SAN FRANCISCO--The 2009 Game Developers Conference event is underway in sunny, windy, on-the-verge-of-rainy San Francisco, and even though the focus of the event is all the exciting panels and discussions, there are also plenty of new games on display, like America's Army 3, the Unreal engine-powered refresh of the US Army's free-to-play first-person shooter/recruiting tool. We had an opportunity to take a look at the re-envisioned game's new features and dive into an instant-action mission, and although we didn't walk away with a strangely unexplainable desire to go enlist, we do have an easily-explainable desire to talk about some of the new stuff that AA3 will have to play with.
Like the previous versions of the game, America's Army 3 will put you in the virtual combat boots of a new Army recruit, who must collect badges by completing various training exercises, which will unlock various equipment items (weapons, first aid kits, and so on) for your soldier to use, as well a vocational specialty, known in the services as an MOS (military occupation specialty). Among other things, America's Army 3 will incorporate a lot of feedback from the player community of the last version of America's Army (known as "2.x"), including easier downloading, installation, and interface options. America's Army 3 will be available through Valve Software's Steam service, so it should be easier to get ahold of, and your installation of the game will auto-update when you log in. And now, instead of having to memorize a bunch of different keyboard shortcuts to perform in-game stuff like readying certainl types of equipment, the new version will have an in-game radial menu that you can pull up at any time to jump to shortcut actions. In addition, accounts are being expanded so that you can have more than one soldier per account, so you can separately develop an eagle-eyed marksman and a highly specialized combat medic on the same account, if you wish. Sadly, because America's Army 3 is being presented as basically being a new game powered by new technology, any existing progress you have for any soldier characters from previous versions of the game will not be carried over. Veteran players will have a medal that appears in their account for having been a longtime supporter, but in the new game, all players will start off with a fresh-faced private who just arrived at boot camp. And this time around, the game will be set in wartime against a fictitious foreign power.
The actual game content itself has been refreshed by popular demand to be much richer in terms of player statistics.Your character's list of attributes will be greatly expanded, as will all statistics pertaining to your character's MOS and field performance. You won't just have a marksmanship tally, you'll have a marksmanship tally broken down by weapon and by body part that will show, at a glance, which weapons you're best at, what enemy body parts you tend to score the most hits on, and on what part of your body you tend to take the most fire. You'll also be able to take on a brand-new secondary MOS to further specialize your character, such as combat medic or UAV specialist (which provides extra recon info to your team), and earn some of the game's brand-new achievements--special distinctions you can earn for completing certain requirements. In addition, you can earn multiplayer achievements more than once. Beyond that, you can also further customize your soldier's weapon loadout with attachable modifications (such as various scopes and add-ons for your rifles), as well as the type and number of ammo cartridges and grenades (there will be four types of grenades--incendiary, frag, smoke, and flashbangs) your soldier will carry. America's Army 3 will have an encumbrance system that models how the weight of all your equipment; if you get greedy and hit the field with as many grenades and clips as you can get your hands on, you'll actually move more slowly and expend more endurance (which appears as a depleting white meter at the very bottom of the screen) while sprinting.
Among other things, America's Army will feature enhanced tech that's a generation ahead of the previous version's look and feel. The Unreal-powered game will have more-realistic character models that are actually equipped with the items you carry into battle (if you took four grenades, you'll have four grenade pouches on your character, and if you use one, you'll pull it from its pouch, and it will no longer appear on your character model). The game's audio was recorded with the help of the US Army, which brought the development team to an actual firing range to model the sound of gunfire and explosives as heard from a variety of distances, as well as what they all sound like with a helmet on, as well as modelling the echoes of gunfire and the whine of bullet ricochets. The game is actually using Illuminate Labs' "Beast" lighting engine to add enhanced lighting effects that more-realistically model differing levels of light and shadow indoors and outdoors, as well as a visual realistic transition as you go out from in (or in from out) that models the brief, real-life instant that it takes for your eyes to adjust themselves from the changing light levels as you clamber out of a foxhole into a sunny forest, for instance. It'll also have an enhanced physics system that accurately models weapon ballistics and the impact-dampening effects of bullet penetration (such as through the flimsy wooden walls of a shack), as well as the concussive "overpressure" effect caused by using grenades indoors or at close range. A frag grenade that goes off in an enclosed area will do enhanced damage to any nearby soldiers, but the collateral overpressure damage will be procedurally mitigated by any open windows or doors in the room.
In terms of gameplay, America's Army 3 is planned to launch with three different mission types and five different environments (the "pipeline" and "bridge" environments from the previous versions will be coming back, and be joined by new environments, such as "ranch") for a potential total of 15 different map/mission combinations that will auto-limit themselves in size depending on whether you choose a smaller-scale mission with fewer players, or a larger mission with as many as 26 players in the same match. Even though there will be an "instant action" mode that lets you jump into the game without completing a single training exercise or unlocking a single badge or piece of advanced equipment, the heart and soul of the game will be multiplayer matches with experienced players who have unlocked specialized MOS roles, weapons, and other equipment for themselves.
Prior to each online match, designated squad leader players will work together with the leader of each four-man fireteam to go over early-mission strategy, including at which spawn point on the map each fireteam will begin and each fireteam's initial move orders. It pays to stay close and stay down in America's Army 3 (we found this out the hard way after we impatiently left cover to try clomping across the bridge in a bridge map level, only to be taken down by a sniper shot moments later). Lone-wolfing it will be a bad idea not only because you'll do better with backup, but also because every soldier in America's Army 3 will possess basic CLS (combat lifesaving) training that will let any soldier revive any fallen comrade from the new "incapacitated" state once per match. Staying behind cover will be important for obvious reasons, and thankfully, you'll still be able to crouch and go prone, both from a standing position as well as from a full-on running using the new "combat slide" ability (which takes you from a sprint to a slide to a full crouch) and the new "combat dive" ability (which takes you from a sprint into a prone position), and while both crouching and lying prone, you'll be able to lean (and while lying prone, you'll be able to roll).
America's Army 3 looks like it'll offer lots of interesting new content for anyone who ever wondered what it would be like to pick up a US Army soldier's gun. It's scheduled to launch later this year.