Originally released more than three years ago as a free downloadable PC game, America's Army has seen numerous updates and overhauls. The game has been spit-shined and polished many times over, like a recruit's boot just before inspection. With the release of Rise of a Soldier on the Xbox, the game originally funded and released as a recruitment tool by the US Army has finally reached full commercial status, available in boxed form on store shelves. Knowing the history of the product, there's something a little odd about having to pay for something developed as a marketing tool for a government agency. But if you don't notice or mind a light smattering of propaganda, you'll find that Rise of a Soldier is more than a competent shooter, offering a unique feel and spin on first-person shooters.
One of the key ways that the game sets itself apart is with its RPG-like elements. You'll begin the game's single-player campaign by doing basic training missions that serve as a tutorial. Depending on how well you run obstacle courses and complete marksmanship training with a rifle, you'll earn certifications that translate into skill points that you can use to upgrade your character in seven different areas, including leadership, marksmanship, stealth, and honor. As you make your way through the campaign, you'll eventually unlock real missions that put you in combat situations. These range from convoy escort to oil field patrol duty. You'll face off against enemies who shoot back at you, so you'll need to work together with your squad to get through the scenarios. Just like in the training missions, your performance in the combat missions will give you skill points to further improve your character, as well as unlock new soldier-class roles for you to train in, like grenadier, or sniper. There are seven different soldier roles in all, each of which has five missions associated with it, making for a total of 35 different missions in the single-player campaign. There's no real overarching storyline, but that's still quite a bit of gameplay, and there's even some incentive to replay the missions so you can earn higher ratings for more skill points.
The skill points and attributes are all tied in to the unique way America's Army feels and plays. As a raw recruit, for example, you'll find that your aim is very unsteady. With no artificial crosshair to rely on, you'll need to aim down the iron sight of your weapon--you can compensate for your shaky aim by steadying with the right analog stick, but you'll still find that aiming at distant or even nearby targets is surprisingly challenging. If you're wounded, come under enemy fire, or have just stopped after a brief sprint, your aim will be even more shaky. You'll steady your aim if you kneel or go prone. Points you spend in marksmanship also can help steady your aim, while your honor attribute can help keep you cool under fire (and thus, keep your aim steady). Points in the leadership skill affect your teammates, both in the single-player and multiplayer game. Players whose leadership skill is high can keep your squadmates calm while they're being fired upon, steady your aim, and allow you to move faster while wounded. The observation skill can help you acquire enemies at range, making them easier to spot, and you can also lock in on them when you aim your weapon.
The fact that the game attempts to realistically model not only skill, but soldier morale in specific situations, is pretty cool and seems to work with tangible results. Casual shooter fans may find this all to be convoluted and not much fun, but those who crave more "realism" in their shooters will find that America's Army does a thorough job of attempting to model various real-world influences on combat performance. The different weapons you use also have a great feel to them, offering a believable amount of kick. The SAW machine gun, for example, is all but impossible to aim unless you go prone and set it on its bipod.
Each of the seven attributes that you can improve with skill points has a pretty meaningful effect on how your character plays. It can actually be pretty daunting and difficult to decide how to spend your points as you earn them, but thankfully the game includes several helpful "archetypes" that you can choose from that spends your points for you depending on how you want to play. So if you prefer acting as a marksman, a squad leader, or even a combat medic, the game holds your hand and shows you the best way to spend your points.
There's also an online multiplayer component to Rise of a Soldier that's wholly separate from the campaign. Just like the single-player game, your online avatar can improve in rank with experience and skill points earned from participating in online matches. However, the character you created and built in the single-player game can't be brought online, and vice versa. Your online and offline personas are entirely different. Games are restricted to 16 players, with eight players on each team. What's interesting is that each player on each team has a specific role, like squad leader, fire team leader, heavy weapons specialist, sniper specialist, and so on. The specialist roles are not only given weapon privileges, but can do other special things like call in mortar strikes. Only players with a certain amount of experience points are allowed to take the specialist positions, so if you're new to the game, you'll have to earn your way up by playing as a regular rifleman.
The maps are usually objective-based, with one team having to protect certain assets like a helicopter or area from another team, but often times, games just boil down to one team eliminating the other team entirely. And unlike the PC version, you'll find that one team actually does take the role of "indigenous forces," which is just a fancy way of saying you don't always play as US Army. You'll even be able to use weapons that resemble Eastern-bloc style Kalashnikov rifles, and RPGs. Each match is played in round format, in which each player is allowed only one life. If you are shot, you can be revived if a teammate comes and bandages you within a brief period of time, but you'll recover in a very compromised state, unable to aim or move as well as you could while healthy. The maps are generally pretty large and intricate, some requiring quite a bit of teamwork. Snipers, for example, often need teammates armed with heavier weapons to blow open doors for them so they can climb up into towers and other elevated positions. In situations where the game is full, experienced players will actually set up feints, distracting one team from one side, while the other fire team tries to flank around another side. Your experience, of course, may vary depending on the quality of players you find, but overall, playing Rise of a Soldier online is a pretty fun experience, and we experienced little in the way of network latency to mar the gameplay.
If there's any way in which the game is somewhat of a letdown, it's that the graphics are starting to look dated. Character models offer an acceptable level of detail, but they animate oddly, sometimes appearing to moonwalk during the cutscenes. We also noticed vehicles with wheels that didn't appear to spin as they moved. And while there are buildings to walk into and explore, there isn't much in the way of furniture or interior adornment; nor is there much added detail in outdoor environments. The other aspects of the presentation are pretty good, though, like the clean menu screens and tons of real US Army action footage and photos. If anything, though, the exciting video of Army soldiers in action looks a little too slick and well edited, and serves as part of the game's unspoken but still palpable recruiting pitch. As far as sound effects go, Rise of a Soldier sounds great with its sharp gun effects, the muffled thud of exploding grenades, and plenty of voice during training and combat missions, so you always know what you need to be doing. We could have done without the sloppy rock soundtrack in the menus, though, most of which sounds like an even worse version of Limp Bizkit.
While America's Army: Rise of a Soldier may look like a three-year-old game, it doesn't play like one. The amount of thought and polish put into the gameplay over the years definitely shows. The RPG-like way in which you build your character works well, because the attributes you work on are all meaningful and have tangible effects on the gameplay. If you're someone who appreciates a shooter that goes at a more deliberate pace and attempts to model combat realistically, you'll want to check out Rise of a Soldier.