Review – Army Men: Sarge’s Heroes (PS1)

When this is all over, I doubt that there’s going to be an Army Men game that I’ll point to and claim that it’s among my favourite games of all time. Certainly, a day will come when I get that itch and haul out something like Army Men: World War to try and recapture that feeling of playfulness that occasionally bubbles to the surface of the otherwise putrid mire that is the series. That’s perhaps not fair. Though it’s easy to kick around 3DO’s troubled series, most of it is simply bland. There are, hidden amongst the mediocrity, a few high points as well. Army Men: Sarge’s Heroes is one of them.

I liked Sarge’s Heroes well enough when I first played it on the N64, but it had some pretty substantial issues. A lot of these were polished out for the Dreamcast version; again, not perfect, but definitely enjoyable. However, separate from these titles were the Windows and PS1 versions. While the Dreamcast version was based on the N64 release, the Playstation needed to scale back to fit the game on its weaker hardware. I was curious to see how this was done since the franchise had already established itself on the console with Army Men 3D the previous year, which was a game that featured substantially different gameplay than the more run-and-gun Sarge’s Heroes. There were some pretty massive environments on the N64, so how did they fit them onto the PS1? The short answer is: they didn’t. However, there are some decent trade-offs to consider.

Everything is familiar but different.

PLASTIC DRAMA

For those who are unfamiliar, Sarge’s Heroes is an attempt to breath some recognizable branding into a series that seems born from branding. It establishes a principal cast, upgrading the original series’ generic “Sarge” to Sargeant Hawk, giving him a girlfriend, a squad, and a commanding officer. It’s a fairly successful launch, even though one guy is voicing every male character (rather convincingly), and the established cast helped carry the franchise beyond just the Sarge’s Heroes sub-series.

Exclusive to this version of the game is fully animated, pre-rendered cutscenes. Even the Dreamcast version stuck to the pantomimed, in-engine storytelling that the N64 used in place of the space-heavy movies, which is a shame. The cutscenes are pretty well done and are quite entertaining. The story of the eternal race-war between Green and Tan hasn’t improved any, but the personality of the cast is brought out better in full motion.

PLASTIC SURGERY

Even though the Army Men games had already established a formula for their third-person shooting games with Army Men 3DSarge’s Heroes deviates heavily from it, completely overhauling almost every aspect. The camera perspective, the detail, the movement, the animation; everything has been shifted to allow for a speedier, less deliberate pacing. Sarge can also jump in this entry, which allows for some light climbing and minor platforming. It’s a reasonable facsimile of the N64 version’s gameplay, merely taking time to tweak the camera slightly so that it’s not quite as vexingly hesitant.

While the gameplay has been convincingly copied, there are a lot of substantial differences. The level design, in particular, had to be heavily modified to fit with the Playstation’s more limited capabilities. Many of the levels are obviously based on the former version’s, some more than others, but all of them have changes made. On the minor end, a lot of the nooks and crannies that were crammed with additional health and ammunition have been smoothed over and removed. On the more severe end, the missions have been gutted, divided, or otherwise reconfigured.

Going into this — and indeed, the reason why I’m giving so much attention to a mere port — I was curious about how some of the larger, more vertical environments, like the sandbox, kitchen, and living room, could be translated to the more limited horsepower of the PS1. The answers cover all the approaches the port takes; the sandbox was heavily redesigned into something more linear and focused, the kitchen was cut down to about a third of its previous length, and the living room was sliced into two levels. They’re all less than ideal. One level, in particular, the Tan POW camp, is trimmed back so severely that it took a minute and a half to complete and felt like it only existed to maintain narrative continuity.

Yes, there are tanks!

TANKS FOR NOTHING

The issue is that a lot of what was trimmed was what helped the level design stand apart from other games. If there’s one thing I can say about the PlayStation release’s approach to the design, it’s that the missions are more focused. Troublingly, this focus is largely due to how linear everything has been made. The sandbox in the N64 was a fully explorable sand complex; it had a route to the destination, but there were multiple paths to get there. In the PlayStation, this is replaced with a series of corridors connecting larger nodes. The N64’s final mission was in a bathroom that required you to climb to the top of a counter and cross from the toilet to the bathtub. The PlayStation version just caps off in a hallway; there is no bathroom. Those are some extreme examples, but they illustrate how much of the creative design has been sucked out in the process.

So what do we get in return? Tanks. It’s something. The N64 version had a complete absence of pilotable vehicles, but the Playstation version drops in some tanks. That’s kind of cool. I like tanks, but the ones in Sarge’s Heroes aren’t particularly useful. Most of the areas these tanks are available in are quite limited; cut off by barriers after allowing only a brief cruise. They’re also incredibly cumbersome and fragile, so chances are it won’t even last that long. Still, their inclusion is… something.

That’s not enough to really bring it up to parity with other versions. On top of missing weapons, like the shotgun and knee-mortar, you have to deal with some pretty clunky physics and collision detection. It’s a good thing that the verticality of some of the stages was scaled back severely because Sarge seems to decide on his own whether or not a ledge is worth grabbing onto. The N64 version wasn’t optimal when it came to its controls, but it wasn’t this bad. It makes simple tasks like getting out of the sink on the kitchen level too difficult to deal with. The auto-aim now pastes a big crosshair on whatever you’re aiming at, a mechanic that comes and goes within the series, but the auto-aim tends to have strange priorities in deciding what might be a threat at a given moment. It can also be difficult to aim around barriers, since the logic around what constitutes a physical barrier seems to be known only to the game.

INFERIOR MOLDS

Every time I’d die and have to start over in this game, it was typically due to some annoying reason. Once, I was backtracking with an ally through a minefield. I was too lazy to get my minesweeper back out, so I just followed directly behind them. Before long, I exploded because apparently mines don’t care when they’re stepped on by NPCs, but your fat ass will trigger them if you step in the same area code. Another time I had navigated through a minefield and reached the other end. I put my minesweeper away and continued forward, only to step on a mine because, apparently, the sign I had passed wasn’t signifying that the minefield had ended, but rather that it was continuing, as if that makes sense. Later, I had just rescued an NPC and spotted a tank that was sitting perfectly still and didn’t react to my approach. It was blocking an entryway and facing away, so I figured it was set there for me to drive, but when I walked into the side of it, I died instantly. It was apparently an enemy.

Anyway, Sarge’s Heroes on PlayStation isn’t horrific or anything, it’s just easily the worst version you could go with. Even if you ignore the graphical fidelity or the level of polish that suggests it was a cheap port-job, a lot of what made the N64 and Dreamcast versions remarkable has been stripped away in the conversion. What you’re left with is a game that’s serviceable but dull. There are a few reasons why you might want to try it: the inclusion of pre-rendered cutscenes, tanks, or maybe you just want to see the remixed level layouts. After all, if you’re itching for more of Sarge’s Heroes, you’re better off just playing this version than moving onto the abominable Sarge’s Heroes 2.

4/10

Note: This review applies to the Playstation version and the similar PC version. As noted in the review, the Dreamcast and N64 versions both feature stark differences.

This review was conducted on a backwards compatible PS3 with a “collector’s edition” version of the game. The only difference that the author is aware of is the fact that the collector’s edition was part of a three-pack of games. It was paid for by the author.

About Adzuken 146 Articles
Adzuken has been gaming for as far back as they can remember. Their eclectic tastes have led them across a vast assortment of consoles and both the best and worst games they have to offer.

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