by James Sterrett
Article Type: Review
Article Date: July 10, 2002
Product Name: America's Army
Category: First-person Shooter
Developer: United States Army
Publisher: United States Army
Release Date: Released
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Files & Links: Click Here
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The U.S. Army took some seven million dollars of the American taxpayerís money, the latest and greatest Unreal engine, GameSpy, HomeLANís servers Ė and unlimited access to the rest of the Army. What did they produce? Is the steam surrounding it from heat or decomposition? The answer, oddly enough, is ďbothĒ. Some aspects of Army Operations (AO), released as a free 203MB download on July 4th, are well worth your time. However, numerous aspects of the online implementation engage in improbable acts with barnyard animals.
On the plus side, AO does a credible job of being one of the more realistic tactical sims out there. Weapons are modeled with great care, down to accuracy bonuses for timing your firing to your breathing in the Sight mode (which itself confers accuracy bonuses). The weapons available are only the ones the Army usually uses: M-16s, M-16s with the M-203 grenade launcher, M-249 SAW machine guns, plus explosive, smoke, and flashbang grenades. Weapon recoil plays a major role, and if you want to fire the SAW with any accuracy, youíd best go prone and deploy the bipod. Explosive grenades have a realistic lethal radius, which will come as a surprise to those used to the watered down grenades usually seen in games. Flashbangs have the most deleterious effects yet seen in a game, whiting out your vision and leaving you completely deaf for some time save for a ringing in your ears. Some missions are also played as training missions with MILES gear.
|Reloading a SAW |
The Army also paid attention to ensuring that players will behave. In training, if you shoot at the wrong time, or in the wrong direction, itís back to the start of the training mission. Shoot your drill instructor, and the game will send you to a cell in Leavenworth. Shoot your teammates online, and you get penalized by negative scores. Do it often enough, and the Army says it will permanently ban you from its servers:
|Every incident of friendly fire will be recorded in your ROE score, including non-fatal shots and grenade damage. If you accumulate an ROE score of over 400 during a single match, you will be kicked off of the server and sent to Leavenworth Prison. Repeated ROE violations will result in your player account being temporarily or permanently banned.|
The 400-point limit is encoded as a preference in the server's files. A single bullet strike on a friendly will earn you about 50 points, and it seems to take three hits to kill (a step back from the one-shot kill realism found in most tactical simulations). However, your ROE score appears to be wiped clean at the end of every 7-round match, so a careful team-fragger may manage to get along for quite some time. Nonetheless, the system does seem to encourage people to avoid nailing their own team. Moreover, thereís some verbiage on the website that suggests the Army plans to become more strict on its own servers over time, including a provision as yet unenforced as far as I can tell:
|Players will be expected to work together as a team. Choosing not to follow commands with the rest of your team is done at your own peril; lone wolf Rambo wanna-be's may be removed from the server without warning.|
|Approaching the rear of the desert camp building |
In an interesting move, everybody in the game plays as the US Army and sees the other side as some enemy or OpFor force. Thus you carry M-16s, while the enemy carries AKs. You can take AKs off of dead bodies, but the player who had the weapon thought it was an M-16. The strangest side effect is that firing an M-203 grenade launcher appears not to leave a trail back to your position: but the enemy sees it as an RPG round with a very definite smoke trail. After you fire the grenade launcher, move!
The engine is the very latest Unreal technology, Unreal Warfare, and if you have the system to run it, it looks quite nice. However, you need some serious muscle to do so. If you donít have a fairly modern 32MB graphics card supporting hardware transform and lighting, go home. In plainer terms, you need a 32MB GeForce2 or better. Thatís the minimum requirement! The recommended requirements call for a 1.4 Mhz processor and a 64MB GeForce3. Attempts to run the game on the older machine in the house, a P3-500 with a 32MB TNT2, were a miserable failure, resulting in sub-slideshow performance even on simple training maps.
|Night Vision Goggles help you see but restrict your field of view |
All the tech and setup is pointless if the game doesnít play well. Fortunately, it does: the game ďfeelsĒ right, and the various elements come together well to create a thoroughly engaging experience. AOís mission structure borrowed heavily from Counter-Strike, creating two teams with opposed objectives to complete in a short time limit. Each run of the game is a round, and rounds are played in matches of 7, the winning side being the one that wins at least 5 out of 7. Rounds tend to play reasonably fast, with a ten minute cap, and the game structure usually rewards teamwork with victory and a fragmented effort with confusion and death. Getting the teamwork correct is also rewarding in its own right. Whether youíre sneaking about in buildings or sand dunes, moving up some axis or approach or trying to guard it, the game is fun. While not necessarily better than Operation Flashpoint or Ghost Recon, it does have that elusive ďcome play me again!Ē allure to it. Army Operations is engaging enough to make it difficult to remember to take screenshots for this review. Itís even a reasonable amount of fun to watch the firefights as a spectator after you die.
|Place a tag on the pole to claim the site |
All this would be a lot more meaningful if it were possible to play online without going through incredible hassle. Apparently, the Army didnít realize that a game based on the very latest FPS engine and released for free on a day when a nation of millions of gamers would be off work might possibly be more than slightly popular. Just before the gameís release, they were getting 750,000 hits per second on their website, and this was a portent of things to come. The download servers were completely overwhelmed by several hundred thousand downloads in the first 36 hours, while the online account authentication servers were concurrently hammered by over 500,000 gamers trying to set up accounts.
