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Monday 25 April 2005

HOOAH! [Spiny]

Probably like most of us here I’d tried America’s Army (AA) when it was first released, gone “eurgh!” & moved onto something else quick sharp double time. Half a page in PC Gamer piqued my interest enough to look what the current version was like so I thought I’d better blog, as you do:

V2.3 of AA weighs in at a not inconsiderable 780Mb lump from, and as you might guess has moved on considerably from the 200Mb version 1.0 that we all tried & dishonourably discharged. The first questions I’ve been asked have been of the “don’t you have to do all sorts of boring tests” variety. True, you can’t just install & play but you’ll easily be on line half an hour from clicking the install button. The ‘tests’ in question aren’t particularly onerous & would be no trouble for any of the electric brethren who regularly worship at the church of the Mac 10. There is a quick start PDF available from the AA site, but here’s a brief rundown on what you need to get perforating bad guys:

  1. Create an account on The ‘why’ becomes clear later* & is not just some ubi-a-like attempt to track game usage. Although I guess that does happen.
  2. Do the marksmanship ‘course’. It’s just a session on a firing range where you have to score 23 out of 40 rounds. Easy peasy. (5mins)
  3. Do the assault course. W-A-S-D-in-between-the-white-posts. (couple of mins)
  4. Do the ‘weapons familiarisation’ course (couple of mins). If you’ve ever had dark fantasies about starring in one of those ‘chix’n’gunz’ videos then you’ll love this. Blast off with an M249 and learn to ‘cook off’ grenades, so you can throw them after the fuse has burnt down a bit.
  5. Complete ‘tactical training’: Buzz down some corridors shooting the bad guy cardboard cut-outs whilst sparing the civvies. Good for those ‘kill the cast of Neighbours’ moments.

Then you’re away. Well, then you’re dead. Even FPS vets & Raven Shield supremos will find their chased cam ghostly eyes staring at their team mate’s buts more than usual. Tactics and teamwork count for much more in AA than even those popular favourites above. You’ll find yourself covering doorways while your buddies navigate corridors (and vice versa, without even being asked) as a routine matter of self preservation. This is perhaps AAs greatest strength, it’s literally perform as a team or die horribly, as well as loosing badly. There’s no room for CS kill count whores here. Perhaps because of this & the patience required to do the training, servers seem to be free of ADD whining kids called M45ta|-|k!11A or the like.

Another possible reason is the honour system. It’s basically like ‘XP’ for the lads still swanning around in tights & worrying about things like how many slots their bag has. Although there’s no set of skills to constantly ‘level up’ it’s a pretty good influencing factor on how you approach the game, at least initially. You get more points for doing good things like achieving objectives & killing bad guys. You loose points by contravening the Rules of Engement - killing civilians & damaging team members. TKing is also punished severely with a 140 docked off your score. That’s about 4 rounds of points from achieved objectives in real money. This is important at least initially, because there’s a server settings for min & max honour, letting you find servers free from the purveyors of fucktardery du jour or alternately not dropping you in at the deep end.

Another reason you will want at least 15 points of honour is to play as a Special Forces operative. As well as the experience, you’ll also need to have completed some more training:


  • Perform a parachute jump from a tower
  • Perform a parachute jump from a plane landing inside a target.

Special Forces

  • Pass a vehicle/ weapons ID multi choice test. (Beej pron alert)
  • Do an escape & evasion level. (A Sam Fisheresque Midnight sneak past guards)

Otherwise you only get to play as Indigenous Forces on the handful of SF maps. SF soldiers get to play with more hardware & change their standard weapon layout with more mods.

Something else off limits at the start are the sniper rifles. To qualify for the sniper rifle training, you have to pass the firing range test with at least 36/40 hits. It’s a real bugger to do too, mostly due to the first half of the test. When unloading your fist 20 round magazine from your M16A2, you’ll be in the ‘fighting position’. Standing to you & me. The second half is from prone so much easier. To consistently hit the targets (some at 300m) using your iron sights takes plenty of practice, so here’s a few pointers:

  1. Stand as far forward in the firing pit as you can. As I’m frequently telling the missus, every inch counts :)
  2. Be patient & wait till your character isn’t inhaling or exhaling, so the sights are as steady as possible.
  3. Don’t have more than one shot at any one target. A miss is a miss, you only have 40 rounds for 40 targets so get over it & use the time to compose yourself.
  4. Aiming around the right shoulder of the further targets seems to result in more hits. I’ve heard tell that the firing range models a (constant) windage & bullet drop but not seen this officially confirmed.

