Reviewed: December 5, 2005
Released: November 15, 2005
It was not so long ago that we were hearing about the US Army not only sanctioning the use of their name for, but also taking an active role in the development of, an online military FPS.
The bigger surprise came when we heard that the title would be for the PC, would utilize the Unreal engine, and would be distributed for free via download.
But by far the biggest surprise was just how well the game was accepted by the media and fans, and how it spurned an entire community of gamers and modders that continue (to this very day) molding and shaping the game to become one of the most played games on the ‘net.
However, there were also just as many gamers scared off by the game’s slightly darker purpose – to serve as a recruitment/training tool for the US Army, by spotlighting the military culture for impressionable adolescents and familiarizing them with the tools and techniques of the US Army.
Regardless of your political views, America’s Army has stood the test of time as a very solid game, so after two years on the PC, Ubisoft has released America’s Army: Rise of a Soldier for the Xbox. And while America’s Army may not be free on the console, it is definitely worth checking out.
For better or for worse, America’s Army is an FPS like no other – featuring authentic, squad-based military action; this tactical shooter’s main focus, more than any other before it, is on expressing the team spirit of warfare. From the 360 degrees of security back-to-back movement, to alpha-bravo bound-and-cover maneuvers, America’s Army stresses the importance of teamwork with every ounce of its being. The difference between life and death can easily be realized with nary a moment’s notice in America’s Army, and it takes you and your team working together cohesively to keep each other alive.
America’s Army gives you a handful of rudimentary design pieces from which to create your own character, including allowing you to choose one of a half-dozen pre-selected nicknames – of which your character will be referred to by commanders and teammates through the speaking parts of the game. I picked “Hi-Fi” for my character, so every order from the commander was “Hi-Fi, go here…” or “Hi-Fi, follow me…”.
The game puts you in the boots of a young Army recruit, and takes you through a series of training and qualification exercises in a variety of different weapons classes and roles – beginning with the Marksman and progressing through Grenadier, Rifleman, Automatic Rifleman, and so on. Each time you qualify for a new class (by hitting a set number of targets in timed sequences), a series of missions opens up which will require you to use your newfound skills in battle.
As your character progresses through the game, you begin to build up experience points, which can be applied to any of a dozen-or-so personal traits which will further tailor your soldier into a unique and robust character of your liking. Do you want him to be a deadeye marksman? Then put all of your points in marksmanship. Would you like a medic? Then throw some points towards healing. In an Army that says “Be All That You Can Be”, America’s Army really tries to make that an honest claim.
As mentioned, the missions are definitely squad based, and will require you to listen closely to the orders of your team leader – which is not always an easy thing to do in the middle of a firefight. The game keeps you on a fairly regimented course of attack, leading you from waypoint to waypoint using a series of golden objective stars that appear as the story plods along.
Attempts to go wildcat from the squad will generally result in you receiving a stern scolding or penalty from your leader – possibly even ending the mission – even when the ends might justify the means. But this is the Army, people – we ain’t playin’ no Halo – the safety of the team is more important than the individual, and you getting your butt shot up affects the team as a whole.
While this does sometimes feel like a bit oppressive compared to Ubisoft’s other squad shooters Ghost Recon 2 and Rainbow Six, it is obviously the image that the Army wants to portray in their game.
Although the gold objective stars may seem like the game is holding your hand a bit too much at times – they do come up helpful more often than not, especially with the often-nebulous commands being barked by your leader. And I say that the pathway is strictly laid out, but as long as you keep within a given range of the objective marker, there is a bit of freedom to move about – just don’t go too far.
The mechanics of the gameplay are quite good as well. Weapons selection is very user friendly, with the gamer pulling up the loadout menu with the Y button and then selecting the weapon or augmentation with a flick of the left stick in one of the eight available directions.
Aiming is quick and (relatively) painless; with a pull of the left trigger bringing up the sights, the weapon will tend to loosely auto-lock on a given threat. And by loosely, I mean very loosely – like the character may not be in the sights although the general movement of the gun follows his pathway. It is up to you to zero in on the enemy and deal the suppressing blow.
By suppressing blow, of course, I am alluding to America’s Army’s insistence that, unlike every other FPS known to man, headshots are not the preferred method for taking down an enemy. The idea is not to kill the enemy outright, but to simply put a stop to their attack. A little bit of propaganda, me thinks? I would say so – I personally picked off a bunch of tangos using headshots and never once received a stern warning, penalty or anything – regardless of what they said.
The weapons feature accurately modeled velocity and travel, so depending on the size and speed of the projectile you will need to compensate aiming accordingly. Quick, small projectiles can be aimed almost dead-on, while the M203 grenade launcher will need upwards of a sight and a half of aim-over to connect with far-off targets. Although this may sound like it could be cumbersome, it does not take too long to get a “feel” for each weapon’s trajectory.
What is a problem are the weird glitches that will cause grenades to target and fire from launchers as planned, but fail to explode or do any damage whatsoever. It is almost like they disappear into a black hole in the background.
I had one particular Grenadier mission where multiple times I unloaded three or four cans into a farmhouse window filled with insurgents and never, never did one explode. Heck, I even aimed directly on a threat hoping to just knock the guy down, and when the dust cleared, there he was unaffected by the two inch diameter capsule that just passed through his torso.
Using the specialty weapon was not mandatory completing the mission, and I got through that section without, but it would have been nice to know I was not wasting my time and resources – which I apparently was.
