A Salute To Persistence
It seems that every time I wake up, yet another Army Men game has been released or announced. So when the latest release from 3DO arrives on our doormats, ripples of amusement are heard from the staff. As far as I can recall, there has never been an entertaining game featuring the little green guys. However, in an effort to remain professional in my writing, I'm going to throw all those preconceptions out the window and give Army Men: Operation Meltdown a fair shot. And yes, you have to attack the Tan Army. Again. A large percentage of the franchise is concentrated on the console gaming sector of the industry, but Operation Meltdown is a PC game. Now, my logic runs like this - PC's have many more buttons than a console, as well as a mouse, so the problems of dire control systems which plagued the other games shouldn't arise. After all, the PC has a long heritage of games based on war such as the classic Cannon Fodder and the genre defining Command & Conquer series which this game can draw inspiration from. With my new found optimism I launch myself headfirst into .. training mode. From previous experience, trying to play a game like this after just reading the manual is an extremely bad idea. The training mode gives you a chance to learn all the basic moves in the game while operating some weaponry, and most importantly to blow things into thousands of little pieces. While I enjoyed the inevitable destruction caused when you give several cases of high explosives to a player who spends ages trying to hit single infantry men with mortar shells because they make the biggest explosion (i.e me), the first few niggles with the game were soon brought to my attention. Firstly, the troops that you control have been endowed with all the IQ of a drunken Labrador. Sure, they will follow your directions fairly well, except that they will usually get to the point you want them to be by the longest route conceivable. If they aren't stuck walking into a wall or trying to get in position for a covert attack by walking right through an enemy stronghold, you can rest assured that they will start taking pot shots at the opposing army without your command, just when you thought that they hadn't spotted you yet...
Party Of Five
The effect of their "inventive warfare" can be lessened when you only have one or two soldiers under your command. This way you can babysit them quite effectively to ensure that they do what you want them to do, and consequently losses due to pure stupidity are reduced quite considerably. The real nightmare starts when you have four or more soldiers to take into war. Often you will find that the soldier with the vital pack of grenades has been left behind at the start of the map when he decided to take a strong interest in studying tree bark close-up instead of following everyone else. At least in these situations you don't have to start again, because whilst gathering up the stragglers the main team is wiped out by a handy battery of artillery over the next hill. This is because you can set up various modes of behaviour of the group which can contribute to their survival. For example, you could get them to chase oncoming attackers away from the weaker (or more important) members of the group, or tell them all to hit the ground and lie there when under attack so as to minimise health losses. The missions are usually based around either blowing up a piece of the Tan Army's equipment, or finding a stranded group of Green soldiers and helping them get out of the area alive. Although fun initially, doing the same thing over and over again really starts to grate, especially when you find yourself doing the same mission over and over again because of your soldiers' stubborn refusal to do anything without you having to watch over them every second of the game. One neat idea that the developers have incorporated into the game is the inclusion of Green soldiers which are not under your control. For example, on one sortie I found several Green soldiers lying on the ground behind a wall, being bombarded with all sorts of gunfire by a group of the Tan army. After they fell under my hail of bullets, the other Green soldiers got up and helped me out in my mission for a while, until they either got killed or wandered off. In fact, you will often see little mini-battles which are occurring outside of your control, but which you can choose to help in - this makes you feel like you are actually part of a war, rather than a one man suicide mission.
Everything Is Under Control!
Soldiers (or vehicles if you find them) are controlled using a reassuringly familiar and straightforward command system - you simply select the members of the group that you want to use, and then right click on the landscape to make them move to that spot. There is also the option to have them follow your pointer continuously without clicking, which makes a change from the usual "way-point" method used in most RTS games. For greater control over the individual characters in the game, you can also select a single warrior and then use the keyboard to manoeuvre around. This is quite a good idea, as it allows you to control your squad a lot more precisely and responsively than by using the mouse. The obvious downside is that only one soldier at a time can be controlled in this way, and strength in numbers is certainly the order of the day if you are to survive long in this game. In addition to just standing in the way of the oncoming hail of bullets which you always seem to encounter, you have several other options to make your characters look more athletic. With simple key-presses you can make your men roll in various directions, or throw themselves on the ground to take cover. For more accurate shooting you can also go down on one knee to steady your shot and cause more damage to your foe. This is all well and good when you are in the training missions, but when under heavy fire it is a lot more difficult to find the right button to perform the desired task. It certainly doesn't help that the keys are scattered all over the keyboard. One other niggle is the way that combat is actually undertaken. Against the grain of RTS games, you can't just click on an enemy unit to attack them. You have to keep re-aiming and re-clicking on each unit to keep an effective attack going. This system worked on Cannon Fodder because each enemy only needed about two shots to dispatch, but in Army Men the battles can be considerably longer because each soldier has more health.
Finely Rendered Plastic
As Operation Meltdown is a PC game, without the processing power and memory limitations of older consoles, you might expect some pretty spectacular graphics for you to do battle in. What you get is repetitive textures and objects which seem to appear with startling regularity. This actually serves to disorientate you at times - when I came across a building arrangement identical to one I had already seen earlier in the same level, I felt as if I had backtracked. Sadly the best of the game's graphics are to be found in the cut-scenes, with high quality pre-rendered scenes similar to those seen in the many Army Men outings on the Playstation. Unfortunately there are actually less cut-scenes in this PC game than in similar Playstation Army Men games! True to form, the music is very military orientated and quite suitable for the purpose, even if you don't take much notice of it. Also included is the (quite irritating) soldiers' voices spouting macho phrases every few seconds. At first they were quite amusing, but soon get rather dull, as anyone who has to listen to a friend quoting from "Full Metal Jacket" every few minutes will know all too well.
Yet again the Army Men franchise has failed to impress, with bland graphics, poor AI and repetitive mission objectives. Even though this happens every time a "new" Army Men game is released, for some reason people still buy them by the bucketful, prompting ever more rehashes. Please, stop! I tried to go into this review with an open mind, but once again 3DO have failed to produce a good game. For now then my opinion on the Army Men series remains unswayed - it's rubbish.