Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Called to Duty

America’s Army has always been a game I’ve been suspicious of, but have never played. The way it’s pitched just unsettles me to a great extent, and to be honest scares me to. I have certain pacifist leanings, and I’m against what I perceive to be army propaganda. Joining the army is a huge decision that people should make for themselves, and it is my belief that they shouldn’t be tempted in, and that the army itself shouldn’t be portrayed in any way which isn’t realistic. For these reasons, a video game made by the army themselves (that is touted as a successful recruitment tool), that claims to give an authentic army experience, rubs me the wrong way.



My first issue is with its position as a video game. Now don’t get me wrong, I have nothing but the hugest respect for video games. They are my entertainment product of choice and I view games as a true art form. I’m not coming from the perspective of ‘games are toys’ or ‘games are for kids’, I don’t think this and therefore my complaint is not that the army is going after children. My complaint - at this stage - is the representation of the army, and presenting the army experience as entertainment. While I would never say games are toys for kids, I would happily class them as entertainment. People mostly play games to have fun, and presenting America’s actual army in this light makes me feel rather uncomfortable. I’m sure a lot of people enjoy the army, get a lot out of training and the like, but war isn’t fun.

On the surface America’s Army looks straight up suspicious. It’s a multiplayer shooter in which you only ever play as America and always see the other team as the enemy (which is really rather smart). It’s also completely free, and this all makes it seem like military propaganda. On top of this, the first thing you see when starting the game (after the obligatory Unreal Engine logo) is the American age rating, where it is labelled as TEEN (the equivalent 12+ rating).



What you are getting so far is a free game where you the American army are always the good guys, and a depiction of war that is safe for teens. It doesn’t scream authenticity; in fact the opposite is coming across.
However I haven’t played the game, so I shouldn’t judge. Therefore I thought the recently released beta for America’s Army Proving Grounds is something I should check out, out of intellectual curiosity (and to see if my fears had any basis). Unfortunately I couldn’t get that to work, and couldn’t be bothered to try and fix it, so I went back in time. I found America’s Army 3 on steam, installed it, and then played it.

The first thing I was greeted by was an invitation to make an account and create a soldier, I of course did this. I chose a random face, from the few available, and named my soldier. Disappointingly the only faces I could choose from were male faces; you can only play as a male soldier in America’s Army. That’s right; you get to play an accurate and authentic depiction of America’s famous 100% male army...

So far, not so good.

However my man soldier was created and I gave upon him a soldier name. I resisted the urge to use my usual moniker ‘stephenage’, and instead named him after my favourite soldier Yossarian.
I was then asked if Yossarian was a recruit or a veteran. Instantly I knew what they were getting at, I play a lot of games and am used to them using military jargon as a way of determining player skill. In gaming parlance being a recruit means easy and veteran means hard, therefore in context I presume they are asking me if I don’t play many games or if I do. The flavour text next to each entry confirmed this, and I picked veteran as I have played a lot of shooting games (which was the criteria). I was then told I could join a match and didn’t have to pass training. This was interesting to me; I didn’t know there was training.



I felt like a part of the game was being held off from me so I went back, told them I was a recruit and thus started the journey of recruit Yossarian. Things then started to get very interesting, very interesting indeed. The game wasn’t just a shoot up bad guys as America, the game was an ‘enlist in the army’ simulator. I was very intrigued and very cautious about how they would present army training, and thus started my Recruit Yossarian’s journey.

I was greeted with a programme of actual military training, some of which I could read about and some of which I could take part in. This was really rather cool, this was genuine information and insight into the process of joining, and training up to be in, America’s army. The game was turning out to be an interactive way for people to learn about the training process, and that means it isn’t just a propaganda tool. As long as it keeps things authentic you can use this resource to find out if this is something you would be interested in. It could put you off the army as easily as it could tempt you in. I was genuinely rather impressed.
The most impressive thing about the whole training process though is that it isn’t fun. Not fun at all, it doesn’t glamorise the training process (though it does simplify it), and hammers home the point that being in the army isn’t just an opportunity for teens to shoot at foreign people. You have to work to gain the fantastic opportunity to visit (and destroy) exciting new locations, and meet (and kill) exciting new people.

First things first I had to complete an obstacle course. Now the obstacle course is worthy of criticism, as it really is just a barely hidden controls tutorial. What this section does is belittle something which is really quite difficult, and makes the whole enlisting process seem much easier (and importantly much simpler) than it really is. The obstacle course requires one to press space bar to vault things (rather than put in any kind of real effort to get over what are difficult obstacles), press x to go prone under barbed wire (with no risk and none of the feeling of crawling through mud) and walk across some planks. There are some other things, but these are the main events.



The course is quite awkward, and totally not fun. So at least it captures the not fun part. However it is not fun because it is poorly designed, boring and unbearably simplistic. So it doesn’t match up authentically to the real thing at all. Annoyingly there are a few changes they could have made to make this so much better. Put in a real sense of risk for example, there are people competing against you but there AI is so dumb and slow that they are really just set dressing. They could have encouraged precision and a degree of effort (and allowed for failure) by making this timed or a race. They also could have used some button mashy quick time events for vaulting; it’s one of the few ways to make a gamer exhort any kind of energy after all. Yes it pales in comparison, but it is a decent enough facsimile, and makes the obstacle course more of a struggle (something which is really needed).

