America's Army: Rise of a Soldier – Review

There's something despicable about this game. Something unsettling. As I played through it, I found it bothered me more and more. The limits of technology and control devices ensure that games can only be so realistic. Players understand this restriction, and generally only ask games to be as realistic as their settings require. What unsettles me about this game is that the gameplay is nowhere near as realistic as its setting requires it to be. When Sam Fisher shoots someone in the head and they spin around and start shooting back, I can let it slide because it's just a game. When America's Army: Rise of a Soldier (AA:RoaS) has ridiculously unrealistic content, I can't be as generous because it's not just a game. It's the Official US Army Game®.

AA:RoaS is a first person tactical shooter, of the style that Red Storm excels at producing. So, it makes some sense that the game is being published by Ubisoft. The game is structured around a soldier going through training. As players completes missions they gain attribute points which they can use to raise the stats they need to train for a variety of different roles, such as Sniper, Grenadier, and Machine Gunner. This isn't a bad system, although it does strain credulity the way the player is allowed to play the same missions over and over again to gain more advancement points. Seems like it would be a little more realistic to force the player to choose an advancement path and then follow it along.

The game does sport some nice FPS mechanics. In keeping with the realistic theme, there aren't any targeting reticles. Players are forced to aim down the sights of weapons, and fire in short bursts to keep from losing their aim completely. Shooting isn't as hard as it sounds, though, as the game features the kind of convenient lock-on system that generally appears only in 3rd person shooters. Whenever an enemy is spotted, a red dot appears over his head, telling the player that he can be acquired. Then, if the player uses the aiming sights, he'll lock onto the enemy and automatically follow his movements. Then it's simply a matter of fine-tuning the aim and firing away. The firing is a little on the easy side, actually, as the player isn't forced to worry about windspeed, or bullet drop, or any of those realistic things that makes firing a gun considerably more difficult then pointing and clicking a mouse.

I'm not one to stress the importance of appearance in games, but the graphics here are so bad as to be inexcusable. The terrain is bland and featureless, trees are blocky and fake, and all of the character animation is stiff. When this was a free downloadable game over the internet a few years ago these kinds of graphics would have been acceptable. For a full-priced retail game they're definitely not.

In addition to the extensive training modes, the game's missions are fairly well-constructed, although more so in the first half than the second. When the player is simply a member of a squad playing a role, the restrictive mission structure is barely noticeable. After all, the player is just following the squad leader's orders—and being graded on how well those orders are followed. By comparison, when playing as a squad leader, the game felt far more restrictive than the similarly-themed Full Spectrum Warrior.

Instead of merely being graded on whether a mission is successful and how many people survived, the player is graded on numerous specific actions within the missions as well. It ends up feeling less like I'm leading a team and making life and death choices, and more like I'm just following an incredibly strict set of instructions. Even worse, it's very hard to tell how to achieve some of the objectives. For example, after throwing a smoke grenade, exactly how does one tell when an alley is smoky enough to cross? One would think that if the alley was completely covered in smoke and I managed to cross it without any of my team getting hit, the maneuver would be a success, but according to the game's scoring system, I either crossed too early or too late. Since the game wouldn't tell me which, I was unable to fix whatever it was I was doing wrong.

There's another, bigger problem, though, and that's the game's attitude towards death. Perhaps I'm overstating the fact, but it seems like the possibility of getting killed is one of the most (if not the single most) important issues to think about when considering a career in the army. Unless my math is wrong, during wartime 'soldier' replaces 'cab driver' as America's most dangerous job. AA:RoaS dodges this entire issue by dropping all pretense of realism whenever the player's life is endangered. If the player is killed during a mission, he can continue from a checkpoint, picking up right where he left off. Maybe I'm being a little alarmist here, but isn't that a stunningly dishonest thing to be putting into the official US Army game®? Doesn't the 'rise of a soldier' generally end when he catches a bullet in the neck? Am I saying that the player should have to restart the game in basic training every time he gets shot? Well, yes. That would be honest. Again, if this were a game about using rail guns to blast holes in Strogg stormtroopers, I would be a little more forgiving. But it's not. It's the official game of the US Army®. Besides which, there's nothing that'll teach players to follow rules of engagement and play it safe then knowing they'll have to restart the whole game if they make a mistake.

To be fair, at the beginning of the game, there is one very realistic thing. As the final part of Sniper training, the player is required to wait in a sniper's nest watching a target that will be revealed at some point over a two day period. That's not compressed time, by the way. In order to complete this training mission, it's possible that a player would have to play for 48 hours. This is a bad idea for so many reasons, not the least of which that someone would have to be insane to leave the blast furnace that is an Xbox running for two days straight. This sequence, as ill-conceived as it is, offers the kind of hard-core realism that the rest of the game is completely lacking. It's straight out of a much harder, much better game, one I think I would have been much more frustrated with. On the other hand, I would have respected it a whole lot more.

Oh, and in case there were any questions about it, my disgust at Ubisoft for charging people money for what is essentially a propaganda and recruitment tool was not factored into the score. This is the kind of thing that should be handed out by uniformed men in mall parking lots, not sold in stores. This game's rating is 3.0 out of 10.

Disclaimer: This review is based on the Xbox version of the game.