3DO wasn’t the best parent for the Army Men series. By the time the dust settled (in 2003, after the company filed for bankruptcy), over 20 titles bearing the name had blasted the marketplace, most of them mediocre in the most charitable of terms. It was a series that seemed to have been born of marketing, developed by a lot of different people who probably weren’t empowered enough by the corporation to care. Still, I can’t help but derive some pleasure from playing the games; not only because I have a fondness for the little plastic figures the games are based on, but also because it’s interesting to deconstruct this curious corner of our hobby.
When 3DO folded, the rights to the franchise were picked up by Global Star Software, a subsidiary of Take-Two. Initially, it was business as usual, as they re-released Army Men RTS on the Gamecube and finished Army Men: Sarge’s War. With the last vestiges of 3DO out of the way, they set to relaunch the maligned brand and start fresh. Development was handed off to Team 17 of Worms fame, who set out to make their mark with Army Men: Major Malfunction. As history would prove, this was not a successful endeavor.
THAT NIGHTMARE IS OVER
Major Malfunction begins with a cheeky cutscene that involves a toy soldier with striking similarities to previous series’ protagonist, Sergeant Hawk, being microwaved to death. So, that wouldn’t work since plastic doesn’t react in the microwave in the same way that food does and therefore wouldn’t melt, but the idea seems to be to elevate this game above the previous games. “It’s not like that old series,” they seem to be saying, “that nightmare is over.”
Which, to be fair, is true. Major Malfunction stars Private Anderson, who is part of a military operation that is attempting to take down the eponymous Major Malfunction, a renegade who is currently commanding his army from within a suburban house. The twist is, like the other games of the series, Anderson is a toy soldier, and the house is scaled in respect to this. Where Major Malfunction diverges from the other games in the series is in its narrative framework. There is no tan army, no everlasting race war, and no parallel plastic world. Anderson is out to keep Toyland safe, and to do this, he’s fighting against a random assortment of toys.
That’s fine, I wasn’t married to the old cast or concept and I’m totally down with exploring another house from the diminutive perspective of a toy soldier. I prefer my generic war against the generic tan soldiers, but I can dig this approach.
ALL THE TOYS IN TOYLAND
What is outwardly most remarkable about Major Malfunction is its art style. I never had issue with the more straightforward but colourful style of the older games, but Team 17 applies their knack for cartoonishly distorted proportions quite well here. The result is something that, rather than imitating the real world, it presents something closer to an animated cartoon. The grit from Sarge’s War has been cleaned off, and the adherence to the toy soldier-centric aesthetic has been left behind. Anderson still looks like a generic toy soldier, but his design doesn’t bear any resemblance to a classic mold that I’m familiar with. Tonally, the game has been pushed in a goofier, more light-hearted direction.
It’s actually a decent looking game for its vintage. It isn’t packed to the rafters with effects and polygons, but the clean and chunky art-style works well for it. It seems like the artists had all the fun on this game. Environments are expansive and present a comfortable atmosphere, the sense of scale is well established, and there’s a lot of personality exuding from all of it. Unfortunately, it’s pretty deceptive. It seems like the artists are the only people who had fun with this game, as every other aspect struggles beneath the veneer.
BENEATH THE VENEER
The Army Men series covered a lot of ground in the 5-ish years that it was under the 3DO umbrella. It’s impossible to pin it on a specific genre, and even within established sub-series, there was a lot of variety when it came to the mechanics. With that, it’s no surprise that Major Malfunction has chosen to take its own approach to the third-person shooter.
Most strikingly, the aggressive auto-aim that was central to the controls of a lot of the third-person titles is replaced with a targeting system that resembles the one in Sarge’s War. Unlike Sarge’s War, however, the one present here is complete and utter trash. It refuses to stick to what you want to, having an incredibly limited range, so even if you’re facing an enemy, if they’re slightly too distant, the system won’t lock on to them. You can’t manually aim either, so you’re absolutely dependent on it, but it fails more often than it succeeds. Enemies, on the other hand, don’t suffer from the same limited range, so you can be under assault by multiple bazooka-wielding enemies, and have no way to defend until you get much closer to them. Best of luck to you if the enemy is on a platform above your position because you can’t manually look up or down, which forces you to dance beneath their position until the targeting finally decides to interpret your flailing and locks on.
