The US Army's approach with its free game America's Army has never been conventional, and the project will evolve significantly over the next year. Building on the success of the Unreal engine-powered game, the Army has continued to develop a series of upgrades that will be rolled out in stages over the next year. The next update, called Downrange, is coming in the next couple of weeks and will be followed by Q Course late this summer. Further ahead, the Army will adapt features created to train soldiers and release a major update called Special Forces: Overmatch.
Downrange will mark the first time weapon-equipped vehicles make an appearance in the game. The Stryker vehicle discussed at last year's E3 wasn't added to the game as quickly as planned, but will now appear as in some maps, paired with the Russian BTR-80 for those seeing it from the opposing perspective. We saw an assault map where several Strykers were set up so Special Forces-qualified defenders could get in them and protect an objective with its .50-caliber gun, while the assaulting team took on the corresponding BTR-80s with another addition, the shoulder-fired AT-4 antitank rocket. The rocket has been balanced to require two hits to take out the vehicles, and since the AT-4 is single-use and disposable, it'll take teamwork to neutralize them.
As for technical improvements, Downrange will add brilliant sun flares to daytime maps. Not only will this make maps look nicer, but it may be possible to use the flare effect to your advantage, as enemies looking into the sun may not see players in the distance. Two maps will come in the update initially, with two more to come before Q Course's release, but sun flares have been added in to the existing maps as well.
Q Course expands the game's signature qualification system to include training options that can unlock additional gameplay elements. While the exact courses aren't set yet, one of the plans is a language course that would allow you to hear and understand nearby opposing forces and get an indication on the map. Another option will be a Special Forces weapons course to unlock new weapons and items--such as a door-breaching charge and a PDM charge that acts as a quickly deployed mine to deter pursuers--while another course will give you a bonus rather than a penalty when picking up the weapons of opposing forces.
Part of the team's current efforts are going into merging the Unreal Tournament 2004 code into the game, which provides technical enhancements that will allow for dynamic rain and snow effects as well as other visual improvements. The door breacher highlights other new features, such as destructible meshes so metal doors buckle and wooden doors shred to splinters. Certain objectives and map properties change each time the map is reset, so it won't be useful or even possible to breach the same door every time. All in all, the update will include a few training courses, plus several multiplayer maps.
Much of the demonstration we saw was for features not specific to the America's Army game, but they will make it in by the time Special Forces: Overmatch is ready next year. Specifics on Overmatch were sparse, but the concept is that it will more closely replicate how actual engagements are unbalanced, with unequal weapons and numbers. While the training version--to be put to use this year--isn't required to be fun or balanced, the game will get around the issue of multiplayer balance by making the missions cooperative, with players acting as US forces against an AI-controlled opposing force. One of the training versions' scenarios using this system will replicate a well-documented battle in Northern Iraq last year, where a Special Forces unit only 12 men strong was surprised by and successfully took on a full Iraqi armored column. The key to the scenario is the very new, very pricey Javelin portable missile system, which is modeled in great detail.
In addition to the game development team in Monterey, California, and the training development team in North Carolina (which includes a few former Red Storm developers), the overall America's Army project now has a third team specifically working on modeling weapons that are in development. This team's goal is partly to simulate the weapons' effectiveness and partly to create the sort of high-fidelity simulations that can be then be used to train soldiers. In addition to the Javelin, we also saw the XM25--the evolution of the OICW and replacement to the M205 under-barrel grenade launcher that features a built-in laser-range finder. Also in the works is the Talon bomb-exploding robot currently deployed in Afghanistan and the beefier M1025A Humvee.
Look for the upgrades to America's Army Special Forces in the coming weeks and months.