The next part of training was really impressive though. Now I was given a gun and I was being told where to shoot it. Not at people, not yet, and that’s rather cool. Training modes against pop up targets are no rarity in games, but making you have to pass an actual test before you can shoot a person is really interesting (and authentic). It’s not fun, it is a task, and it is a test. You are allowed to practice, and then you have to hit a certain amount of targets in a certain amount of time. It’s not particularly entertaining and it fits the bill perfectly.



It’s made even better by certain really clever touches of realism. Guns can jam, you are told off if try to swap weapons too quickly, you have to manually hold your breath (well press space to make your soldier hold his) for steadier aim, you learn about aiming positions, you have to turn safety off and you are told to only shoot the targets. These are proper touches of authenticity that give the game a great deal of credibility. It is taking itself very seriously, and is portraying things as they are to the greatest extent it can really, while still being familiar enough to be a game. In reality it should be somewhat commended for merging military authenticity with the video game medium. As what this results in is a learning tool rather than a piece of exploitation, it’s an insight rather than temptation and it’s rather fascinating.

Of course I wanted to poke at it, test it, see if I could break it. So I turned round, turned of safety, and shot my drill sergeant in the head.



 Macabre I know, but I needed to see how this would be dealt with.
Turns out it’s dealt with pretty strictly. I was put straight into military prison and could do literally nothing but walk around my cell. This wasn’t an Elder Scrolls game, I couldn’t sleep to ‘serve’ my sentence and skip right back to gameplay with no real consequence, I was in prison. There was nothing I could do in prison; I just had to wait there. My only option was to quit and start the training segment again. This really impressed me, and added further to the credibility of this title.



Next I was let loose with other guns, and I liked what happened. I got to use an RPG mounted to a gun, and it’s more realistic treatment actually made me learn a little about these RPGs and how you control and aim them. I also liked little touches like how it never said you were out of ammo, or told you to put more in, it just wouldn’t do anything when you shot. I was so conditioned by games auto reloading or giving me info that this really confused me at points, but ultimately made for a more simulation like experience. Using a gun became more of a task, and more of a hassle, it actually became more difficult. It was still way too easy to be the best shot in the West, but the little things they do here make it a marked improvement and show real effort.

I especially liked the grenade tutorial, and the test linked to it. I actually failed the grenade test a number of times, and had to keep redoing it. I learnt that aiming a grenade is hard, probably more hard on the game than in real life actually. In real life when I go to throw a ball I know how far I will throw it (about) because I can feel the effort I’m putting in. Here you hold down to throw further (to simulate that feeling), but you are never quite sure of what holding it down a bit longer would do. This is a tad awkward to be honest, but it hammers home the point that these aren’t toys, they take training and should be dealt with, with great care. Especially due to the fact that I managed to throw the first grenade behind me (completely by accident); which resulted in it bouncing off the back wall, landing behind me and killing me dead. This meant I had to redo the entire three part training segment (of RPG, LMG and grenade), and though this felt somewhat unfair and was a hassle, that made perfect sense. I totally did kill myself with a grenade and deserved some consequences. After all, there are no second chances in life.



What was really interesting though was the later medical training, which actually consisted of a virtual class room and an exam. I have my complaints with this section, but I also really applaud it. It was thoroughly tedious, very informative and in no way what I was expecting. It was a direct road block to the fun of shooting potential people on the internet, and exactly what the game needs if it wants to show a real army experience. The only problem is that the actual medical training was truly laughable, and really quite belittling. Healing the dummy in front of you was as easy as holding down space, and any ailment would be sorted.  The game told you the real way to deal with these injuries, which was excellent and very informative, but the actual action felt completely redundant. It was almost insultingly simple, and would have perhaps been better served as a proper test. Something where you get a lecture on first aid and then fill in an exam paper to prove you have taken in what you have just been taught. There was a little test at the end, which captured some of this, but it was very limited (though admirable for even existing).



After this I was taken to a trial akin to the training segment in Call of Duty 4, I needed to show off everything I had learnt in a practical scenario as I made my way through a simulation. You walk into rooms, do tasks, cardboard cut-outs of enemies pop up... You get the idea. It was time based, you had to shoot baddies and avoid goodies, and it was a real test of skill. It was also really quite hard and, again, totally not fun. I failed it multiple times, and this was rather frustrating. But I liked this, it should be frustrating, training should be hard and thorough. The constituent parts of this training section were rather dumb, but the overall piece was excellent. Overall I was very impressed.

Now I had passed training, I was no longer a recruit and was allowed to kill people over the internet in online battlegrounds. I didn’t take them up on the offer at this point, after all that didn’t sound terribly interesting, but I was impressed with the game.

America’s Army 3 really wasn’t what I thought it was going to be, it was a very simplistic (perhaps insultingly so) take on actual army training, and not just a propaganda tool. Annoyingly this is all very skippable, but the developer should be commended for this. It’s not perfect, it needs improvement, but it does what it needs to do. It gives an idea of what army training is like and is genuinely informative. It waters it down, but it doesn’t do it maliciously - it isn’t trying to deceive, it’s just merely obeying gaming convention from time to time.


America’s Army is still a somewhat suspect product, but it shouldn’t be looked down upon or lambasted as propaganda. There is a lot more to it than that, in reality it is a really great learning tool that needs a bit of work on. Though I didn’t like the game, I was impressed by it, and feel it was very interesting. Ultimately I’ve learnt a little about the army, but a lot about judging things prematurely. Give this game a try, it won’t make you want to join the army and it will interest you. Once again, I’m not saying it’s good (it really isn’t), but it is somewhat admirable in a very weird way.


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