Typically, when I get into one of my obsessive deep dives into a franchise’s backlog, I take the chronological route, starting from the first and working my way down the chain. However, with the Army Men series — a chain made almost entirely of weak links — it’s sometime difficult to figure out what came first and when. 3DO’s catalogue could be easily compared to a shotgun blast; a sudden and abrupt spread, sometimes causing a lot of agony. Where it all originated is pretty indisputable, though: Army Men on PC. It was no doubt an eventuality, but it’s now time to analyze ground zero.
The Army Men series starts off simply enough, giving no indication of the devastation that is about to follow. You step into the plastic boots of Sarge, a member of the Green Army, as he fights against the soldiers of the Tan Army. Army Men, like the rest of the series, is based on the generic plastic toy soldiers that have been a fixture of many childhoods. The toy angle would be emphasized in later titles, but for the first game, it’s more of an aesthetic choice. Soldiers fall apart under fire or melt into a puddle under a flame thrower, but this is otherwise a pretty basic war title.
The narrative, such as it is, follows Sarge as he attempts to find and gather three keys to a new tan super-weapon, a story later retold in Army Men 3D. Missions cover a variety of tasks, such as search-and-destroy, rescue, and escort. Weapons are pulled directly from the titular figurines, giving you access to bazookas, mortars, grenades, and even a mine sweeper. There are even a few opportunities to drive a variety of vehicles. For some missions, you’re given command of a squad of soldiers, but I found that they were only useful for soaking up bullets and defusing minefields. There are three map themes (desert, alpine, and bayou) and twelve location with two to three objective in each. It’s not a terribly long game, but given how often you’re likely to find yourself repeating missions after death, it can drag on.
Gameplay features an isometric camera angle, which isn’t an especially good fit for this particular genre. Strategy games, RPG’s, and twin-stick shooters typically function well from this view-point; Army Men is none of these. It’s actually somewhat difficult to describe the gameplay, since nothing similar comes to mind. It’s like a slower, more deliberate twin-stick shooter confined to a single stick. The controls are extremely constrictive and unintuitive. You can run and shoot, but only if you start shooting while moving and not from a standstill. Some weapons, like the mortar or mines, require you to crouch before firing, but it’s up to the game whether it expects you to crouch first before firing, or if it will follow through on its own.
As for the perspective, it makes things extremely unforgiving. Enemies can hit you off screen, but your range is limited to what’s in view. Whether or not an enemy will react to your presence, on the other hand, comes down to luck. Sometimes they won’t acknowledge you, even if you’re breathing on the back of your neck, other times they’ll home in on you the moment you’re within range. Sarge can’t take much of a beating, so death comes suddenly and can mean starting the level over. It doesn’t help that the game seems to assume you’re clairvoyant and capable of predicting when it’s going to throw a curve ball, which usually arrives in the form of a tank or two. It’s extraordinarily frustrating and a source of most of the game’s woes. Attacking a group and getting blindsided by a flamethrower; sneaking into a base and having a tank come rolling through; walking through a tunnel and having a grenadier improbably drop an explosive on your head; it’s a frequent and unwelcome interruption.
The viewing angle can also be disorienting. Since everything is 2D, it’s impossible to tell whether or not a shot will pass over something or merely smack into it. When you approach an enemy on the ledge, it’s seems to be up to luck as to whether you’ll be able to shoot up at them. Most of the time, the bullets will merely smack into the ledge, but on occasion, when the game is feeling generous, the bullets will be able to pass over, unrestricted. That’s annoying, but what is really vexing is when a mortar shell fails to clear a ledge or wall and explodes in your face, forcing you to once again start the mission over.
It boils down to a lot of trial and error, which kills a lot of the enjoyment. First outings feel a bit more like reconnaissance; probing the objective for inevitable pitfalls. Whenever I was actually able to clear an objective on my first attempt, it was almost bewilderingly shocking. The map system does help mitigate this a bit, but putting an X on an entranceway doesn’t fully communicate that a tank is about to roll into position. That said, I could never stay mad at Army Men for too long.
As the series lurched onward, title after title, the press began focusing their ire on new entries. During this period of ceaseless antipathy, some would look back on the original title as though it was a classic whose name was now being exploited and dragged through the dirt. Having now played it, that doesn’t strike me as accurate. It would be difficult for me to call Army Men a bad game, but it’s certainly not a very good one. It’s a bit better designed than the mess that Army Men 3D was, but that’s as much credit as I’m willing to give it. I can’t really recommend the game, but if, like me, you’re cursed with an insatiable curiosity for the series, seeing how it all began isn’t a total waste of time.
This review was conducted on a digital copy of the original game, purchased from gog.com by the author.