America’s Army features a unique health system, which basically gives you one life to work with, and a few med kits to heal wounds. Well, not really heal wounds, because wounds stay with you to the end of the mission – rather, the med kits are used to stop further bleeding and health loss. You can use med kits on either yourself or fallen teammates, but you are only given so many to start. Since the team is more important than the individual, you will often find yourself cursing as you use your last kit on some poor recruit, only to have yourself shot up seconds later – but hey, that is life in the Army, right?
America’s Army features a total of 35 single player missions to test your mettle in everything from the lowly marksman recruit, all the way up to fire squad leader. The missions tend to be long, multi-tiered exercises with mid-level save points that become very important when the difficulty ramps up early on. As you progress through the missions, you will be awarded medals and stripes that pad up your profile for the online missions via Xbox Live.
The online missions feature a similar structure as the single-player, but in an eight-on-eight team based structure featuring offense vs. defense gameplay. Within each team of eight, there are definite roles to be played – and each of these roles requires training and qualification to take on. Newbies will only be able to grab lowly infantry roles, while old timers vie for leadership positions.
What this means is that there is a definite hierarchy to the players you will find online – and they often let you know it, with egregious attitudes, order barking, belittling of players, etc.. It makes for a very intimidating experience and may turn a lot of players off. I am sure this is very much like how it is in the real Army, but it is not something I particularly care to partake in myself.
But when you find the right group of guys, it can be a whole lot of fun, and any team-on-team multiplayer game mode is subject to those attitudes – even (especially) the beloved Halo. That is why my friends and I like to play games like Rainbow Six and Ghost Recon 2 online cooperatively against AI enemies, and forego the competitive humans. Sadly, America’s Army is one Ubisoft game that does not feature humans vs. AI cooperative online play. Bummer.
At two-years-old, America’s Army might look a bit dated, but the overall appearance is still quite passable.
The textures used throughout the game are definitely muddy and unrefined – even to the degree we would typically call “ugly” – but the character modeling and animations used for enemy and teammate characters are very clean and realistic.
There is a fair share of outdated and overused effects, like always identical and superimposed looking grenade blasts, but they do not detract much from the actual gameplay. But that does not mean that all is good.
There are plenty of places where the game could have used a swift kick in the graphics engine. For instance, in speaking situations, none of the characters moves their mouths or uses any form of expression. Generally this would not be that big of a deal. However, with America’s Army’s commanders constantly barking orders and directing you to go see so-and-so, it often leaves you standing confused trying to figure out where the next gold objective star will pop up.
If they at least turned their heads towards Pvt. Hart (I liked that guy for some reason) or at least towards the direction of next movement, it would have kept me from having to spin around trying to find which guy in green was the right one, or having to wait for the commander to move before I knew which way we were going. In a game where a single enemy shot can completely ruin a successful mission, any hesitation or delay could be dangerous – so I would rather not make myself vulnerable any longer than I have to while waiting for an objective icon to pop up.
The weapons look realistically modeled and highly detailed, but they lack some of the real-time shading we have found in lesser titles. Still, the graphics get the job done and we never found ourselves too turned off by any of America’s Army’s visual shortcomings.
Overall, the sound quality in America’s Army is quite good. The explosions and gunfire sound entirely accurate and often overwhelming, and loaded with realistic detail like close blasts causing your character to temporarily lose and gradually regain hearing.
I was especially impressed with the variety of voices used in the game – most of which feature dialects unique to the melting pot of people you will find in the US Army. I heard accents from everywhere; Southern to Midwestern – New England to New York. Sure, the actual quality of the dialogue came across less like acting and a lot more like reading (and remedial reading, at that) but at least the authenticity was there.
The splash screen and menu music was a bit different than I expected – with edgy rap and riff-heavy rock tunes blaring away to the sights and sounds of the US Army. It would not have been so bad except that the music is mastered in at a much higher volume than the rest of the game that you either have to slider it down in the options menu, or risk waking half the neighborhood.
Putting a value on America’s Army is a bit difficult. I mean, the game is basically a port of a two-year-old PC shooter that could (and still can) be readily and legally downloaded for FREE from the Internet – with online play included at no extra cost. So, why would any gamer want to pay $40 for a dumbed-down Xbox copy? Because the game is pretty darned enjoyable.
The wealth of training and single player missions will give any FPS or military shooter fan enough material to tide him or her over for weeks to come. And if the gamer finds a good group of buddies to play online with – well the value goes through the roof.
Again, it may not be the best game of its genre, but America’s Army is a very solid, very challenging military simulation and worthy of attention from all who like the genre.
I was nervous that America’s Army was going to be a bit daunting with all of the requirements and restrictions – I mean, telling an FPS junkie that headshots are off limits is utter blasphemy. Thankfully, that was not entirely the case in the real game, and for all of the rules the game purported to require, there was still enough freedom to go out on your own a bit.
America’s Army: Rise of a Soldier may lack the polish and panache of Ubisoft’s other military shooters, but it does hit the marks where it counts – convincing gameplay. And while the enemy AI may have been pretty poor, and the game filled with irritating glitches and trigger points – I still had a lot more fun playing America’s Army than I did playing Lockdown.
If I were given the chance to make a few changes to better the game, I know exactly where I would begin: First, I would first drop all of the annoying (and often nebulous) Drill Sergeant crap. Second, I would add a dose of rumble feedback into the controls. Third, I would put in a real cooperative team vs. AI mission mode similar to the Rainbow Six and Ghost Recon games.