Review – Army Men: Air Combat: The Elite Missions

Army Men: Air Combat: The Elite Missions Header

One of my most significant memories of Army Men: Air Combat: The Elite Missions for Gamecube was a review by Cory D. Lewis, writing for IGN. In their review, they kept on comparing (oh no, how many times am I going to write this?) Army Men: Air Combat: The Elite Missions to an N64 game. This is both in the way it plays similarly to the original Army Men: Air Combat and also how it looks.

Younger me was aghast. Surely they were exaggerating, or maybe they just forgot what an N64 game actually looked like in the three years since the original’s release. Of course, I never got to put this to the test, because the first time I actually saw Army Men: Air Combat: The Elite Missions was just a few days ago when I made the effort to order it online and have it delivered. It is easily the most elusive console Army Men game. But now…

Cory, I am so sorry. You were absolutely right. This looks like an N64 game.

Army Men Air Attack Starting pointArmy Men Air Combat The Elite Missions Starting point
Behold! The next generation!

N64 OR GAMECUBE SCREENSHOT? YOU DECIDE

Before I get ahead of myself, this is just the GameCube version of Army Men: Air Attack 2. When I reviewed Army Men: Air Attack 2 on PS1, I knew about the PS2 and Gamecube versions but didn’t know how much they really differed. Now I know the difference. The PS1 version has two more levels than the PS2 and Gamecube ones. Why did the Gamecube version come out two years later, and why does it say “The Elite Missions?” Money, I’m guessing. However, there are differences.

The Gamecube version has a slightly different HUD, for example. Truly, the graphics got brushed up. The lighting and textures are better, but it’s not so noticeable that you’d probably realize it without seeing them side-by-side. Also, The Elite Missions is still missing the two extra missions of the PS1 version, which is kind of ironic.

Unsurprisingly, the story is the same. You live in a world where two competing sides of identical plastic toys are locked in endless war. You play as ace helicopter pilot Captain Blade, who is the only competent person in the Green Army. Well, aside from Sargeant Hawk. But he doesn’t have a helicopter.

Ace triplane pilot Baron Von Beige is being confined to a bureaucratic role managing the Tan Army’s weapon production. He’s troublingly good at it, but he yearns for combat, which is actually pretty decent character design. No, wait, that’s just Darth Vader. I made that comparison when talking about the PS1 version, and I’m starting to realize how apt it is. Except Blade isn’t his son, so that completely shaves off the interesting part.

Army Men: Air Combat: The Elite Missions Tiny Factory
Strange place for a tiny… wait a minute.

SHAVE OFF THE INTERESTING PART

I talked quite a bit about the plot in my Air Attack 2 review, but it gets worse when you’re actually paying attention to it. Blade gets arrested halfway through for a contrived (or at least poorly explained) reason. They put him in jail, which he gets sprung from by a wingman, but as he’s fleeing, the guards open fire on him. Like, fuck that unarmed war hero. Shoot to kill!

But it’s established that the Green Army war effort is completely centered on him. Like, they need air support, and he and the rest of Alpha Wolf Squadron are the army’s entire air force. After they put him in jail and he goes AWOL, the rest of the army starts getting their ass kicked, which leads to Colonel Grimm essentially apologizing to him.

This isn’t, like, trying to steal the Death Star plans to turn the tide of war. Captain Blade is the only tide they have.

But then there are weird inconsistencies. At the beginning, Woodstock is shot down and has to be rescued. Later everyone except Woodstock gets shot down, and they kind of need rescuing, but they also steal helicopter parts. Then there’s obviously something missing here because suddenly there’s a mission where you need to free everyone from separate prison compounds, but it’s not explained how they got captured again. Except Bombshell who Von Beige is keeping as a damsel/trophy like a typical cartoon villain.

Army Men: Air Attack 2 comes so close to telling a generic but functional story and fumbles it.

Army Men: Air Combat: The Elite Missions Hallowe'en-ish missions
The best time of the year.

