!" That's probably what the development team behind America's Army: Rise of a Soldier should have screamed before releasing this patchwork first-person shooter on the Xbox. America's Army: Rise of a Solider does a fine job re-creating a realistic Army experience by including real weapons, real squad tactics and roles, and even authentic military hazing of lowly privates. However, with too many graphic and gameplay glitches to count (insert Saving Private Ryan
reference here), this game has so many holes it looks like it sprung a leak.
You're In The Army Now
First off, kudos to the U.S. Army to bring some real innovation to what some believe is a stagnant FPS genre. From your first training missions, you immediately learn and use some real-life squad tactics, such as 360-degrees of security and bounding. As you probably guessed, when you move in a squad of four, each member is responsible for securing a certain area so there are eyes in every direction. Bounding is the process of covering part of your squad as it, say, crosses a street. After they cross, your squad mates will cover you as you "bound" across the street. You will use tactics like these throughout America's Army, and in the later levels if you wish to succeed, they will become a necessity. Maybe that's why this title is the "official" U.S. Army Game.
In the 35 single-player missions, you will take on different roles, such as sniper, rifleman, special forces, fire team leader and grenadier. This adds a lot of variety to the game as the sniper missions, in which you crawl undetected to eliminate enemy targets, are drastically different from the machine gunner missions, in which you unleash a barrage of suppressing fire while your team moves to eliminate the enemy. There are five missions for each of these respective roles and each role begins with a training or qualifying mission.
When you begin a career mode, you start as a crew-cut private, and you choose your home state, nickname and archetype, like sharpshooter or close battle expert. My super soldier was from California and nicknamed "Sunburn." Throughout the game, your commanders will most likely refer to you by your nickname, and even make some snide comments about your whereabouts. My personal favorite was, "I heard you're from SoCal. Where's your sunburn?" Again, this title stresses realism, and the degradation and hazing is very authentic as drill sergeants tell you that you are a horrible shot and a piece of dirt.
America's Army features a great RPG system of upgrading your character's skills. After each mission, you are rewarded with skill points to be spent on leadership, observation, marksmanship, stealth, honor, conditioning and lifesaving. Depending on how well you perform, measured by bronze, silver and gold stars, the more skill points you receive, which is a nice incentive to replay old levels. An even better feature is the inclusion of redistribution points. Let's say you are a machine gunner and have piled on the conditioning points so you don't get tired lugging around that giant gun. When you switch to a sniper role, you can move those conditioning points to stealth and marksmanship since you'll be crawling the entire time anyway.
In combat, it's hard to say if these skill points really have an effect. After moving up several levels in marksmanship, I still found it very difficult to aim my rifle and zero-in for headshots. But, at 200 yards away, I suppose it's pretty difficult to hit anything, and maybe this is another touch of realism. Compared to other titles in the genre, however, aiming is pretty tough.
The best way to improve your aim -- and not get shot, for that matter -- is to lie prone on your belly, just like real soldiers do. You will find America's Army an especially long and frustrating game if you simply sprint around shooting people. One, you won't hit anyone. Two, you'll get capped. Instead, your trusty drill sergeant has taught you to work with your team and to get in the prone position, which is fancy military talk for lying on your stomach. From there, you'll notice your aim improves dramatically as you use the ground for support. Some sniper rifles and machine guns have bipods that you can use to steady your gun and reduce recoil.
America's Army features a handy Combat Effectiveness Meter on the heads-up display. The CEM measures your "fighting efficiency," factoring in fatigue, health and your body position. If you've been sprinting for a while, you'll need to recover for a bit before you can effectively aim. If you're standing in the open instead of lying prone or behind cover, you'll be less effective. If you've been hit, you'll need to bandage yourself and stop the bleeding before you're wrapped in the flag for the trip home.
The health mechanic is a wonderful innovation for tactical FPSs. There aren't random first aid kits scattered across the battlefield as if the Red Cross just crashed a plane in the vicinity. Instead, you've been trained in basic first aid and are responsible for patching your own wounds. If you've been hit in battle, you will be wounded for the rest of the mission, period. There is no magical turkey leg on the ground that will heal you immediately. The best you can do is stop the bleeding and your performance will be affected the rest of the mission. In the game, this is shown with a rapid heart beat, erratic breathing and a limited field of vision (the periphery of the screen turns red, a la Call of Duty 2).
