Reviewed: February 11, 2008
Released: November 15, 2007
America’s Army: True Soldiers is the latest in a video game series created (or rather funded) by the U.S. Army. The series got off to a controversial start back in 2002 when it debuted on the PC. Everyone from game reviewers to mothers of boys about to turn 18 claimed the game was nothing more than a transparent attempt to brainwash and recruit new soldiers via video games.
While I followed this controversy loosely, and from afar, I kept my video gaming rooted in the quasi-fictional realms of Rainbow Six. After all, I was already a career soldier…I didn’t need any covert inducements to re-enlist. And for the past five years I’ve managed to avoid every new America’s Army installment…until now.
For whatever reason, I was personally requested to review True Soldiers; perhaps in an attempt to approach this game from a military perspective; especially in light of the thrashing this game is taking from all the other critics. And I have to admit, I was a bit curious to see just how well a video game could recreate, or at least simulate Army life.
I guess the first thing to discuss is the total lack of actual story-based gameplay in True Soldiers. What could have been an amazing opportunity to put gamers into a virtual Iraq or some other modern day hotspot was totally lost, and we are left with nothing more than a glorified paintball sim thinly veiled in military terminology and more technical data than any one soldier needs to know.
The first thing you’ll do in True Soldiers is to create your character. This will be the guy you’ll take through training and then edit and mold into your own unique soldier through the editing menu. It’s a surprisingly thorough system that starts with the basics like name, nickname, hometown, and a nice assortment of bodies, faces, and equipment options. Once you start completing the single-player missions you will earn various skill points that you can use to develop your soldier further.
Skills include Valor, Fortitude, Marksmanship, Medic, and Physical Training. These all play an important part in determining your overall success when it comes to choosing a roll for your soldier prior to each mission. You can enlist as a Rifleman, Automatic Rifleman, Sniper, Grenadier, Fire-Team Leader, or Squad Leader. The last two roles are only available when playing in one of the multiplayer modes.
And then you have Honor Points. This is a pretty clever system that rewards players for following the Army’s set of core values and performing above and beyond the call of duty during missions. You’ll earn these points by obeying orders, completing objectives, providing medical assistance, and rescuing teammates.
If you are playing in a multiplayer match you will also have the ability to reward your teammates with Respect Tokens. The more Honor Points you acquire during a match the more Respect Tokens you have to distribute, and you can actually earn even more Honor Points by awarding Respect Tokens. It’s basically a big “pat on the back” for any teammates who may have saved your bacon on the battlefield.
While all of this sounds great in theory (and even while I’m writing it), the designers just blew it when it came to implementing these elements into a fun or engaging game. From the opening menu you can either go to Basic Training (tutorial), War Games (single-player missions), or Multiplayer. Sadly, there is no cohesiveness to any of these missions. Even the training is presented as a series of menu items you have to select individually.
Basic Training includes tutorials for all the major weapons used by the modern army. Not only will you hear all sorts of accurate data about ammo capacity and fire rates, you’ll also get a chance for some target practice. Then you have the obstacle course and medic training and finally a closing exercise that combines everything you have learned previously. It’s been nearly 30 years since I was in boot, and today, I am in the position to be training new recruits, so it was interesting to see how the Army wants to portray the experience to the gaming world.
Once you and your soldier have completed training it’s time to head off to the War Games. And here is where the game totally lost me. Rather than taking what you learned and going off to fight in some war, either fictional or real, you’ll get to engage fellow soldiers in a series of war games. That means bullets are replaced with paintballs and dead terrorists are replaced with soldiers who sit down when shot and meditate about their loss.
I might be able to forgive the entire paintball aspect if the missions were remotely fun, but instead, you just get to wander around various training grounds, trying to control your team of poorly modeled soldiers with a command system that was outdated since the original Ghost Recon. You’ll move from one rally point to the next and take pot shots at the enemy blips on your fictional radar system.
And then you get to factor in all sorts of gameplay bugs and issues like a quirky AI for both friendly and enemy soldiers. It’s pretty bad when the AI can actually fail a mission for you causing you to restart from the beginning…that’s right…no checkpoints in these missions. And as any “true soldier” will tell you, engaging in gunplay is all about coverage, both in cover fire and environmental cover. This was a huge element in Full Spectrum Warrior (still one of my favorites), but in True Soldiers the only cover option you have is the ability to lean around corners. And why bother even trying to play the game smartly when the enemy will simply charge at you like an enraged group of Spartans.
