Army Men: Sarge’s War
Way back in 1998, a company named 3DO created a strategy game where players took command of plastic soldiers. Simply called Army Men, it didn’t revolutionise the genre, but it had charm and used it. 3DO took full advantage and over the next four years, released sequel after sequel on every platform they could get their hands on. Somewhere along the line, their priorities got all mixed up and profit began to come before the quality of the games. Gradually the series lost credibility until it became a farce, and this ultimately contributed to the company’s downfall in 2002. Quite a tale, and one that we can all learn from.
Time went by and people forgot about poor old Army Men games, lost forever in bargain bins and one dollar eBay auctions. Take 2 acquired the rights to the series, but kept it quiet until a spring day earlier this year, when they released details of Army Men: Sarge’s War, a game that 3DO were working on just before they went out of business. They had the opportunity to give the series a new life, to redeem its standing in the videogames community, and more importantly to them, to make a lot of money.
The whole concept of a game about plastic toy soldiers is a brilliant one. Developers can create interesting and original game environments and can cut down on graphical detail to increase performance because toy soldiers are inherently simple in their design. Violence can be used more liberally because it’s clear to both censors and users that the scenario isn’t real, or as 3DO’s Army Men put it, it’s about “Real Combat. Plastic Men”. A variety of genres can use the same idea, from shooters to RTS and RPG. The sheer range of possibilities is huge and the potential that any game that embraces this theme should be immense. What a shame then, that Take 2 threw it all away and have created a game that’s just as bad as the same offerings that brought 3DO down.
Sarge’s War follows the same story line as the previous games, with the Green and Tan armies battling for control. On the verge of a peace agreement between the two sides, rogue elements from the Tan Army acquire a weapon of mass destruction - nice and topical then - which could destroy the Green nation for ever. Like Rambo pumped full of spinach, it’s Sarge’s job to single-handedly save the world from evil Lord Malice who is masterminding the operation. With the far-fetched plot in place, it’s time to witness the action at ground level.
Viewed from a third person perspective, Sarge’s War gives you control of our one-man-army, with the Xbox’s thumbsticks controlling movement and the camera, with the face buttons and triggers looking after other basic actions. This is where the game’s problems start and do not end though, with a confusing use of the gamepad’s sticks. The left one manages movement like GTA does, controlling almost all aspects of it, while the right stick directs the camera. This setup ignores the ability to strafe which is vital in any shooting game and proves to be far too clumsy. It’s counter-intuitive and makes accurate movement impossible.
The left trigger activates a lock-on mode which should, in theory, provide you with a simple way to target enemies and dispatch them. The reality is quite the opposite though, because although it does allow you to strafe, it lacks any intelligence or thought. The system will target enemies who aren’t even in view and won’t allow you to cycle through targets to dispatch them effectively. It also doesn’t choose the most obvious and threatening enemies, leaving you vulnerable to incoming fire more than once. This, combined with the jerky controls and movement, makes fighting a real nightmare.
I’ll excuse Sarge’s War for having the same old weapons that we’ve seen time and time again because they’re an integral part of the concept, but you certainly can’t let the game off for its shoddy A.I. The Tan Army blunders forwards in droves, just waiting to be taken down, showing no teamwork or regard for their own plastic lives. Cover isn’t used effectively and you wonder if they’re actually aware of the fact that they outnumber and outgun you. No emotion is shown on their behalf and the occasional Green soldiers that feature are simply cannon fodder who do little to help you.
Sarge’s War doesn’t feel well designed or thought out, lacking features and ignoring some aspects carelessly. Given the proximity of Sarge and his enemies, you’d think that a melee attack would be included, but it is evidently not, leading to a strange close range duel when you get near the Tans. Finding your way around also becomes problematic sometimes, with no direction indicators or maps present, leaving you to blunder around helplessly. Multiplayer is included for up to three players offline, while Xbox Live Aware is present to keep you informed of friends online. If they managed to have these two features, why couldn’t they link them up to create online play? Their logic defies me.
The graphics are just about acceptable by Xbox standards, with bland textures, limited animations and no distinct visual style. The actual levels don’t fit the plastic soldier concept well enough either, in that the scale of the world around you isn’t represented. You should feel like an ant in a huge alien world, not as if everything is built around you to suit your size. The frame rate remains solid and pop-up is absent, but the general lack of anything special puts a damper on the presentation as a whole. The cut scenes are in stark contrast though, with detailed facial animations and plenty of fancy pre-rendered effects. It’s a shame that the in-game graphics couldn’t be at least somewhere between the two. Sarge’s War’s audio is mediocre as well, with lacklustre sound effects which are repeated too often and a musical score which doesn’t feel quite at home.
What the game lacks most though, is ambition. There’s no attempt here to take a risk and try something new, which may have turned the whole series around. Give the concept of plastic men to any half decent developer and they could make quite a game, one that might just do the idea justice. Imagine, for instance, a first person shooter where you might fight through a neighbourhood, taking your squad from house to house and room to room to eliminate the enemy. It could draw you into the action and make you feel compelled to continue the fight. Back in reality, all we have is the feeble excuse that is Sarge’s War, a poorly designed and executed list of clichés. If they couldn’t be bothered to make the effort and create a decent game from the plastic soldier concept, why should we be bothered to play it?
Four out of ten