America's Army Updated Impressions - The Q Course

The Army's successful gaming project is getting a major update in May, and this one is focused on gamers.

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America's Army, the US Army's official first-person shooter, will mark its third anniversary in July. But prior to that, the game, developed as a recruiting tool given to prospective recruits and available for free on the Internet, will receive a significant update in the form of the Q Course, which is what Philip Bossant, the project's lead art director, bills as a "gamer upgrade." We got the details at the Game Developers Conference on what to expect in this upcoming update, as well as what future plans are in store for the Army's game project.

In Army jargon, the Q Course is the name for the Special Forces Qualification Course, the test that all applicants must pass in order to qualify for the Army's elite units. In America's Army, the Q Course will be a package of five big new maps, as well as a host of new gameplay enhancements that will attempt to mix up the gameplay. One of the goals of the new levels is to get away from the current Middle Eastern theme of most America's Army levels. As such, the new maps will feature a mix of urban, rural, industrial, and mountainous terrain. The Q Course will also introduce two new weapons. The first is the bunker-defeating munition, a powerful, one-shot rocket launcher capable of punching holes in walls. This will be especially useful, as the new maps will feature destructible objects, such as walls and doors. This means that you can actually blow open your own entranceways into guarded compounds. The second new weapon is actually a door breacher, a small explosive charge useful in blasting open locked doors. It's important because the new levels will feature randomly locking doors. That means that every time you start a match, doors that were previously locked may be unlocked, and vice versa. This sense of unpredictability will play a big role in the update.

According to Bossant, the Q Course will enhance the replayability of America's Army, thanks to random events. One of the problems inherent in the current version of America's Army, as well as other online first-person shooters, is that since each match starts with essentially the same parameters, it's possible for the gameplay to boil down to patterns, because players already know from experience where the other team starts and what direction they will come from. The new maps in the Q Course will support features such as random spawn locations, so teams will start in different positions; random objectives, so that the goal and location in each mission will change; random extraction points, so players won't know where to go until they locate and seize an objective, such as a hard drive with special information on it; and random non-player characters, which is another term for civilians. In addition to having random events on these new levels, the team is looking to see whether it can retrofit existing levels with random events to change the way they play.

Civilians are especially important in the Q Course, because the presence of innocents on the battlefield will have a huge effect on the way the game is played. In current versions of America's Army, since players know that there are only combatants on the battlefield, they tend to act aggressively. Ironically, they're a bit too aggressive for the Army's tastes. For example, while players of America's Army may lob grenades indiscriminately in the hopes of killing an opponent, in real life, US soldiers operate under rules of engagement that require them to identify their targets before engaging them. This means that they can't randomly toss grenades, because the chances of hitting a civilian are too high. So the Q Course will introduce civilians to America's Army, and shooting or wounding a civilian, even accidentally, will be treated like a case of friendly fire. If the incident is minor, such as the civilian was wounded by a stray grenade fragment, then your score will be penalized. But if you purposely harm or kill a civilian, you'll be kicked out of the game and sent to a virtual cell in Leavenworth, just like you would for shooting a friendly. This should slow down the game and make players behave more like real soldiers and less like Rambo.

Civilians will also have a useful purpose on the battlefield, assuming that you can speak the language. That's where advanced Special Forces training will come into play. With the Q Course upgrade, your soldiers will be able to go undergo optional training to learn new skills, much like going to medic school in the current version of the game lets your character play as a medic on the battlefield. So, in the Q Course, if you undergo the 18D training, you'll learn about being a Special Forces medic by watching a movie of a real Army Special Forces medic discussing what he does and some of his real-world experiences. Afterward, your character will be able to carry more bandages into battle, heal comrades faster, and even be able to do a limited amount of self-healing. And in the case of encountering civilians on the battlefield, if your character has taken the appropriate language training, you can ask the civilian questions and gather valuable intelligence on the location of your target, making your job a lot easier. Little bonuses such as these will give you the incentive to undergo as much training as possible, and it will let the game educate you about the many different specialties in the Army.

America's Army was originally devised as a recruiting aid to attract new soldiers. However, Bossant told us that the Army is rapidly finding other uses for the game for soldiers already in its ranks. There are already modified versions of America's Army that help teach weapons familiarization and language training. There is also a version of the game to teach convoy protection. That's a particularly important issue, as the Army was caught unprepared by the frequent insurgent attacks on US convoys in Iraq. How to protect convoys was something soldiers had barely received training in prior to the war, but with the modified version of America's Army, the Army now trains soldiers in convoy tactics using a simulator.

With its role as a recruiting tool established and its role as a training tool growing, the future of America's Army looks bright. After the Q Course, which is due in May, the next major update for the game should be Overmatch, which will finally introduce vehicles into the gameplay. After that, it sounds like there will be a second Overmatch update, at which point the current version of America's Army will come to an end. That doesn't mean that the project is going away, though. The current version of America's Army is based on the aging Unreal Engine 2.5. The Army has already signed up for Unreal Engine 3, and America's Army will eventually transition to it. However, that transition won't happen for a while, as the current version of America's Army still looks like it has plenty of life in it.

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