I’m currently gunning for a role as the foremost authority on Army Men games, a role that I’ll likely achieve by merit of the fact that no one in the right mind would actually want that title. At this point, I’ve played through maybe half of the series across a myriad of consoles. It all began with Army Men: Sarge’s Heroes on the N64, a game that, as a pre-adolescent, I awaited with anticipation and embraced with blind devotion. I’ve been spiraling out of control ever since.
If I actually had to try and analyze my affection for the Army Men series, I’d define it, at least in part, as a search. For years, I’ve been dredging the Army Men franchise for something that finally captures the spark that I saw in my first experience with Sarge’s Heroes and ignites it. Troubled, though it may be, the series is built on a tantalizing premise; a cartoonish war on a tiny scale. Little, cheap plastic men, struggling for supremacy in a battle where anything can happen.
However, I’m resigned to the likelihood that such a game doesn’t exist, especially not within the confines of 3DO’s maligned library. Sarge’s Heroes, the starting point for my tale of woe, is perhaps that closest I’ll ever get. Unfortunately the N64 version featured some glaring problems that undermined its potential. It didn’t completely sour the experience for me, but it left me with reservations. A year later, however, 3DO released a Saffire developed Dreamcast update of that title, giving it a chance at redemption.
A CHANCE AT REDEMPTION
Sarge’s Heroes was the first Army Men game to hit the N64 and the only one to hit the Dreamcast. You take the role of Green Army Sargent “Sarge” Hawk, the series’ frequent protagonist, as he attempts to stop a recently bolstered Tan Army led by General Plastro. It technically exists in its own continuity, separate from the previous titles, ratcheting up the action and incorporating some of the “other world” portions of Army Men II. It’s also the first game in the series that tries to inject a bit of personality into the generic plastic toys that inhabit its world by introducing a principal cast and establishing their relationship.
The story and characters aren’t that compelling, but it’s the “other world” levels that really stir my loins. I’ve long had a fascination with games that cast you as a miniature inhabitant of a massive world, going back to Giant Land in Super Mario Bros. 3. Sarge’s Heroes seems to recognize this as its strength, as well, using the levels set within them to establish pacing. They trickle in at the start, giving you a bathtub to play around as early as the third level before later climaxing with four successive missions throughout someone’s home.
It helps that the level design is absolutely fantastic, striking a nice balance of linear pathways and open areas. The penultimate level in particular is an incredibly inventive design that stands as an excellent example of what the game can achieve. The sense of scale is fantastic, and there’s a lot of excitement to be found on a couch cushion battlefield. Most areas provide multiple routes to an objective, giving a small amount of freedom that prevents the game from feeling like it’s on rails. Nooks and crannies litter each level, providing extra gear for those who are willing to explore. Rewards are limited, and some of these smaller stashes are needlessly expansive, but it is fun to backtrack to find a hidden health pack when in need.
While previous Army Men games weren’t light on action, Sarge’s Heroes leans more in the cartoony direction, and the result is something a little more fast paced and breezier. Jumping has finally been introduced to the series, and with it, a little bit of platforming is incorporated. As such, many of the larger levels have a nice smattering of verticality, giving the opportunity to climb to a high vantage. The weapons are largely pulled from previous games, including the mortar, flamethrower, and bazooka, and while they’re a bit of a mixed bag, they’re rather fun to use when the occasion strikes. Like previous games, enemies have severe glass jaws and fall in a couple shots, but this helps the game maintain a near run-and-gun pace. It’s nothing mind-blowing, but it is entertaining.
The enemy AI remains pretty similar to what was present in Army Men 3D in the sense that they largely stick to a static location and never move. Unless I’m mistaken, however, effort was made to improve your assailants and provide them with more free will. The N64 version was pretty stark in the set up of its enemies; you would pass by an invisible barrier and they’d spawn in. With an increased draw distance, the Dreamcast version doesn’t have as many opportunities to hide this spawning, so more of the enemies are actually capable of a direct assault. Still, they’re not too bright, exhibiting no interest in their own preservation.
The Dreamcast version is extremely similar to its N64 counterpart to the extent that it actually eschews the pre-rendered cutscenes of the Playstation version and sticks to the N64’s in-engine versions. They’re now voiced over, but the pantomimes that go along with the lines are essentially the same. So closely does it mirror its progenitor that the glitch that allows you to do a moonwalking strafe still exists (thank goodness). What it does update is the graphics fidelity and tightens a few of the looser bolts. “Few” being the key operator here.
The camera was probably the worst offender in the N64 title, and that’s been addressed here. The original version featured a floaty and uncooperative cameraman that would hesitate to reposition itself when Sarge would turn. The result was a lot of blindness whenever going around corners and this would necessitate shooting in advance in hopes of eliminating any opposition that might be waiting beyond the line of sight. Now, the camera stays fixed behind Sarge at all times, and it’s never a problem as a result. Sarge still turns with the speed and urgency of a revolving door, but at least you can see what you’re looking at.
The graphics are definitely improved in more areas than just polygon count and texture resolution, though this draws more attention to some of the game’s quirks. Specifically, the N64 version’s whacked out collision detection. The tanks are the starkest example of this, as their hitbox extends to an indeterminable distance above the top of the model. You can lob a grenade or shoot a rocket well over the top of it, and it will likely register as a hit. The horsepower upgrade allows for casualties and vehicular wrecks to linger on the battlefield for much longer periods of time before fading away, and the twisted remains of tanks and helicopters have a tendency to disrupt fights by absorbing passing projectiles.
GOOD TO GO
If I haven’t made it clear, my perspective on Sarge’s Heroes is notably skewed. It’s hard for me not to be a little excited about a more refined version of a game I’ve loved despite its severe deficiencies. The Army Men series just takes advantage of a weakness I have, and Sarge’s Heroes is the most precise attack against it. Don’t get me wrong, I’m well aware that Sarge’s Heroes has some glaring issues, I’m not so deluded that I miss them. It’s an extremely clumsy game featuring clunky controls and questionable collision detection. Even with its Dreamcast update, there’s no getting past the fact that its mechanics are a wobbly house of cards that stand in a way that defies gravity. Yet, despite this, I still find myself compelled to recommend Sarge’s Heroes, and the Dreamcast version is definitely the way to go, if you can swing it.
Note: this review only applies to the Dreamcast version. The N64 version is close enough that a lot of these points are still valid, but the Playstation and Windows versions are almost entirely different games.
This review was conducted on a Dreamcast using an original copy of the game. The game was paid for by the author.