America's Army: Operations Review
At best, it can be an unusually intense game that in many ways rivals or surpasses the top commercial tactical shooters.
America's Army: Operations may very well be one of the most ironic games ever. More than a few American politicians have bolstered their careers by condemning violence in popular entertainment, particularly in video games. Now the US government, by way of the Army, has produced a computer game that's all about realistic, deadly combat. While this odd turn of events raises interesting ethical and political issues, many gamers probably just want to know one thing about this online shooter: Is it any good? The game was launched in a more limited form on July 4 of this year, but the launch was plagued by embarrassing problems, including bugs and too few official servers. Fortunately, the Army now seems to have gotten its act more or less together with this game. Now there are more servers, and America's Army is generally more stable, which means you can more easily enjoy this exciting tactical shooter.
Right off the bat, America's Army has one thing going for it that retail games don't: It's free, assuming you don't count the purported millions of US tax dollars spent on the game's development. The only thing America's Army is likely to cost you is a fair amount of time as you download over 200MB of game files, though the game is also available on CDs that can be picked up at US Army recruiting offices all over the country.
America's Army aims to educate you about the US Army and its career opportunities and values. As such, if you want to enjoy all that the game has to offer, you're going to have to do things the Army way. You won't be able to simply install the game and head online to start blasting people. First, you need to log in to create a game account that tracks your progress and lets you access the official servers. Then, you'll need to pass at least four offline basic training missions: rifle marksmanship, an obstacle course, US weapons training, and training for MOUT (military operations in urban terrain). After these missions, you can optionally progress through advanced training for snipers or airborne troops, for example, which will in turn open up new online missions and gear.
These offline training missions might sound like a chore that gets in the way of the real fun online. Actually, they can be moderately entertaining and challenging in their own right, and they teach you a little about Army history and procedures in the process. They certainly help draw you into the atmosphere of the game by putting you in meticulously re-created sections of the infantry school at Fort Benning, Georgia. There you'll find no-nonsense drill instructors, fellow recruits on the firing range, and tall pine forests as far as the eye can see.
The obstacle course training mission is really just a way to instruct you on the use of the game's movement controls, which are generally similar to those of most shooters. The other training missions are more interesting since they focus on the game's weapons. For instance, the marksmanship lesson actually requires a surprising amount of skill, thanks to the game's unusually realistic weapons and ballistics modeling. You'll really need to aim carefully and quickly to hit as many targets as possible. How well you do determines whether or not you can qualify for sniper training later, but don't worry if you don't score well the first time--you can retake the test as many times as you like. Unfortunately, while these offline training missions teach you the basics of movement and firing in the game, they teach you nothing about successful tactics.
For that, you'll need on-the-job training in online matches, which you can join using an integrated server browser. While there are many more official Army servers than in the past, you'll find that the network code still has a major, albeit intermittent, problem--namely, the way the game can refuse to properly connect to open servers.
Assuming you can connect, you'll engage in battles between the US Army and OpFor, a generic opposing force. No matter which side you choose, you and your teammates always look like US soldiers, while the enemy always wears ski masks or other garb that marks them as terrorists. The number of maps is currently limited, though the Army plans to keep releasing free content for the game, and the maps you get are tactically and visually interesting. You'll fight on a huge snow-covered bridge littered with the burning wrecks of cars, raid a camp in the middle of a night-shrouded forest, and battle in an Alaskan pipeline pump station, among others.
The actual gameplay is based on the proven (and aging) Counter-Strike model, in which both teams have opposing goals--usually assaulting or defending an area--that they try to complete during short rounds typically lasting somewhere around five minutes. If you die during a round, you're forced to sit out and watch the action as an invisible spectator until a new round begins. This can be boring when you'd rather be fighting, but it can be still be fun to watch other players at work without the stress of having to avoid enemy fire yourself. Yet whatever its weaknesses, this round-based combat with only one player spawn per round is surely the best design for this type of game. Death should be something you avoid on the battlefield, after all. With infinite respawns, it would be too easy to take things casually and use unrealistic tactics.