It's no great secret that we aren't exactly the world's biggest Army Men fans. It seems that 3DO can't go more than a month without releasing at least one half-baked game starring their little green plastic soldiers, and every platform from the GameBoy to the PlayStation 2 has been infested by the diminutive demons over the last few years. The latest entry in the franchise is the imaginatively titled Army Men RTS which, as you might have guessed, is a real-time strategy game...
Working On Your Tan
Things get off to a promising start with a gorgeous pre-rendered intro movie that borrows heavily from Apocalypse Now. It seems that a Colonel has suffered a "massive disfiguring head injury" and "gone tan". Naturally it's up to you and your men to make your way through enemy lines and terminate his command. With extreme prejudice. This being an Army Men game though, everything is done on a smaller scale. As such you will fight your way through flowerbeds, infiltrate a kitchen and battle it out on a vast model railway layout. Traditional resources such as ore and gold are replaced by plastic and electricity, recycled by your dumper trucks from watches, discarded toys and the melted remains of your enemies. These vital supplies are fed into what looks suspiciously like a giant food blender and can then be used to construct new soldiers, vehicles and buildings. There's a fair variety of units on offer, ranging from grunts and snipers to tanks and helicopters, not to mention the ever-amusing flamethrower. The effectiveness of these units against soft, armoured and airborne targets varies though, and you will need a balanced army to get the most out of your toy soldiers. Meanwhile sentry towers, anti-aircraft guns, pillboxes and barbed wire fences can be assembled to help defend your base, and medic jeeps constructed to scurry around fixing your soldiers and buildings as they take damage.
Leading The Blind
All of this is rendered in real-time 3D courtesy of the talented Pandemic, who must be developing Army Men games as penance for all the unsold copies of Battlezone 2 littering store shelves around the world. The graphics are sharp and colourful with nicely detailed (if monotone) units, decent weapon effects and believable surroundings. Sadly though this eye candy comes at the cost of view distance. Hopefully things will improve by the time the game ships, but at the moment anything more than a few meters away from you is shrouded in fog. This means that you could be looking right at the wall of the house but it will appear to be clear blue sky until you move the camera close enough for the timber cladding to emerge from the polygon-concealing murk. As a result scenery and objects have a worrying tendency to fade in and out of view as you move the camera around, which can be rather disconcerting. Speaking of the camera, it would be nice if you could rotate your view of the world to see behind obstacles. Currently all you can do is tilt from a low down close-up view of the action all the way up to an overhead Command & Conquer style vantage point, which is fine in most situations but can leave you struggling to click on a unit hidden behind a building or piece of scenery. The pathfinding AI also requires some work still, with units frequently getting stuck on each other and freezing up as they try to work out how to disentangle themselves. With any luck these teething problems will be sorted out over the next few months though, so the real question is, can Pandemic actually deliver an Army Men game which is fun to play? Underneath the novel settings and gaudy units this is a distinctly traditional real-time strategy game which isn't going to break any moulds or win any prizes for innovation. It's an entertaining diversion which scores highly on novelty factor, but we're not entirely convinced that it will appeal to hardcore strategy fans, while the amusing in-jokes and frequent movie references are likely to go flying over the heads of Army Men's core demographic of children who don't know any better and the mentally feeble. If nothing else though, it should turn out to be the best Army Men game yet. How's that for damning by faint praise?