Given the current world situation and my own destitute poverty, I decided to download the newest example of Our Tax Dollars At Work, America's Army. Apparently it is designed to entice that unique cross-section of really buff people and computer gamers (although a trip to any Gamestop could probably tell you these two categories are mutually exclusive) into joining the army. Nevertheless, the game is free to download, and flush from my victories on the Raven Shield multiplayer demo I felt I could easily handle the challenge.
America's Army is not for those who are lacking in courage or bandwidth. With a whopping 314 megabyte (compressed) file, I quickly realized that by the time I downloaded this on my 56k connection (through AOL no less), that my grandchildren would be too old for military duty. The solution, you may ask? Why, to lug my computer over to the friendly neighborhood LAN at my friend's apartment and download through his oh so speedy broadband connection of course. One game of Serious Sam and a few beers later, it was finished and we were ready to play. Now for those of you who have neither the time nor the patience to download such a large file, fear not. Americas Army can be bought on CD at your local software store, though the thought of paying money for a free game goes against everything I believe in (mainly, that I should get stuff and not have to pay for it). The first thing you must do is to set up an online account. Although I had no problems in this area, two of my friends never got their confirmation e-mail allowing them to play the game. After trying multiple times, they eventually gave up and played Raven Shield or downloaded porn or something.
Whats that soldier? I cant heeeeeeeeere you!
All my previous notions of the army were blown away when I started the game. In order to play online, you must first pass the games basic training. Now, based on my extensive knowledge of Army boot camp from both television shows and movies, I expected a lot of yelling by drill instructors, pushups, and unwanted wake up calls at 4 in the morning. Boy was I wrong! Instead, a mild mannered officer calmly explained that I would have to hit a certain number of targets to pass this portion of the training. Being the curious what if person I am, I promptly began shooting at the soldier in the observation tower as soon as I got my hands on a gun. Did the army discipline me at all? No. The drill instructor just blew his little whistle a couple of times, and I was back where I started. This time, he actually wished me luck on passing the test the second time! Although its easy to pass the marksmanship training (you only have to hit 23 out of 40 to pass), qualifying for expert marksman (necessary for sniper school) will take some doing. The M16 scope is almost no help at all, and your soldiers asthmatic breathing throws off your accuracy. Even when it looks like you've lined up your shot, it still depends on a certain amount of luck (ok, a lot of it depends on luck) for you to knock the target down. Unfortunately, there is no way to simply retest - you must redo the whole rifle marksmanship training every time. It doesn't take many retries before you want to walk out onto the range and beat the crap out of the nearest target (or person) you can find. The other three basic training exercises are rather easy, and designed to familiarize yourself with the basics of control. As an unexpected plus, the climbing controls are one of the best I've seen. It was simple to climb up and down things, and best of all I didn't stick to the ladder (like most FPS). Those of you without a dedicated Internet connection should know that once you pass a course, you must connect to the Armys server for the game to save your progress. However, even with AOL sucking up most of my bandwidth, it was still connected and transferred the results quickly.
Man down, man down!
Once I passed basic training, I fired up my first multiplayer game to deal death to the terrorist hoards. The first thing I noticed is how long the levels last (usually around 10 minutes per game), which might be fun for the players but makes getting into a game difficult. Once in, I found myself on the defensive team with a large machine gun. A perfect chance to try out my newfound skills, I thought. It didnt take long for the attackers to storm our position, but I was ready for them. Suddenly, I saw bullets flying down the corridor, so I took off around the corner to ambush (camp) my opponents. The terrorist rounded the corner, and I let loose a hail of gunfire. I emptied nearly half a clip into the guy. He turns around to face me (I swear I could see a sneer on his face), and shot me once in the head with a rifle. Then I got to watch for the rest of the round (which mercifully didnt take long) as the same terrorist strolls into the room I was guarding, ending the game. For you see, dear friends, the Army apparently decided to make this game as real as possible. And as we all know, realism means that no one can hit anything accurately, ever. So, instead of standing ten feet away from the terrorist and shooting, I should have dropped to the ground, carefully aimed up my shot, waited for the time to be right in the breathing cycle, and pulled the trigger -accounting for recoil for every shot, of course.
At this point I thought I might as well just give up and write a horrible review of the game out of pure spite, but then a little voice in the back of my head said maybe I just hadn't given the game a chance, and with more training I was sure to improve. This, of course, was the voice of Satan, but it was only later that I would realize this. So, seeing as how the only thing I was qualified to do was be a paratrooper, I headed over to airborne training. If this is any indication of the type of training that normal paratroopers go through, then God help us all. The instructor informs you that you should make sure you are facing 90 degrees from the direction you are moving and flare before hitting the ground and go into a PLF. Huh? You are loaded up, without any further explanation, onto a training tower 250 feet into the air. The second vital piece of information you receive is that you should flare your parachute not too early, and not too late. Ah, great. Well, about half way down I flare my chute and all goes well. Suddenly, I drop like a leaded anvil with a death wish into the ground. The game cheerfully informs me that I should return when I'm all healed up. So I do, again and again. I'm sure towards the end the ground was littered with little paratrooper shaped holes like in a Wiley Coyote cartoon. I'm sure my soldier would have chosen slit his little virtual wrists instead of facing the training tower again had I given him the option. Note to Army: trial and error is not an effective teaching method for parachuting. As a final note on this subject, yes I did eventually figure out how to parachute without maiming myself and got my airborne patch. I'm sure Ill make a great addition to the human bomb detachment of the 101st.
So what have I learned from my nearly two weeks in the Army? Essentially that I will never go into the service now as I would be the worst soldier in the entire world. If drafted, I would probably lag down the rest of my squad until I died, spilling my IP packets all over the battlefield. Realism is nice in a game, but not when it distracts from its primary purpose; to have fun. Paradoxically, because the game is so realistic (or what it claims as realism), most of the game boils down to whomever has the best connection, not necessarily the best skills. In a game where milliseconds count, there is simply no way for a person with a slower connection to win. For being free, Americas Army is a good game. The graphics are up to date, and the game can be fun if you are willing to invest the time and patience that are required. However, there are games with much easier learning curves (like Raven Shield) that give you a taste of realism instead of cramming it down your throat. You might want to download Americas Army just to try it, but I wouldnt go pay money to get it. If you don't have the connection to download it, you shouldnt be playing it anyway.