Until someone finally gets me the help I need, the Army Men series remains one of my greatest guilty pleasures in the realm of gaming. I love the series, it just doesn’t love me. Even the best games of the brand I’ve thus far encountered feature fatal flaws that have been difficult to overlook. The worst of the games, though, they just prefer to show my affection isn’t appreciated.
I’ve yet to play every Army Men game — in the short lifespan of the series, 3DO cranked out over 20 of the titles, not counting some radically different ports — but of the ones I have encountered, none provided an experience as unpleasant as Army Men: Sarge’s Heroes 2 on the N64. On paper, it sounds like everything I could want. It’s a sequel to my favourite game featuring the little green men, with all the refinements one would expect from that increment, but in practice, it was a devastatingly calculated strike against my happiness. I’d honestly rather play Superman on the N64, and I’m not exaggerating.
However, released around the same time was an expanded port for the new console on the block; the Playstation 2. Dare I dream that this version could be what I always hoped for, fixing the evils of the N64 version and finally delivering on the series’ promising concept?
A COMPLETE NIGHTMARE
If there’s one thing I can give Sarge’s Heroes 2 positive credit for, it’s that it doubles down on the weirder elements of the previous game. While you’re still primarily fighting the enemy Tan Army, they’ve employed some gizmos lifted from a toy store to help bring down the Green nation. Unfortunately, this too is handled pretty poorly. The narrative centers around a serum developed that can reverse the “plastrification” that occurs to the plastic men when they enter the real world that essentially turns them into the immobile figurines we’re accustomed to. This serum can also be used to animate any toy in the other world, which provides the newly reanimated General Plastro with a supply of new and unusual weapons with which to wage war.
Sarge’s Heroes 2 starts off on the right foot. When the opening cutscene is done rolling, you’re dropped onto a dinner table turned warzone. The Tan Army is still running amok and it’s up to you, playing as recurring Green Army protagonist, Sargeant “Sarge” Hawk (and sometimes his annoying female counterpart, Vikki Grimm), to stop them. Sarge’s Heroes‘ greatest strength was it’s level design, especially when it came to the levels taking place in the “other world”, a representation of our world where the game’s characters are reduced to the scale of their toy counterparts. The dinner table represents this well; it’s open, it’s playful, and it’s fun. This, sadly, is short lived.
Despite the narrative’s toystore full of possibilities, much of it is squandered. While absolutely nothing is off the table, Sarge’s Heroes 2 only prominently features robotic “shock troopers” that are laughably slow and ineffective. These things are played up as some sort of game changing threat, but I was never so much as touched by one. They’re just as easy to ignore as they are to combat. Aside from that, the large robots that were featured in the original Sarge’s Heroes are back, and some rockets show up as destructible objectives, but that’s it. No sword wielding barbarians, no pink magical ponies, no UFO’s or sea creatures; Sarge’s Heroes 2 seems to go out of its way to avoid using any imagination whatsoever.
TWO STEPS BACK
Despite what the dinner table would indicate, the level design that helped elevate its predecessor does not feature in the sequel. They’re typically smaller, much more linear, and far less polished. Even the most intriguing concepts for levels, such as the toy store cashier’s counter featured later in the game, show a careless hand. A lot of the levels seem to consist of a series of corridors, railroading you to the end. Some levels wouldn’t even let me complete them. I got stuck in a drawer in one of the middle levels, Sarge having suddenly lost the ability to grab onto a ledge. I thought that this might be an issue with an event trigger, so I restarted the level and ended up in the same situation. I wound up having to use a level skip cheat to advance, and trust me, I tried to avoid it. Later, I was once again unable to complete a mission because my AI teammate wouldn’t respond after an objective was completed. Once again, I started the mission over again and this time they triggered and wrapped up the stage. Frustrating doesn’t begin to describe the situation.
Enemy placement feels more like an attempt to screw the player over than to present an entertaining experience. The game has this habit of placing ambushes around corners, sometimes on opposite sides. This makes it difficult for Sarge, who turns with the urgency of a ferris wheel, to make it through without taking damage. There’s also a significant number of enemy soldiers who wield explosive weapons, such as the bazooka or grenade launcher, who react with such speed that it’s almost impossible to take them out before they get a shot off, one of which is typically enough to scrap Sarge. Towards the end of the game, it seems to stop trying. Enemies spawn at random, sometimes in plain view, and there isn’t any rhyme or reason to where they’re showing up. It has no qualms with dropping troopers directly behind you or out of sight. It’s a mess.