Once you’ve passed this, using the sniper rifles to bag a couple of targets in the sniper test is easier than trying to sell pies to the EED collective.

If you’re a real honour whore or just like being popular, you can play as a medic after taking the right tests. You get a nice honour boost for patching up your buddies. I haven’t had the patience to sit through the slideshow & test for that yet (I see enough PowerPoint at work).

PS: The maps are pretty big, needing at least 4v4, preferably 6v6 &up. Wouldn't make a great LAN game I reckon. (RS was bad enough after a few beers at AmLAN)
So, that’s the game, where to the w00t!s & sux0rs! Get dished out? Well, like I said before, this is a game which rewards tactics over l33t madskillz. Most of the time, when you die, you’re not kicking yourself because of someone’s ping or superhuman aim with a railgun. More often than not, you’re cursing because you didn’t think about your game strategy enough or anticipate your opponent’s move. On the rare occasions that your damaged or TKd you can take heart from the pounding that the dumass’s ROE score has taken. You’ll need to learn the maps. Not just the layouts but the danger spots, safer areas & choke points. By & large the maps are huge compared to a typical CS map. Raven Shield players will fell more at home, but only on the urban maps, so this is where I suggest you lot start. “Urban Assault” is a particularly good map for racking up the honour.

A lot of the more open maps play much more like Ghost Recon than CS/RS. Without spending some time on them & using the terrain effectively, most of your rounds will end without a shot fired after hearing a zzzziiiiip sound as an enemy bullet enters your brain case. So, you’ll need patience & lots of wits about you if you’re not going to be going near the uninstall button within a couple of days. If you can shrug that off as the Yin for the Yang of having less spoons on the server then you’ll be OK.

There’s no vehicles, so if you love your Battlefield then you may have to wait for a later version. The devs have been bigging-up Epic & what they’re providing for Unreal engine 3, so I guess a v3.0 next year ish is a dead cert. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they made that the time to add wings & wheels. Insertion by Blackhawk anyone?... I’d expect VOIP to make the feature list pretty soon, even though there’s a more than comprehensive comms system built in already. Your usual hobsons choice of one radio menu receives a boost. Messages can be relayed by Hand signals (silent), whispers (sexy), shouts (domineering), radio (techno techno) or squad radio (more commands for the ever busy squad leader).

Performance is pretty good, I’ve got no problems running at around 50fps with anti aliasing & anisotropic filtering on at 1280x1204. Graphics are not quite cutting edge but still very nice to look at. A big shout out goes to whoever did the player models. Some of the levels are a bit heavily fogged for my tatse, but I expect this is a play balancing issue, rather than a vain attempt to gain a few frames per second. Sound is really well done. Probably the best in game weapon sound effects I’ve heard.

Stability is good but not perfect. I’ve had a couple of crashes dump me out. Both related to weapon mods if I recall correctly. The good news is the good ‘ole unreal engine can dump a bug report straight back to the devs. It looks like they fix em too from the changelog.

Some people have complained about the amount of chest-puffing going on in some of the training maps & game info screens. Get real though, what nation isn’t proud of it’s forces? It’s that pride that’s been turned into the interactive marketing tool that is this free (at least to non US taxpayers) game. Some of it’s interesting, some of it’s unintentionally funny, some of it made me glaze over, but it didn’t really get in the way for me. You can only play as US Army, the opposition always appears as terrorist types. I guess this will only bother you if you have a preference for eastern bloc weaponry or really-really like a full beard down to your waist.

I’d love to compare AA to Operation Flashpoint but that gem passed me by. I may be tempted to pick that up, must only be around a fiver now.

So in summary you will like this if:

  • You’re bored of CS, but not shooters
  • You have patience.
  • You can see further than a kill count.
  • You want a big challenge.
  • You like RS.
  • This is your homepage.
  • Seeing the scoreboard is a chance to plot the demise of your nemesis.

You’ll hate it if
  • You normally carry a BFG
  • You still think CS is ‘hip’
  • Headshotting players across a map with a DE feels right.
  • Rifle is something that you do though your bag, trying to find your 14 point onion of lightning.
  • Your screen is covered in spittle every time you see a scoreboard.
  • Your name is John Rambo or John McLean.

Should keep my war lust going till BF2, now I just have to resist buying themug :)

Edit: Grabbed some dead person chasecam footage here.


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