, communicating with each other much like in the real simulator, and indeed the real world.

How realistic is ARMA: Armed Assualt?

The spiritual successor to Operation Flashpoint from the same developer, Armed Assault blurs the boundaries between game, simulation and military training module. Compared to the Land Warfare Centre’s tank simulator, it is streets ahead graphically, albeit some distance behind the current crop of games. For all its realism, sitting at a keyboard can never compare with handling a real weapon or squeezing in to a fully featured tank interior. Although there is less chance of cracking your head open...

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