The 3DO Company's Army Men series has been evolving since its debut on the PC in 1998. Console incarnations of the series have offered a variety of gameplay styles. While every attempt at something new hasn't always worked, the variations have at least kept things interesting. The latest evolution in the series is Army Men RTS, a real-time strategy game developed by Pandemic Studios, which is known for such games as Dark Reign 2 and Battlezone II. We put an alpha build of the game through its paces and found it to offer a decidedly different Army Men experience that actually works pretty well.
The game's story is a tongue-in-cheek interpretation of Apocalypse Now, featuring the faux war-movie tone of the Army Men games. Nicely done CG sequences and in-game cutscenes will tell the epic tale that has lead character Sarge heading out in search of a respected officer, Colonel Blitz, who's gone rogue. Instead of chasing the colonel into a dark jungle, you'll be assaulting a pleasant two-story house that's right out of a '50s sitcom, complete with a white picket fence. The game will follow your assault, which begins on the front lawn and goes through the house and up into the attic.
In Army Men RTS, you'll find four modes to choose from: boot camp, campaign, great battles, and special operations. Boot camp is a tutorial that covers the basics you'll need to get into the game, which are camera movement, building a base, and combat. Campaign is the game's main mission mode, which features 15 missions for you to go through to catch the renegade colonel. Great battles offers eight missions, which are unlocked by earning gold medals in the campaign mode. Special operations is a series of eight missions you'll unlock by earning gold medals in campaign. In addition to the gameplay modes, you'll find an intelligence files option that will let you examine all the various models used in the game, from soldiers to structures.
If you've played a real-time strategy game, then you'll know what to expect from Army Men RTS. Featuring a standard game layout and a solid amount of functionality, Army Men RTS is shaping up to offer some solid gameplay. The game is structured like a standard RTS; you'll be given mission objectives at the start of each level and then find yourself on the field of battle. To succeed, you'll have to manage your resources: plastic, gathered from objects such as Frisbees and water pistols strewn throughout the levels; and electricity, mined from batteries also strewn about the field of battle. As in any RTS, you'll be able to build structures, such as a headquarters, resource depot, barracks and garage, and units, including grunts and grenadiers, as the game progresses and your resources hold out. Exploring the map will lift the "fog of war" and let you see more of the area around you.
Control in Army Men RTS is a bit different from the standard setup found in most console RTS games and makes good use of the PS2 controller. The left analog stick moves your onscreen cursor and scrolls the screen in any direction, and the analog stick, when pushed in, triggers the R3 button to let you scroll much faster. The circle button provides a unique way to select your units. Moving the cursor over a unit and pressing the circle button once lets you select a specific unit. Multiple presses create concentric circles of increasing size that let you take control of any unit inside them. Finally, holding the circle button down over a unit for one second automatically selects all units of that type. The square button lets you add or remove units from those that you're currently controlling. The X button moves your selected units to any point your cursor is and causes them to attack when your cursor is over an enemy unit or structure. The triangle button moves you back to a previously selected group instantly. The L1 trigger immediately moves you to the last "event" in the game, like the last place you were attacked or the area where a newly created unit has lined up after exiting the barracks. The R1 trigger calls up the construction menu when held down. You'll navigate through it with the D-pad--pushing up and down toggles between different buildings and left or right cycles through their construction options. The R2 trigger lets you adjust the camera's height when held down and used in conjunction with the left analog stick, and tapping R2 resets the camera position. Finally, the L2 trigger tags buildings to be recycled for extra plastic in an emergency. While it all sounds a bit complicated, the setup works surprisingly well. Selecting units with the circle button takes a bit of getting used to but is more successful than any attempts to simulate a mouse "drag and select" setup on a console controller.
Graphically, the game is coming along, although our alpha build had a few rough spots that were being worked on. Given that the game is set in the human-sized "their world" seen in the Army Men games, the environments you'll find yourself in are suitably oversized. Texture work is quite good and manages to get some impressively clean textures. The scale of objects in the game is well done, and the locales offer a good amount of variety as the levels become more inventive further into the game. Unit models in the game look a bit flatter at the moment, as they lack the "plast-o-sheen" layer seen in previous Army Men games. The frame rate takes some hits when the onscreen action heats up, and the more often the units were engaged in combat the choppier the action got. For the most part, the game ran at roughly 30 frames per second, which was smooth enough.
So far, Army Men RTS is slowly shaping up to be a unique entry in the Army Men series. While RTSes don't usually lend themselves to consoles for obvious reasons, Pandemic seems to be doing an admirable job of tailoring the game to the PS2. The gameplay was solid in our early build of the game, and while the visuals aren't quite up to the same level yet, there's still some time for Pandemic to smooth out the rough edges. Look for Army Men RTS on the PlayStation 2 in March.