Genre: First-Person shooter
Developer: Secret Level
Release Date: November 15, 2005
America's Army began life as something of an Army recruitment tool. In fact, for quite some time, it's been a free download for the PC. It's the official game of the United States Army so it's supposed to present a realistic portrait of becoming a soldier. You get to start off in basic training, and by the time the game is over, you're a seasoned veteran who knows how things need to be done.
Ubisoft apparently decided that it was worthy of being turned into a full-fledged console game and have released a very faithful version – if a little dated – and smoothed over with nice Xbox Live multiplayer.
America's Army: Rise of a Soldier does go out of its way to prove it isn't just a generic first-person shooter. For instance, something so simple as reloading your gun is not done automatically as it is in just about every other single FPS on the planet. You actually have to hit a button to reload, and it's not super quick – it takes several seconds to secure a new clip in your gun. If you load a new magazine before finishing one off, the few rounds remaining are not added to a massive pool of bullets – they remain in an unfinished cartridge that is returned to after all of the full clips are used. Details like this really show that the game isn't pussyfooting around.
Your soldier also has quite a bit of trouble aiming, initially. Standing up and heaven forbid, moving around, make your aim so unsteady that you'd be seriously lucky to hit anywhere close to your target. Especially as a rookie, you really need to stop, kneel down – or better yet, lay down – and carefully line up a shot before pulling the trigger. And boy, if you're badly injured, things will be nearly impossible! The game does help you a little bit with a lockon. While it doesn't exactly line up your target, it does help you follow ones that are moving across a long distance.
America's Army incorporates a sort of RPG-esque stat system that helps you get better at things like aiming. As you go through missions, the game awards you with points for completing the mission and performing well in other areas. You can spend your accumulated points on all sorts of categories, like leadership, observation, and marksmanship – all in all, there are a dozen or so – and they all affect your character in some way. Towards the end of the game, your character feels much, much more confident and powerful than the one you start with.
Most of the missions are fairly straightforward, even including little marker areas to indicate where to go next. You start off in training, learning the ropes, and you move onward to basic missions and eventually more important ones. There really is not much of a storyline to the title, so in some way, it feels realistic in that you're just doing the job you're told to do wherever you're deployed to do it, whether or not you know why you're doing it.
Your teammate and enemy AI are decent, but not overly impressive. At times your comrades will screw up and let off cover too early or run across an area before you're ready to cover them. Other times, it seems like they're following the set path a little too closely. Still, if you follow them, you're likely to be able to cooperate at least decently. Enemy AI neither seems too clever or too dumb; they oftentimes seem like cannon fodder just waiting to be taken care of, rarely presenting a huge challenge. In closed, straightforward areas – like one sewer early in the game – dispatching your foes is nearly a joke, as they come around corners right in front of you, and the best strategy they can muster is the "crouch behind a box" maneuver we have seen in various games over the past decade.
One other 1995-styled element that bothered me was the fact that no one's mouth opens, ever. Sure, there are voices that come out, and a little speaker icon lights up above the head of the person who is talking. It's not such a big deal when you're in the heat of battle and your fellow soldiers are yelling at you while firing off rounds in the other direction, but when someone is looking at you right in the face and giving you orders, it's a little disconcerting – in a FPS in 2005 – for someone's mouth to be closed the entire time while sound is coming out. I wasn't hoping for anything on the level of Half-Life 2, but the least they could do is add a slight mouth opening texture change. It sounds petty, but it brings me out of an otherwise very immersive experience.
The graphics in America's Army are not terribly impressive otherwise, but they get the job done. Textures are a little on the pixelated side, and character models are rather pointy, but obvious attention to detail has gone to certain things like soldiers' posture and the way they hold their weapons. Despite not being able to open their lips, each soldier does look considerably different – enough to tell them apart at least, even though you'll mostly be going by their names and not their faces. Environments are not really great, but they look fine. Any special effects that may have been special a few years ago look kind of tired today. The title definitely looks a little on the dated side, but it's mostly quite bearable, and thankfully, the framerate is fairly smooth the entire time.
The sound, on the other hand, is well done. The voice acting is mostly quite convincing; some of the soldiers sound a little unprofessional, but they're few and far between. The sound of gunfire is realistic, as expected, but admittedly not that exciting. Background music during missions is less than notable, although the music in the menus is some more mainstream rap music; whether this is to get in touch with young people or what, I am not sure, but it feels a little out of place. It's not necessarily bad, it just seems a little odd. Overall, though, the sound quality of the game is quite good.
America's Army features Xbox Live support, which tries to carry the realism of the single-player game over to up-to-16-player games: if you die, you're dead. You have to wait until everyone else dies before the game resets. In a way, this is quite bothersome, as you're left with nothing to do but watch until everyone takes too many bullets, but it is, in fact, quite realistic. You will also end up playing along with players of different skill levels, just like the real world. It's not all perfectly balanced. Some will like this kind of thing, but others may be turned off by the anti-equal opportunity gaming – it really comes down to personal opinion. At the very least, it does make the online mode more intriguing than a generic deathmatch would be.
America's Army: Rise of a Soldier for the Xbox is a very solid game, and it's easy to see why it's the only game approved by the U.S. Army. You're fighting in realistic situations with a realistic soldier, and you gradually become better at your job. You go from being a nothing to a something, and you end up really feeling like a soldier. Despite the dated graphics and AI, the presentation is otherwise quite good, and to top it all off, the game is pretty enjoyable. It's definitely not a game for everyone, but for fans of more realistic shooters a la Tom Clancy, or people just generally interested in the Army, it's definitely one to check out.
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