America’s Army Counter-Review

10 Jan

The first time I’d heard of Tim Rogers was when he announced he would be subbing for Brian Ashcraft on Kotaku.  I don’t remember seeing any of his posts, but it did alert me to the existence of his wondrous review site, Action Button.

There’s a lot of content there, and there’s a lot of content to both attack and agree with.  I figured Action Button’s review of America’s Army (written by a fellow named Brandon Parker, but keeping with Tim’s rambling style), is as good a place to start as any.

But first it’s important to understand the site.

Action Button is unique in that its reviews are entirely subjective, yet the scores tend to be objective.  If a game is fun but has some major faults, it gets a low score — but let’s be honest: most of the reviews on the site are the review equivalent of a judo chop to the neck.  It’s a site where a AAA game can get a 1/4 and a game you’ve never heard of can be perfect.  A review can go on forever and even devote multiple paragraphs to a single mechanic.  In a world where people are afraid to voice their opinions (because why should opinion matter, they think), Action Button is nothing but.

And as such, this means the review is open to ‘attack’, as any non-lukewarm review should be.  But I’m not going to attack it, per se (in fact, don’t be surprised if I don’t even mention it again), but rather I’d like to try and see why our opinions are so different.  Hopefully this will expose a certain je ne sais qua, a subjective tidbit that can make or break a game for someone.  And more importantly, if it can be found then the game can be approached with a new perspective — basically, I hope people who don’t like America’s Army will play it from my point of view and see if that does it for them.

So, let’s dig in.  The reviewer makes it clear that he’s not the militant type.  I, on the other hand, grew up playing shooters, reading Tom Clancy novels, and playing paintball (in between not liking and quitting other sports like baseball, basketball, and football).  He says if someone were to break into his house with a gun and shoot at him, he wouldn’t know what to do, and even if he had the chance to fight back, he probably wouldn’t.  I know enough about ‘military things’ to be intrigued by them, but I still wouldn’t know when to pull a cocking handle or how to load a magazine — and I’d have to agree that taking a life wouldn’t sit well with me either.  But put a gun in my hand and send a guy charging through a door at me with an AK-47, and I think I’d feel justified in pulling the trigger.  I’d probably miss, hit the door frame and get riddled full of 7.62 rounds, but I think I’d try to defend myself.

So going in you have two different personalities.  One is skeptical of ‘the man’ while one can’t wait to take special forces training (in the game, of course).  I know my M16 is not an M4, and I know I’m firing virtual 5.56 rounds.  Something inside of me gets all tingly when firing down a virtual iron sight.  I’d never want to be in the army, but I understand the myriad reasons other people do, and I find it extremely interesting to get into a similar frame of mind and jump out of planes with guns from the comfort of my computer chair.  I can’t go into detail about the reviewer, but it seems he does not find these things interesting.  It’s perhaps akin to my going to a car show with a car fanatic.  I don’t drive and I only know of cars that I’ve driven in racing games.  The car fanatic would be going nuts over a supercharger while I’d be ready to leave.

As a game that can’t get more army, being called America’s Army and actually being funded by the American Army, I think being a gun nut, an FPS nut, or a member of some armed force yourself is necessary for any enjoyment to be had.  Any.  At all.

Because I find it ‘fun’ to grab a sniper rifle, hunker down on a hill, and wait ten minutes to shoot at a tiny silhouette.  The tense, muscle-tightening rush you experience when clearing rooms with other people is amazing.  Knowing at what time and in which direction to parachute from a moving plane with several squads of players and then meeting up in the dark and moving in to attack a fixed position is like a drug to me.  Why?  Because this is the sort of thing millions of other humans have done and will continue to do for thousands of years, and I will never, ever, actually do it.  And I don’t think I’d want to.  But if a game lets me sit down and pretend that my squad is pinned down by automatic fire and we need to meet up with another squad in two minutes if we’re going to complete the objective, then by god, I don’t care if the game is a recruitment tool for Scientology, I’m going to play it.

There are lots of idiots in the game, lots of little glitches, lots of dominant strategies and ways to throw grenades into spawn points.  From a technical standpoint the game is unimpressive, and from an ideological standpoint the game is volatile — I have friends who won’t touch the game on principle.

But the sense of importance the game grants manages to create, under the right circumstances, a surprisingly smart and heart-pounding ‘simulation’.  I really am scared when I can’t see who’s responsible for the bullets pinging the dirt all around me, or in those several slowmotion seconds as an RPG-7 is readied and fired in my direction.  My breathing gets shallow when I throw a flashbang into a room and jump in, half expecting to shoot someone and half expecting to be shot by someone.  I really do feel sorry when we’ve all landed safely, but someone in squad 2 has landed right in front of the enemy and is shot dead.  When a grenade sloshes into the dirt next to me, my eyes widen as I command my in-game presence to scramble to safety.

To a degree, that makes me one of those ‘hardcore’ people.  They’re easy to find — browse through the server list in any online shooter and you’ll find servers where respawning is turned off, friendly fire is on, headsets are required, and the HUD is disabled.  Maybe it’s even labelled as a ‘hardcore’ server, and is run by some online gaming clan with a faux military name like ‘the 76th Bad Boy Brigade’ or something.  Call of Duty 4 for the PC is now almost entirely composed of these hardcore servers, and you’ll find even more intimidating people playing ‘mil-sim’ games like Flashpoint.

This is one of those rare instances where that lame phrase ‘if you liked ___ then you’ll love ___’, is actually true.  If you’re one of those people who points out why it’s stupid a certain character is carrying a certain fake weapon in a movie, and everyone turns and furrows their brow at you, then you will probably love America’s Army.  If you’re one of the people furrowing you brow, it’s not for you.  But if you’re willing to unfurl that brow for just one map, I guarantee you there is fun to be had.

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3 Responses to “America’s Army Counter-Review”

  1. Griselda Bostock March 1, 2010 at 9:21 pm #

    It’s been a while since I browse a really wonderful blog post. Not only well written but relevant. Congratulations.

  2. Molly Pekala March 2, 2010 at 12:32 am #

    This is often one among the simplest blog posts that I’ve presumably ever read. It’s like a well-written paper. Your topic is relevant, you’ve broken the topics down logically.

  3. Oskar March 17, 2010 at 11:00 am #

    Excellent Article!

    If I could write like this I would be well chuffed 😉

    The more I read articles of such quality as this (which is rare), the more I think there might be a future for the Web. Keep it up, as it were.

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