Designed, developed, and distributed directly by the United States Army, this game offers an insider's perspective on the real-life adventures of an American soldier. America's Army is broken into two modes of play, which follow the daily life of an American soldier and the fast-paced field action of trained operatives in do-or-die missions.
The Soldiers mode is a 2D role-playing game in which the player guides his character through an Army career by setting personal values, resources, and goals. By choosing the right motivations, the player steers his character toward success. Begin as any other recruit, in basic training, then move to through Airborne and Sniper School on the way to becoming an Army Ranger. The Soldiers portion of America's Army is designed to demonstrate the challenge, pleasure, and honor of life as a soldier.
The Operations mode of play is more action-oriented, as players take the first-person roles of skilled soldiers in the field to accomplish a variety of missions. Challenges are squad-based and the team must work together for success. The player character's particular role on the squad is determined by such factors as his leadership ability and MOS (Military Occupational Specialty). Operations is designed to deliver the excitement of a contemporary 3D shooter with the authenticity of the world's most powerful army.
America's Army is a tactical first-person simulation of none other than the United States Army, from boot camp and full-blown tactical combat, to Army policy and procedure, medical training, and even the military brig if you violate RoE (Rules of Engagement). Version 1.0 was released in 2002 and well-received, but suffered from multiplayer stability issues. Version 2.0, subtitled Special Forces, adds new maps, new rules, updated graphics, and a significantly more stable multiplayer experience. In short, 2.0 takes a fairly good game and revs it into a great one.
As in the first release, after installing and creating an account, you must complete a series of localized basic training missions that simultaneously teach you elementary game controls as well as textbook military principles. This includes assault rifle target practice (shoot controls), the obligatory obstacle course (movement controls), special U.S. weapons (learn how to "cook" a grenade), and a quick scoot through a building where you shoot "dummy" targets while avoiding civilians.
After basic, which must be completed before you can continue, you may optionally pursue more advanced training, from airborne school (jump from a 250 ft tower, then a C-17 Globemaster III cargo plane), to medic training (attend lectures, pass a written exam, and perform field triage), to advanced marksmanship (master bipod and scope based rifles). In all cases, the focus is on realism, real physics, real ballistics, real fire rates, and real bark-happy drill instructors.
The instructional sections are interesting enough, and act as a basic primer to Army fundamentals, but the heart of America's Army is its deployment mode, which drops your sorry green butt into full-scale combat operations minus training wheels. Here, teams of dozens pit themselves against each other across an assortment of maps ranging from bridge assaults to HQ raids to stealthy extraction missions generally running on ten-minute timers. It is here that America's Army dishes up a real-time first-person experience unlike anything else on the market.
The level of detail is on par in terms of realism with something like the Combat Mission series, meaning that everything from movement/speed, weapon range and accuracy, reload rates (for that matter, reload choreography), and jams are all modeled with the emphasis on "the way it actually works" as opposed to fantasy physics and comic book gameplay. There's even a full array of hand signals ("ready," "negative," "stop," "double-time," "look this way," etc.) if you want to simulate silent visual communication tactics. Think of America's Army as a virtual simulation of real-world combat that demands serious engagement and considerable practice to master. Put another way, you get shot once, you go down, as in "munch dirt, sucker."
Teams are composed of different classes, ranging from sergeants and captains to Special Forces, riflemen, marksmen, medics, and grenadiers. Games are laid out in rounds (most victories out of x-number wins) and you can switch sides (assault, defend) or change your soldier class periodically. At the start of each match, you pick a class (first come, first serve), the selection of which determines your primary weapon and inventory load (frag grenades, smoke grenades, etc.). Marksmen have access to sharpshooter weapons like the M24 SWS or the M82A1M, riflemen use the standard M16A2 rifle, grenadiers wield the deadly M203, and automatic riflemen rain hell on the battlefield with the M249 SAW, which holds 200 rounds a clip. In addition to projectile weapons, accessories like night goggles, binoculars, frag, smoke, stun, and incendiary grenades, and a slew of weapons modifications ranging from bipods and suppressors to gunsights and scopes opens a world of possibilities to the discriminating tactician.
With the stakes this high, approaching an engagement is as much a stealth psyche-out as a team effort. After playing literally hundreds of online games, the most immediately obvious common sense theme is that gung-ho "heroes" wreck battles. Conventional FPS tactics don't apply here, and some may discover that the inability to take hundreds of bullets in the kisser or glide over health or shield "power-ups" to be unbearable. Deal with it or step aside, because America's Army rewards mental discipline and tactical excellence, not BFG-happy lunatics. Learning how to deploy your riflemen to cover blind spots, position sharpshooters in arch windows, keep in touch by reporting your position as you exceed visual range, and go prone at just the right angle over the lip of an incline makes 100% of the difference between survival or being fragged out.
As you might expect, the controls are notably more complex than your average first-person shooter, and it's telling that the game includes a key-map printout that recalls the sort of layout you'd be more likely to find in a flight simulator. In addition to the standard WASD stuff, you can do things like "fix jam," "swap hands," "call medic," "use binoculars," "set squad position," "shoulder weapon," "report position," and many more.
New to the second edition of America's Army are things like the Special Forces Escape and Evade course, where you're tasked with dropping out of a Blackhawk helicopter and running through a training course while evading the enemy. It's no Splinter Cell, but it's tough enough. Other new additions include the ability to play as indigenous forces, the highly customizable SOPMOD M4 Carbine, SPR rifle, M9 pistol, and the absolutely darling (deadly, that is) rocket-lobbing RPG. There are also four new maps, including the Special Forces: Hospital escort mission (protect the V.I.P.), and the very cool Special Forces: CSAR map, where your task is to either defend or assault the pilot of a downed Blackhawk and his helicopter. Over time, you accumulate honor points, which in turn contribute to your ability to play the Special Forces classes and providing access to new equipment.
Second time's a visual charm, too, and this advanced version of the Unreal engine is delectable. On a medium rig, it's not a stretch to say you'll see high framerates with the resolution and detail cranked to "ultra high." Soldier details are dramatically improved, and faces, which looked blocky and horrid in 1.0, have a smooth detailed look that's competitive with current mainstream technology. Like other Unreal derivative games, the polygon count tends to be lower, but is helped by the exceptionally detailed textures. The sound effects (there's no music) are as good as anything you'll find elsewhere, but the sound physics are exceptional. There's nothing like hearing the visceral crunch of your opponent's footsteps in the snow as he tries to creep past your unspotted hiding nook, or the sound of an incoming rocket as you attempt, frantically, to hit the dirt.
In case you're wondering, it's worth noting that though America's Army more than likely was funded contingent upon some sort of business justification involving recruiting numbers, there is absolutely no overt attempt in or out of the game to pitch you toward a recruiter or push you into enlistment. The Army won't even proactively contact you unless you contact them first; at this point, the game seems to be more of a marketing tool than one used for recruitment. You may have your own opinions on this, but there's little argument that America's Army has provided a lot more entertainment (and education, probably) than yet another series of Army commercials.
To play America's Army is like slipping into a fascinating experiment. As players come and go, you're witness to riveting displays of heroism and cowardice, brilliant tactical bluffs, and awesomely awful blunders. Remember back in the mid-nineties when the Army was goofing around with the DOOM engine for tactical combat simulation? As they say, you've come a long way, kid. Here's an exciting and cutting-edge multiplayer game for the thinking crowd, and all it costs, bizarrely enough, is the time it takes to play it.
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