America's Army left E3 with many supporters and the recent bonanza, including a sizeable international interest in the game, is a testament that a free FPS is always welcome by the gaming community. But the people behind America's Army surely are aiming for much higher than the enthusiast crowd. Using an engine modified on Unreal, the title aims for the lowest common denominator. Its optimal performance machine is one that employs the Geforce2 MX.|
The resulting FPS game is a little unique. It certainly plays out differently, having you embark on a test section of boot camp so you can learn the basic rudiments of firing a weapon or traversing obstacles. Only after you have completed a training section on a certain topic, can you progress to embark in real missions, played out on various multiplayer servers hosted on the net. This doubles as a simple tutorial but it also ensures that the promotional vehicle churns away, letting you take a virtual look at what life in the army is all about.
Accreditations and ranks are gained by logging in a profile with America's Army central servers on the net. If you finish the marksmanship course with a higher rating, you not only get bragging rights but also a chance to get into things like sniper schools to unlock better weapons. It's all thinly disguised as a training game but in actuality, the developers merely took some of the best loved console options, like the concept of unlocking, and placed them in their FPS title.
In the ideal world, this would all be great, creating a near-persistent universe for would-be soldiers. Unfortunately, America's Army suffers from some potent flaws. Its current version is named Recon. In the gaming industry, we'd name that Test as in Q3 Test, Quake Test or UT 2003 Test because Recon is supposed to be a pre-release test of sorts. The real missions are still forthcoming in downloadable patches and it is not till the end of August that a finalized version will be distributed at recruiting centers and everywhere in the public on CD. Currently, you'll only be able to try a small sample of what's to come.
America's Army is clearly still in need of some work. While the training missions are great, the real meat of the game is played out online similar to Counterstrike. Before that happens, some training missions need to be played out online, as part of a team. You might have seen these on television where groups of friendly soldiers will practice against one another. This is exactly what you have to do once you've finished basic training. However, the trouble comes in the authorization server not registering your victory or completion. Furthermore, while America's Army has set up with a few gaming sites to offer a good number of training servers, they're almost always full. On the other hand, if they're empty, they're not really of particular use either and that's if (a big if at the time of writing for this article) you can even successfully connect to any server. This frustration is exaggerated because of the rigid ladder you must climb: if you have no training, you don't get to play that particular portion. America's Army has a simplified website (because of extensive downloads) that can only offer encouragement for players to keep trying until they unlock the maps. Because your profile is stored online, there's no way to really unlock them yourselves.
If only you could set up your own servers on a LAN or online, then all would be well. However, that's not an option right now since the server programs are being worked on and only those who are partners with America's Army are running servers at the moment. Even if you do get on a server, there's the hard part of co-operating. Tactical FPSes and team-based games like Tribes or Counterstrike are notorious, ironically, for inept teamplay. A veteran group of players will easily decimate a band of strangers, particularly if the strangers are all just looking out for themselves. The Battle of Carthage scene playing out in the Colosseum in the recent film Gladiator should be a vivid reminder. With FPSes, it's even worse. If there's one person hiding at the end of a massacre, other players simply have to wait slowly till the game ends; not exactly the best recipe for an entertaining title. America's Army suffers from a lot of these common faults.
America's Army also suffers from some basic user interface faults. You can use the keyboard to manipulate the menus but curiously when you quit (I had lost my mouse at that time), the yes or no dialog box requires a mouse. While you can change resolutions just like any Unreal engine title, I couldn't apply my resolution change if I accidentally backed out from the advanced options menu. Some of these rough edges could have been easily fixed with more testing.
There is, however, potential for America's Army, much more than merely being a government-sponsored title. It has free access to unique game material. The sounds of the weapons are as good as any professional tactical FPS out there. The animation of reloading weapons and fixing jams are realistically portrayed. During play, you're awarded bonuses for firing while prone, something found in commercial titles, but you're also awarded small bonuses for firing against the timing of your breathing. That's a tidbit of realism that remains to be seen from Codemasters, Red Storm Entertainment or NovaLogic (ironically, various wings of the U.S. military have approached all three for training simulations). And since we haven't seen the implementation of heavy weapons and vehicles, there's still a lot about real life combat we've yet to see as PC gamers. Lastly, I finally found a title that features hand signals (the last title I can think of that had it was EA's Seal Team) and careful organization of squad leader, fireteam leader hierarchies.
Incidentally, when I logged into GameSpy, the first channel I picked was full of German speaking players so America's Army has an appeal that extends far beyond domestic American gamers. To execute complex hierarchical teamplay will demand absolute co-operation amongst players. Not everyone can be the leader. Technically, America's Army has provisions to prevent that from happening. As America's Army ramps up, there will be more and more people not used to team-based titles. Will they ruin the delicately placed rules and restrictions of America's Army? I'm not sure. The best corollary I can find is the launch of WWII Online. America's Army, in its persistent profiles, is similar to that game. Unfortunately, WWII Online's early woes scared off a lot of people, permanently. If the developers don't shape up now and restore confidence that this game, America's Army, will only get better and better, I'm afraid it will undergo a significant backlash in the weeks ahead. Because as it stands now, its vision is definitely in the right place but its execution is lacking.
Finally, no assessment of America's Army can go without considering it as a promotional vehicle. You'll definitely feel like this game is advertiser-sponsored with its references to army recruitment and history of the army. It brings me feelings that I felt watching the various professionally done short films sponsored by BMW. The U.S. Army, like BMW, is always there in the background with an agenda. As a piece of art though, it can still be appreciated. And America's Army also makes for some good entertainment. If you can get over that, and some blatant advertising by Nvidia, you'll find the resulting game is enjoyable, provided you get the chance to play it fully online. If anything, it's an interesting take on games. Maybe sponsored games with product placements will ultimately be the way of the future.
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