Army Men Preview

Plastic soldiers, huge explosions, and free form destruction...Studio 3DO gives a violent home to the kid in all of us

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Remember when you were a kid playing with those little dime-a-dozen plastic army figures? You'd set up fortifications on either side of some shrubs or a little patch of dirt and then let the battle between the green and tan unfold. Well, 3DO, with their upcoming and succinctly titled Army Men, will attempt to bring that nostalgic microcosm of a battlefield to life. This action-strategy game is at once challenging and humorous, featuring those little synthetic knick-knacks that you so fondly remember, now fully animated and fighting it out in a real environment.

Army Men is a scrolling, 3-D, top-down perspective strategy game, albeit one that is a great deal more action-oriented than current real-time wargames on the shelf. You begin by choosing a map to set the stage and a commander (they roughly follow a plan of action toward one branch of the armed forces - an Army strategy that concentrates on land attacks, a Navy tendancy towards water assaults, an Air Force aim for air superiority, or a Marine-like attempt to grab land from the water) to pit your guys against. At your home base, you pick a command vehicle that you actually control (personnel and attack helicopter, tank, jeep, or boat), load it with units, and deploy the units in strategic areas. Maps of each battleground are rendered with different terrains of varying traversability. These maps contain separate object layers, so a tank or infantry unit will disappear from view when passing underneath a group of trees or other hovering objects. Units vary in function and size depending on the unit type - heavy or light infantry, grenadiers, or engineers. After deployment, each group of units will get back to you, identifying themselves and delivering status reports. The first side to destroy the opponent's base - whether it belongs to the computer or a live network player - wins the match. Units are capable of making some decisions on their own, but the player must take a very active role to achieve final victory. "The idea is that if you don't do anything and put a bunch of units out there, they'll kind of mill around, perhaps even fight a little, but they won't do anything serious unless you tell them to," says David Bunch, Army Men's director. This idea of constant control of small groups is in direct opposition to the current trend, found in many strategy titles, towards real-time control of large armies.

When you finally do achieve victory, you're treated to black and white WWII-era propaganda trailers starring computer-generated characters, complete with authentic film scratches and frame-jumps. Graphical details like these really add to the overall humor and believability of the game. For example, the seven death scenes you'll encounter during battle are consistent with the fact that you're actually dealing with toy soldiers - so if one of your guys takes a shot, his arm might snap off, or he might melt into a puddle of plastic, a single hand emerging from the remnants. All of the soldiers were designed using 3D Studio MAX with a plug-in called Character Studio that enables the artists to create a framework model of their intended subject and then map realistically moving textures on the finished skeleton. The end result is a phenomenally believable representation of what it might be like if plastic figurines actually came to life.

"I can't believe that nobody thought of this before," says Army Men producer Nick Earl. It's true - other titles such as Close Combat hark back to those days when you sat in the mud and enacted a miniature combat, but Army Men takes the toy soldier idea to its literal extreme. This game, which takes an otherwise static cast of characters and brings them to life, will certainly win over real-time strategy game fans, most of whom began their war-game days setting up battle scenarios with pocket-sized polyurethane troops.

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