So, normally when a game turns to shit because of poor AI, poor mission design, and a lacking (or in this case no) story, I turn to multiplayer for comfort. Thankfully, the multiplayer offering makes a valiant attempt to redeem the rest of the dismal package, but only if you can find other people to play with, and sadly, during my month-long attempt to review this game I was seldom able to find enough people for a full 8-on-8 game.
It’s sad really, because the multiplayer has full support for creating your own clan, logos, motto, message of the day, and even setup your own clan website. Toss in some nice voice support and leaderboards for the competitive gamer and you have a reasonably compelling online game with only one major flaw…nobody is playing this game, and at $60 I can’t blame them; especially when Greg Hasting Paintball offers up the same gameplay experience for half the price.
And a final note in regards to America’s Army being used as a recruiting tool. One only need visit the bonus features of this game disc and watch any of the numerous videos showcasing carefully selected soldiers, each with a special story to tell. Who doesn’t enjoy seeing President Bush pin a medal on a real war hero or hear about the girl who got her college tuition paid for. All of these stories are great tools for the Army’s marketing department but they are hardly the standard for the everyday recruit off the street.
Not to put down the Army – it’s my life and I love it, but I also realize it’s not for everyone, and some of the videos attached to this game can really spin the Army in an unrealistic light. Anybody ever see Bill Murray in Stripes? I’m just waiting for a fresh inductee to ask me where the gym is before I stick an M16 A4 in his hands and drop him in a 130-degree desert overseas.
The original America’s Army games used to be built off the Unreal Engine. I’m not sure what is driving True Soldiers. There are more corporate logos on the back of the box than you’d find on any car in the Daytona 500. Regardless of the engine, the graphics are merely average, and often slip into the below-average territory that shouldn’t be tolerated in next-gen games cashing in at next-gen prices. Designed by Red Storm and Ubisoft, I would at least have hoped for graphics on a level with GRAW2 or Vegas.
Technically, there are some nice elements. The clothing, weapons and terrain textures are excellent, but the levels are poorly designed and boring, both to look at and play in. Soldier animation is awkward and there are numerous animation glitches when transitioning from various positions including an awkward hiccup when trying to exit from a lean. Lighting and shadows are poor but there are some nice explosions, fire and smoke.
The menus are simplistic and once in the game those who have played Ghost Recon will quickly feel at home with the HUD and radial menu system. There is also a huge database of weapons and vehicles complete with pictures and reams of technical data. And finally, you have those bonus movies that, while excellent in quality, do everything but ask you to sign on the dotted line.
The sound design is a mix of patriotic themes for the menus and setup screens then you go into realistic (but boring) silence for the missions. I guess they are keeping it real, but real is seldom fun.
Sound effects are flawless and I could easily identify each and every weapon by its sound alone. The explosions were powerful and hit my sub-woofer hard.
The voice work ranges from believable and quite good for the officers in charge of your training, especially when they are rattling off weapon stats and such, but once you get into the war games and start having to hear all the horrible dialogue from your squad it becomes painfully bad and even hard to tolerate at times.
True Soldiers would have immeasurable long term value if anybody were playing it online, but since you’ll be lucky to find enough people for even a small game I have to value this game based on the solo elements and unfortunately there just isn’t any. The multi-lesson training will take you less than a hour and the war games might take another 6-8 hours assuming you have the tolerance to endure the lot of them.
Pricing this game at $60 was a huge error, especially since the Army is supposed to be funding this project and it basically is just a big advertising and video game recruiting tool. I might be able to recommend True Soldiers if the price ever drops to $20, because then you might just find enough people online to play with.
America’s Army: True Soldiers is essentially a poor man’s version of Ghost Recon or Vegas, but you can’t tell from the asking price. Considering there are far more advanced and better games out there – many of which have already dropped in price to the $30-40 range, I simply cannot recommend that anyone invest their time or money in this flawed promotional tool.