When America's Army was first released for the PC as a clever means of boosting military recruitment numbers, there were two key factors working in its favor: It was both free and surprisingly fun to play. Now that the series has arrived on the Xbox 360 in the form of True Soldiers, its original appeal has taken a huge hit. Not only does it sport the same retail asking price you'll find on every other premium current-generation first-person shooter, but it's also attempted a more realistic feel, which has resulted in a clunky and monotonous overall experience.
You can jump right into the online multiplayer, which is by far the game's biggest strength, but given that this is an official Army game, it seems more natural to begin with Basic Training. With a colorful array of drill sergeants guiding you along the way, you'll start out in target practice on a firing range with a variety of genuine Army weaponry, and gradually move your way up to a full-blown obstacle course. It's in that transition where you really see the game's strengths and weaknesses. The guns feel and sound very authentic, and you can choose from a good variety of them. Furthermore, through the use of customizable classes and skill-building honor points, you feel a distinct connection to your firearms that you don't find in many shooters. But once you get moving, things turn ugly.
"Awkwardly plodding" would be a nice way to describe how your soldier moves. It's bearable when you're charging through an open field, but when you work yourself into a space with any sort of obstacles nearby, this jerky movement makes it feel as if you're trying to parallel park a big, yellow school bus. The item menu doesn't make things feel any more fluid. Say that you're in a firefight and you want to toss a grenade. You'll need to pull up the radial equipment menu, point the cursor to the frag grenade--be careful not to select the handgun right next to it, as we accidentally did several times--and wait for the status bar to load up before you can throw one. After that, you do the opposite to switch back to your gun. It's a needlessly laborious process that further hampers the game's already-tedious pace.
When you finish up with Basic Training, the next logical step is Wargames. This would be the equivalent of a campaign mode in most games, but here it's really just an extension of Basic Training because the majority of it is staged with no story to speak of. You're guided from one checkpoint to another by the same boisterous sergeants found in training. At each stop there's a swarm of enemies you'll need to take out, but these "enemies" are actually fellow soldiers dressed in militia garb, and you're not "taking them out" as much as you are shooting them with paintballs until they sit on the ground with arms crossed to signal defeat. What's more, these simulated dustups are few and far between, given that most of the time you're basically being taken for a leisurely nature walk by your commanding officer as he yells to stay close despite your presence literally two feet away.
Technical issues go far beyond mystifying squad orders. While playing through the Wargames missions, there were several times when we witnessed a member of our squad engaged in a bizarrely protracted firefight, with each participant crouched on the ground and pointing a gun directly at the other with no more than four or five feet separating them. Whether this is an issue with the hit recognition, artificial intelligence, or both, these moments really undermine the sense of realism that the game tries so hard to build.
Bland textures and downright ugly character models further dilute the game's realism. The graphics aren't bad to the point of distraction, but they certainly don't help matters any. Thankfully, the sound design actually does help matters--at least a little. The audio in True Soldiers has some very nice touches throughout, including realistic gunfire, well-placed musical flourishes, and elements such as heavy panting when your character tires, or the sound of kneepads sliding on hard dirt when you switch in midsprint from standing to crouching.
If you're able to deal with the faults found in the core gameplay, the deep multiplayer goes a long way to help the game. Whether online or offline, competitive or cooperative, there's a huge array of customization options available for you to tinker with. You'll find the usual selection of modes, such as team deathmatch and territory capturing, as well as other options such as 16 player co-op, where you can essentially create levels on the fly by choosing the number and difficulty of enemies your team needs to defeat to achieve victory. The levels tend to be pretty massive, too, which offers a lot of strategic options but also exposes just how terrible the movement really is (especially when you keep respawning in the same spot in your base when the action is clear across the level).
In the end, True Soldiers' problems would be a lot more forgivable if the designers had stuck with the series' budget-friendly roots. Ironically, the price has gone up while the quality has gone nowhere but down. Exactly how far down that is depends on how much you can appreciate a slow-paced shooter with more than a few nagging issues. But considering that you're paying good money for the Army to advertise to you, those faults are especially hard to swallow.