When a game goes on to spawn countless sequels in a relatively brief amount of time, it typically implies that the series’ progenitor was either completely outstanding or at least contains ideas that demand to be capitalized upon. With the Army Men series, this line of reasoning would lead you to believe that the original was nothing short of spectacular, since the series it spawned sprawled across the video game landscape with over twenty games in a few short years, something unprecedented and still unique within the industry. In my experience, however, that line of reasoning is a dead end, since the original Army Men was merely mediocre. It wasn’t terrible, but I had been led to believe that it was a classic game whose legacy was besmirched by the franchise it spawned.
Regardless of quality, the original must have been a pretty good seller, because less than a year after the release of the original title, 3DO had begun the process of churning out the games. 1999 was going to be a busy year for the franchise, as it expanded its assault to consoles while still finding time to release two new PC titles. The first of these titles was Army Men II, which was the first direct sequel in the franchise. Expanding on the concept of another dimension put forth at the finale of the original game, one where the characters are the scale of the miniature figurines we (or at least I) know and love, the sequel is set to be bigger and weirder than the original. Also, it’s thankfully better.
TAN GONE BAD
Continuing on directly following the epilogue of Army Men, you’re once again cast as the loyal Green soldier, Sarge. When we last left off, he had just stumbled through a strange portal and found himself as a little toy in a big kitchen. That’s where Army Men II kicks off; on the kitchen counter. From there, you have to fight your way back to the real (or plastic) world. On the Tan side, General Plastro has gone AWOL after venturing through the same portal as Sarge, and Major Mylar has taken the reigns. He’s been experimenting with technology recovered from the world beyond the portal and is using it against the Green Nation.
Army Men wasn’t the most straight-faced game out there, but by keeping things in scale with the plastic soldiers, it maintained some measure of realism. Counter to this, Army Men II is generally a lot more absurd, even beyond its incorporation of the real world. Army Men: Sarge’s Heroes, which would be released later the same year, went in a similarly whimsical direction, but while Sarge’s Heroes leaned more cartoonish, Army Men II’s humour leans more on the dark side. This is especially apparent during its game over scenes which feature such grim depictions as lethal injection and shallow graves. The other world provides a bit more levity, with humourous product names and fun set pieces, but you’re always one failed objective away from giving Sarge a rough time. Even from a gameplay perspective, it’s more playful than its predecessor, which does lead to it feeling somewhat unfocused and a little rougher at times.
BACK IN THE ARMY
Army Men had dabbled with squad mates, but I never really found them useful for anything aside from being meat shields and using their feet in place of a minesweeper. Army Men II pushes the concept further by giving you a continuous squad to command, but once again I feel they’re useless. They often follow behind at such a distance that they’re too far to shoot at the enemy or attract gunfire away from Sarge. You can command them to go places, and they level up as time goes by, but rarely did I feel their presence was required. Seeing them get turned to plastic pulp was often met with a shrug, regardless of their persistence. More often than not, they were a hindrance since Sarge has to move around them when they’re in the way.
That brings me to the controls, which I could never get the hang of. The camera doesn’t stay locked on Sarge, which is a huge pain. Often, I’d scroll away from him to command squad mates, only to struggle to get the camera back on him. Sometimes simply moving would do the trick, but other times, you’d have to put him back on screen, then right click. There may have been a better way to do this, but that’s what I mean, why do they need to be so complicated?
You can also carry 6 weapons at a time, and that makes switching between them difficult in the heat of battle. Often, I’d find myself killed while fumbling for one weapon or the other. Sometimes I’d accidentally switch to my med pack and end up wasting a few uses as I would hammer on the fire button. This is on top of the issues that were present in the previous Army Men, such as the fact that you can shoot while running, but only if you start shooting while already moving and not from a standstill. Trying to go prone only sometimes works, while other times, Sarge just snaps to his feet the moment you start firing. Smoothing these control issues out should have been a priority, but they were instead ignored in favour of expanding the squad mate system.
ADVANCING THE FRONT
On the other hand, Army Men II, is a much more forgiving game than the former, so controls aren’t really much of a problem. While the original required a lot of pre-obtained knowledge of what lies ahead, you’re given quite a bit more agency when it comes to your survival in the sequel. Sarge can take a lot more damage, and can now take on huge groups of Tans with nothing more than his default rifle. Death is still a frequent occurrence, but it’s nothing like it was in the first game. The expectations here aren’t as bad compared to the series in general, and it was rare that I had to restart to a certain save point too often. Things got a little breezier after I finally realized I could save manually, mid-mission. I tortured myself a bit before that.
It’s frankly a breath of fresh air. Army Men was downright brutal at times, and I’d often use my first life on a level to probe for its many pitfalls. Instant death is more of a rarity in Army Men II, as the game seems less concerned with killing you off. It helps that the game doesn’t mind overloading you with ammunition and provides you with six inventory slots to allow you to be prepared for any threat. It leads to a more fast-paced experience that doesn’t discourage experimentation.
The objectives also feature a lot of variety to them. While many of them can be boiled down to “kill all the differently coloured soldiers” there are ones that involve destroying targeted pieces of equipment, protecting a bridge, or appropriating a disguise to carry out some sabotage. There’s also a lot of variety in environments. No longer conforming to the three “theatres” of operation, Army Men II takes you from the desert to a hobby desk, rarely doubling up on a given theme. None of the objectives are too particularly out there, and there are fewer other world environments than I would have liked, but it certainly helps the game stay fresh throughout its runtime.
A DAY AT THE RACES
The music in the game is done by Barry Blum, a composer who would later do some pretty rocking work on games like Battletanx: Global Assault and Army Men: Sarge’s Heroes, but for this game, well, I’m not even sure what music he did. Most of the tracks sound like MIDI renditions of classic tunes like Ride of the Valkyries and Morning Mood, and they take up such a significant portion of the soundtrack that I’m not certain if there were any tracks that didn’t sound like stock music from a royalty-free site. With respect to Barry Blum, this doesn’t sound like the sort of thing you’d put in the background of a war game, toy soldiers or otherwise, this sounds like the sort of thing you use when you don’t want to actually pay a sound team.
A BRAVE NEW WORLD
I’m happy to add Army Men II to the incredibly short list of games in the series that I actually enjoyed. I have mixed feelings on the original Army Men title, but a change in vision has helped the sequel shed some of its annoying tendencies and become a game that’s worth playing. There is still a lot of areas that I wish were tighter, especially when it comes to controls, but its playfulness easily shines through the frustrating tendencies that have stuck around. Perhaps, then, it’s not surprising that an entirely different team was responsible for developing it. With no intended disrespect to the original team, you can tell just by playing it that the new team had a different vision in mind, one that seems to mesh with the existing premise a little better. Its humour is a little dark at times, but it still proves to be a colourful and fun experience that I feel I can recommend to anyone with even a slight interest in the premise.
This review is based on the digital version from gog.com. It was paid for by the author.