But wait! It gets better. AO requires you to play through four offline training missions, and then play a fifth online training mission (McKenna MOUT Training), before you can play any other missions. The Army apparently didnít realize that McMOUT was a chokepoint through which hundreds of thousands of gamers would try to pass. Therefore, the number of servers initially allocated to run that mission was sufficient to accommodate the demand from someplace such as Antarctica. The Army scrambled to provide more servers running McMOUT (110 by Tuesday July 9th), but even now the number of such servers seems inadequate. As a side issue with McMOUT, itís hard for newbies to tell the two teams apart, leading to blue-on-blue losses. [The trick: your side wears camo and the other side wears solid green.]
|Street Fighters in the night, Exchanging glances... |
Making these problems worse was GameSpy Arcade. In theory, hitching AO to GameSpy was a good idea: get known, tested, third-party game-hookup software to deal with patching players into game servers. The problem? Gamespy Arcade is quite unstable and generally ineffective at getting players into AO games. Use it to get the IP address of some low-ping servers [right-click on the entry, select ďCopy IPĒ and paste it into Notepad for reference], and then use the console in AO to connect. Moreover, servers fill up with insane rapidity, and Gamespy opens AO too slowly to actually get you into a server thatís listed as having nobody present. Even using the console, it may take you quite some time to connect to a game. [Open the console with the tilde ~ key, then type ďopen 111.222.333.444:7777Ē. Replace the IP address (before the colon) with the server IP, but retain the :7777 port. Note that Control-Up Arrow brings up a command history so you can easily re-try a server address.]
Alleviating some of the strain on the Army, some clever rabbit quickly sussed out how to set up private servers. Unfortunately, passing McMOUT on a private server doesnít count with the Armyís servers, so that bottleneck remains. To add a minor insult to these injuries, the overwhelmed account servers donít always register the fact that you passed McMOUT! (Fortunately, McMOUT is a fun mission. When you get to play it.) There are also some oddities in the online gameplay. Perhaps itís the gamer, perhaps itís the hammering the servers are getting, perhaps GameSpy should be in a different corner of the barnyard; but a server that GameSpy gives a ping of 50 will yield an in-game ping of over 200-300, with spikes that go well higher. As a result, lag can be a real problem on occasion, especially in the buildings and tunnel on the Insurgent Camp mission.
|Halelujah! I made it into the server! |
Another irritation is that the text messages get sent to all players. Thereís a team chat interface, but itís a terribly clumsy menu interface. Why not make the chat button default to sending only to your own team? As it is, players often donít use the chat for fear of revealing their plans to the enemy, which works directly against the teamwork the Army want players to use.
All these failures are the more frustrating because the game is actually worth playing. Hopefully, the Army will get its bandwidth troubles sorted out, and install the promised in-game server browser to escape Gamespy. At that point, thereís no good reason not to get the game. But how does it stack up against its competition? AO is fun, but its mission structure doesnít capture the feeling of being in an infantry unit nearly as well as Operation Flashpoint. Flashpoint also has larger maps and viewing distances, plus it runs well on older systems and doesnít suffer from the server woes. Of course, Flashpoint also costs some $30, while Army Operations is free. However, if you already have Flashpoint, you may want to wait on Army Operations until its problems are sorted out.
Note that much of the game has not yet been released. Even if you qualify for Sniper School or Airborne School on the rifle range, you canít actually go yet, because it hasnít been released, and neither have the two sniper rifles. Same goes for Ranger Training. Hopefully the Army will have learned its lessons, and will be ready for a rush on the relevant missions when they come out! The Sniper School missions are slated to appear on July 25th, more servers keep appearing, and support for community servers. including patching them into the official registration network, may apear as early as July 11th. If nothing else, the Army is working hard to try to fix the problems.
CPU: Athlon XP 1900 (1666MHz)
RAM: 256MB RAM
Video: 64MB GeForce3
Modem: Broadband connection
- Full Game Download [203 MB]
- Patch 1.0.1B [2.1 MB]
The patch allows you to set up and execute your own dedicated America's Army server. See the README for details.
- Readme for Patch 1.0.1b [4 KB]
- Commo Pack Mod
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