A DEVASTATINGLY CALCULATED STRIKE
All of the 3D Army Men titles I’ve play have featured aggressive auto-aim that, tied in with the fragile nature of the tan trooper, allows combat to be quick and breezy as you strafe around. Sarge’s Heroes 2 on the PS2 has chosen to mess with this, and the result is an even more frustrating experience than I could ever imagine. There’s a lot of suck to cover, so I’m going to do my best:
Rather than simply have Sarge point his gun at whatever target is closest in front of him, as it was in the previous games, the PS2 version paints a crosshair on whatever object has his attention, which ideally should just provide a visual aid that allows you to better see what you’re aiming at. In theory, anyway. In my experience, even having that crosshair on an enemy was no guarantee that Sarge will actually fire in its direction. If there’s one thing that crosshair does help with, it’s demonstrating how overwhelmingly stupid the targeting system is. On multiple occasions, it would lock onto an innocuous target that posed absolutely no imminent threat, rather than the bazooka wielding tan baddy who was moments away from forcing me to restart the level. Once, the crosshair jumped to something I had no line of sight with, because it was in another room.
If that isn’t frustrating enough, the spread on Sarge’s gun is so intense that it’s difficult to hit a target that is right in front of him. The maddening enemy placement requires constant, back-and-forth strafing to stay alive, and the aim doesn’t cooperate with this tactic. Then, to top it all off, enemy health has been beefed up from previous versions, so they can often soak up a lot of damage. This causes things to devolve into a dance off, with Sarge quickly pacing back and forward while he and the enemy try in vain to land hits. It breaks the flow of the game, and what once felt like a clumsy murder-jog now feels like a telegraphed slap fight.
REAL COMBAT. CHEAP TOYS.
It gets worse. A rather substantial portion of the missions shackle you to an intolerable dimwit with the self-preservation skills of a Twinkie at a Weight Watchers meeting. It wouldn’t be a Sarge’s Heroes game without a show from the members of Bravo Company, and in the intervening time between the first and second game, they’ve become bolder and dafter. They often rush ahead of you, straight into whatever ambush is waiting ahead. They willingly charge up to enemy fortifications and devour whatever ordinance is hurled their way, hell, they’re perfectly happy stepping into your line of fire. Nothing has been done to compensate for their suicidal tendencies, either, so they’re always one bazooka round away from a bubbling pile of molten plastic.
I never had this problem with the original Sarge’s Heroes, allies there always seemed to hang back in safety, perfectly aware of how impotent they are in battle. Here, they seem to be intentionally trying to ruin your day, deliberately throwing themselves to the wolves at every opportunity. I’m not even sure why they exist, as they add nothing to the game. Plot-wise, only Vikki Grimm really contributes anything of value, and her character is so annoying that I’d rather she didn’t. They’re also not all that helpful in battle, charging ahead and staring lovingly at the enemy while absorbing gunfire or hanging back, unwilling to risk actually doing something useful. It’s enough to make you want to strap a fire cracker to their back.
A TURD WITH A GLOSSY FINISH
There are games like Superman on the N64 that are so intensely inept that they’re unpleasant to play, but Army Men: Sarge’s Heroes 2 is excruciating on a different level. To it’s credit, it’s playable, but it seems to devote its entire runtime to making the player as miserable as possible. It’s aggressively awful. With mundane level design, a broken aiming system, and a hostile devotion to escort missions, playing this game is an exercise in masochism. The Playstation 2’s shiny graphics do little to polish this turd. Unless, like myself, you bear a curse that forces you to endure the torture of 3DO’s Army Men games, I’d stay far away from this one. This is an extremely low point for a series that already has a reputation for questionable quality.
Note: This review applies only to the Playstation 2 version of the game. All other ports feature similarities (aside from the Gameboy Color version), but are too different to be applicable.
This review was conducted on a backwards compatible PS3 with an original disk copy of the game. The game was paid for by the author, which they really regret.