VAGUELY LIKE A BULLDOZER

Even with the slightly better textures and lighting, Army Men: Air Combat: The Elite Missions is still ugly. It looks just like an N64 (or PS1) game with better textures and lighting. Because it is. Some of the models might be better, but I’d swear a lot of them have the exact same geometry.

However, the low polygon count is hardly the most egregious of its presentation issues. No, the worst is that they painted the dirt.

I’m pretty sure this was a problem in the PS1 version, but it wasn’t as noticeable. Mostly, this stood out to me in the singular city mission in the game, where I mentioned the buildings aren’t 3D models, but are instead just cut out of the landscape so the walls aren’t 90 degrees. I must have missed the fact that later in the game, most of the environmental objects are just shaped from the ground.

I’m not sure why. I can only guess that they didn’t have artists available for the project or this way was just faster. I first noticed it on a level where they shaped the ground vaguely like a bulldozer and coloured the dirt yellow and added a little decal. I think I audible exclaimed, “Oh, what the fuck!?”

Army Men Air Combat The Elite Missions
Proof that I am not exaggerating.

THEY PAINTED THE DIRT

I later called my husband over to the TV and pointed out a geographical feature shaped vaguely like a box. Once again, the dirt was coloured like cardboard and had little details drawn on it. I went back and checked my footage of the PS1 version, and yeah, they painted the dirt in that version too, but it was a little harder to tell. At best, they just fit in with the low-poly models in the environment, but at worst, you couldn’t tell what you were looking at. It would just look like coloured ground, maybe because they were trying for baked-in lighting. I didn’t realize it was a couch, I thought it was just a weird shade of concrete.

It’s way more noticeable in the GameCube version than the other versions because, in an effort to upgrade the textures, everything that is supposed to be ground has a grainy stippling added to it. So even if it’s supposed to be metal paint on the bulldozer or the plastic body of a traffic cone, it has a gritty texture on top of it that just further sells the point that they painted the dirt.

It’s a cut corner that kind of underlines the decline in Army Men: Air Combat: The Elite Mission’s quality. I mentioned in my review of the PS1 version how there’s less mission variety, and that hasn’t changed here. However, it gets kind of locked on course in the latter half of the game, with it frequently just being seek-and-destroy and rescue missions without any novelty. So, when you add this declining visual quality it just highlights its downward trajectory. This might be more due to 3DO’s tight development schedules than laziness or lack of talent, but it’s hard to watch. Er, play.

Army Men: Air Combat: The Elite Missions Cassette tapes and blimps
The toy soldier zeppelins are kind of pushing the toy angle.

PRETTY CLEVER

That’s mostly Army Men: Air Combat: The Elite Missions’ problem. It’s not so much that it’s worse than Army Men: Air Attack 2 on PS1. It’s more so that the added visual fidelity shines a light on its cut corners. And, gosh, the cut corners are abundant.

It’s weirdly obvious that Army Men: Air Attack 2 was supposed to primarily be a PS1 game before they decided to do versions on the next generation of consoles. It’s not like Green Rogue or Sarge’s Heroes 2 where the PS2 versions are completely different, this is the same game but with rougher edges. Rough edges upon rough edges; Army Men: Air Combat: The Elite Mission is positively serrated.

When it comes down to it, though, the Army Men: Air Attack formula is still fun. If the series survived another five years, I can almost guarantee that it wouldn’t have been long before we saw Army Men: Air Attack 3. With a longer development time and the power of early ‘00s consoles, it could have been pretty great. Well, maybe. They might have just painted the dirt again.

4/10

This review was conducted on a GameCube using a disc version of the game. It was paid for by the author.

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About Zoey Handley 243 Articles
Zoey made up for her mundane childhood by playing video games. Now she won't shut up about them. Her eclectic tastes have led them across a vast assortment of consoles and both the best and worst games they have to offer. A lover of discovery, she can often be found scouring through retro and indie games. She currently works as a Staff Writer at Destructoid.

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