The health mechanic works very interestingly in the online mode via Xbox Live. If you "die," you are actually in critical condition and a willing teammate can come along to patch you up. I've witnessed some pretty heroic moments as friends have sprinted to the rescue of fallen comrades. Truthfully, however, they are usually gunned down by snipers. Still, I was moved.
Man Down! Man Down!
However, what America's Army does so well is sadly negated by the numerous graphical, animation, gameplay and AI glitches. The visuals in general are poor and are muddled by poor framerate. Textures are bland. Tree bark, upon closer inspection, is really a Picasso oil painting gone bad -- a collection of patchy, oily nothingness. Snowflakes and falling leaves are the size of softballs. Sure, there are a lot of graphically challenged shooters out there that play well, but sadly, there are too many aspects of America's Army gameplay where there are not only glitches, but the game is just downright broken.
Let's take the M203 grenade launcher, for instance. In the grenadier section of missions, you equip the launcher to take out large groups of enemies. You load, take aim, fire, wait for the explosion. You wait some more
.no explosion. What the? You try again. You even shoot at the ground in front of you and the grenade doesn't explode. You aim for a nearby tree. Nothing. Occasionally, when the grenade does explode around enemy soldiers, they aren't affected at all. Now, M203 grenades arm midflight and must travel 15-40 meters before they explode, but too many times we've shot these babies the length of a football field without so much as a peep.
So you ditch the grenade launcher and you switch to frag grenades. Whereas your grenades wouldn't explode before, frags go off like small nuclear bombs and you are often caught in the blast, even though you are like fifty feet away. Explosions are pretty tricky in general. In one mission as a machine gunner, you are assigned to shoot down some pickup trucks that are heading for your base on a suicide mission. The trucks are packed with explosives and when you take them out, they explode into giant fireballs. For some reason, however, the enemies running right next to the truck go right on running, oblivious to the fact that they should be smoldering corpses right about now. This really takes away from the realism of a title that strives to be so realistic in other aspects.
The AI is especially troublesome. For one, the enemy seems to fire mostly at you and not your squad. There was one instance where my character was lying down suppressing fire and a lone enemy soldier flanked our squad and started shooting me. I turned, and the enemy was standing a few feet away from one of my teammates. One, the enemy shot me instead of my teammate standing right next to him. Two, my teammate kept right on shooting at a hillside 100 yards away instead of addressing the possibility of imminent death two meters to his right. In a word: ridiculous. Your team will take out some enemies and sometimes the enemy will take out your team. But when you pop your head out and the enemy trains its crosshairs on you, it negates the realistic squad tactics of the game.
Also, when you are assigned to lay down suppressing fire, you would think that enemy soldiers would, in fact, feel suppressed. Instead of hiding or waiting for you to reload, they just lie in the middle of a field and keep shooting at you.
You'll see grievous mistakes like this throughout the game. On a sniper mission I was doing recon work on a tower. I watched through binoculars as an enemy soldier did a vertical moonwalk on a ladder. He kept going through the animation of climbing a ladder, but he wasn't moving anywhere. Again, this takes away from the realism of the title, and makes the gameplay laughable in places.
The sound is a bright spot. The voices are excellent. There are some hilarious spots of conversation that you will hear as you crawl around as a sniper. Guys whistle or sing random nonsense like, "Mmm, baby, yeah, baby!" Or they just talk smack about you. The character models, however, just sit there with blank looks on their faces when talking. There is not even an attempt at lip-moving animations. The song list is kind of a rock/rap combo, most likely included to appeal to the 17-year olds that will be ripe for recruitment in a few months. Still, I was tapping my feet.
Xbox Live is a mixed bag with America's Army. You choose either an attack or defense team and go about the objectives with up to 16 players. Again, playing as a team is very important to success here as these missions are far from typical deathmatches. This makes for a very fun, immersive online experience, more fun than even Call of Duty 2 at times. However, we've lost connection to our games more than 50% of the time. Sometimes America's Army works wonderfully. Other times, it doesn't work at all online.
©2005, IGN Entertainment, Inc. All Rights Reserved