It doesn’t help that the combat is slow and unexciting. Circle strafing is groovy and all, but Anderson moves, fires, and dodges with all the urgency of a glacier. Enemies aren’t in much of a hurry, either, so combat devolves into a slow, two-step dance that is infrequently interrupted by the participants pausing to slap each other. I wouldn’t advise changing weapons in the midst of combat to spice things up since Anderson takes his time digging through his pockets before he’ll pull out a new weapon. Guns like the bazooka and mini-gun even slow down his movement speed further, just in case things weren’t slow enough. Makes me really miss the Sarge’s Heroes’ murder-jog, and that’s never a good sign.
HEY! LOOK! LISTEN!
I could deal with slow, clunky combat if it was propped up by other decent facets of gameplay, but sadly, the whole game is a let-down. Remember how I said that the environments are nice? Keep that in mind, because we’ll be circling back to it.
Major Malfunction has an absolute fascination with establishing shots. Every time you trigger the next part of the level, the camera is pulled away and floats lingeringly to the next point of interest. Pick up an item? Establishing shot. Kill a group of enemies? Establishing shot. Climb up onto a ledge? Establishing shot. It’s ridiculous, and the camera always moves so slowly that it’s painful to watch. You can skip these frequent moments, but be careful, sometimes doing so will result in you regaining control while looking down the barrel of an enemy that just spawned in. Anderson apparently moves gradually when the cutscene is playing, and ending it prematurely doesn’t move him automatically, which can result in you starting off where you’re not supposed to be. It’s absolutely bizarre.
This all could have been avoided had the levels been better designed. See, this is what I meant: the environments look nice, but the level design is absolute garbage. Rather than lead you along using visual cues and obvious focal points, Major Malfunction would rather just show you what it’s setting up for you to do next. So if you’re tasked with eliminating four groups of enemies, you aren’t led from one to the next using an obviously ideal path, instead, it will stop you after you take out one group, slowly draw the camera over to another group that it just spawned in, and probably just for good measure, will then open up dialogue that says something like, “Good job, now proceed to the next group and take them out.”
This isn’t how a game should be designed. This is how an audio tour of an art gallery is designed.
ANOTHER ONE FOR THE MICROWAVE
Just to top things off, it apes the series love of killing you randomly and forcing you to start the whole damned mission over. You can fall off some ledges without penalty, but others will kill you outright, with no distinction between the two. There are also no checkpoints, so if you die an embarrassing death, you’re forced to start the whole level over again, establishing shots and all.
Is that it? No, sometimes the camera breaks completely and refuses to right itself. In fact, the camera in general stinks like a burning toilet. Also, the turret sections are incredibly boring, especially considering the game unashamedly spawns enemies in plain view.
Despite all the grief I’m airing out, I absolutely wanted to like Major Malfunction. I’d occasionally get those good Army Men vibes while traversing one of the game’s nice looking environments, but that would dissipate the moment I actually needed to engage. Like many games in the series, it was panned on release, but I desperately wanted to believe that it was a wrong-time-wrong-place situation. The art style and environments give off a polished look that helps hide how absolutely mundane the game beneath it is. Judging by the jabs taken within the game at the old 3DO series, Team 17 was banking on this being the launch of a new era within the brand. Unfortunately for them, this not only was proven not to be true,
Note: There’s apparently a PAL only PS2 version of the game. I have no direct experience with it, but it appears to be a straight port of this version.
This review was conducted on an original Xbox with an original copy of the game. The author paid for it themselves and can assure you that, unlike an actual toy soldier, it microwaves just fine.