Army Men games were a moderate success when they were first introduced in 1999. After countless installments of the Sarge's Heroes franchise and just as many Air Attack releases, one of 3DO's few lucrative properties is running out of steam. This hasn't deterred the company from developing a new third-person Army Men game for the launch of the Game Boy Advance--the aptly titled Army Men Advance. While the series hasn't been overly impressive in 3D, it was hoped that the GBA's simplistic hardware would allow the company to inject some life into the property with a solid 2D installment.
Army Men Advance follows the same story that the Sarge's Heroes series has been beating into the dirt for three years now. Once again, the vile General Plastro and his army of tan figurines have decided to take over the world and it's up to Sarge and crack reporter Vikki G. to thwart the conquest. Throughout the game you'll be required to rescue team members, infiltrate tan bases, escape from a jail, investigate an extra terrestrial presence, and retrieve communications equipment. You can choose to play as either Sarge or Vikki, but the quests for each are identical and once a character has been chosen it's impossible to switch to the other unless you want to start again from the first mission.
The controls are simple yet unrefined. The A button allows you to fire your selected weapon, the B button tosses grenades, and the directional pad controls movement. Holding the right shoulder button keeps your weapon facing in one direction while you strafe in any direction and switching weapons is accomplished with the left shoulder button. This simplistic control scheme works well for the majority of the missions but in the tighter areas where there are many enemies its inadequacies become apparent. It takes far too long to get turned in the right direction and fire--resulting in constantly running away from enemies in hopes that you'll have time to turn around and shoot. In the areas where you have a small path to traverse, avoiding enemies is nearly impossible. This is made more infuriating due to the lack of a continue option--some of the missions can take some time to complete and if you die you must start again from the beginning. Another point of annoyance is that your character often gets stuck on objects and refuses to move.
There are five weapons that you discover and use throughout the course of the game including an M-16, an M-60, a flamethrower, a bazooka, and grenades. The M-16 is the default weapon and it never runs out of ammunition. Using the higher-powered weapons isn't a necessity but they can make certain portions of the levels much easier. Beyond the third-person shooting that players have grown accustomed to with the Army Men franchise, there are several points in the game where you attempt to pilot gunboats and tanks through a gauntlet of enemies and hazards. There are even sections where you must cross rivers using floating logs a la Frogger. Once you rescue fellow soldiers you can take control of them and their special weapons. Considering how dull and predictable the average level can be, any sort of gameplay variety is a welcomed addition. The lack of any sort of multiplayer modes is also disappointing. While a head-to-head mode may be asking a bit much from a third-party launch game, even a cooperative mode would have increased the replay value considerably.
Played from an isometric camera angle, Army Men Advance utilizes pseudo 3D graphics built out of 2D sprites. The 17 levels included in the game are similar to those from the other Army Men games. You must navigate bathtubs, bedrooms, garages, and base installations containing everyday objects at twenty times their normal size. Comprised mostly of flatly colored objects, the environments are so barren that the screen is sometimes one solid color. With only a handful of different enemies included in the game, combat also becomes monotonous rather quickly. The relative lack of bosses is also a point of contention. The explosions look passable in a cartoon sort of way but the rest of the graphics look like they could have been done on the Game Boy Color.
The sound included in Army Men Advance includes voice samples for when your character takes damage or for when the enemies die. But they are repeated constantly and quickly lose their allure. The sounds for guns and explosions are nothing special and could have been included as stock sound effects in the GBA development kit. The music consists of the traditional military fare with plenty of snare drums and flutes. The lead track sounds like a rip-off of the Hogan's Heroes theme.
Army Men Advance perpetuates the franchise's legacy of mediocrity. Its graphics are at the bottom of the Game Boy Advance totem pole, none of the hardware's interesting features like multiplayer are utilized, and the one-player mode can be finished in one day. Kids will likely enjoy its simplicity but will find it difficult to complete several of the game's goals due to the irritating hit detection and cramped areas. With so many quality games available for the launch of the GBA, Army Men Advance should be near the bottom of your list.