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America's Army flounders

July 4th release makes Vietnam look like a cakewalk

Today's release of the US military's free Unreal-engined online shooter America's Army turned out to be something of a farce, with problems at every step of the way. To start things off, most of the download sites offering the file were swamped for much of the day, and the game's own official website collapsed under the load at one point, despite the hosts switching over to a text-only placeholder site lacking all but the most basic information. Even when you have installed the game you won't be able to go online with it. First you must complete a set of tedious training missions. These don't actually teach you any useful skills (apart from the fact that your rifle can barely hit the broadside of a barn while you're standing up), and the scripting is about as inflexible as real life army training. Stepping out of line, firing without permission or failing a test can send you back to the start of that mission. Shooting your instructor is liable to land you in a world of hurts. Complete the four basic training missions and you may be somewhat nonplussed, as clicking on the next training task simply dumps you back to the game's main menu. It might have helped if the designers had included a message at this point letting you know that this next training mission is in fact online, a fact which only becomes apparent when you read the manual. And let's face it, how many people do that these days? Things soon go from bad to worse though, as the Army apparently haven't seen fit to release the server code for the game. As a result only around a dozen servers are online at any one time, and they're all hosted by the same company out in the wilds of California somewhere. The game doesn't even have an in-game server browser yet, so the only way to complete your training is to fire up GameSpy Arcade and pray that one of the handful of servers is currently running the appropriate map and that (by some miracle) it isn't full or busy rebooting after a crash. As if all of this wasn't unhelpful enough, the game doesn't even bother to tell you what you need to do to graduate from the online training missions, and nobody else playing the game seemed to have a clue what they were doing there. When you do get into one of the scarce servers, the meaning of the ominous words "network traffic has not been optimized" in the "known bugs" file that comes with the game soon becomes clear. Players have pings of upwards of 150ms at the best of times, and modem play from Europe is likely to be a wasted effort. The rest of the game could have used a little polish as well, as the primitive looking smoke grenade effects quite happily billow their way through solid walls, and clipping of player models is rather lax as well, with guns often sticking through solid objects. The whole thing feels a little rushed, although the graphics are certainly quite impressive, with wide open spaces, dense woodland and ruined buildings aplenty. The actual gameplay is fairly entertaining as well, with Counter-Strike style gameplay and missions ranging from capturing control points and freeing prisoners to recovering computer data. Sadly telling the difference between friend and foe is often difficult, especially in the laser tag missions where your opponents wear a plain green shirt that looks much like your own team's camouflage gear from a distance. As a result, the amount of friendly fire I've seen in the game so far puts the real US Army to shame. One player (who will remain anonymous to save them from further embarrassment) had somehow racked up -6 frags by the end of the second round. The mind boggles. Overall then, America's Army is something of a mixed bag. User friendliness was evidently not high on the developer's agenda - the game can be more confusing than enjoyable at times, and some sections (such as weapon selection) just don't seem to work properly at all. By not releasing the server code, the Army have completely scuppered the launch, and the result is little short of a fiasco. Partly thanks to these shortcomings, most of the people playing it have no real idea of what they're doing, and the GameSpy Arcade chat room is currently full of frustrated players swearing and shouting at each other. When you do find your feet and actually manage to get into a server running a mission you're qualified for (and there's no way of telling which these are short of trying to connect to them) the game is amusing enough. But it's certainly not going to be a Counter-Strike killer unless a lot of work is done to make it more open, easier to play and not quite so .. well, realistic. If I wanted to waste my time running around assault courses, target shooting and playing laser tag, I would have joined the army. As it is, this game makes me glad I'm a civilian. If this was meant to be a recruiting tool, it's failed miserably. Update - Since this story was first written some people have apparently worked out how to host their own servers. Several unofficial servers have now appeared, including one run by Jolt here in the UK, which should give playable pings for European gamers. Hopefully more will come online in the coming days, as the existing ones still remain hopelessly overcrowded at present. Related Feature - You're in the Army now