In 2003, 3DO folded like a card table. The company had struggled since its inception as a division of EA, starting with a botched console release that few people remember before transitioning to software-only. There were some talented people that worked there, and they made an effort to acquire some equally great studios, but the cogs just didn’t link together right. 3DO’s business model involved a focus on branding and tight deadlines. Games were expected to be made to completion in around 6-to-9 months, and while this did help keep the company in the headlines and the minds of gamers, it meant that quality tended to suffer. To note, there were some great games to come from 3DO, including the Might & Magic and Battletanx series, but this was buried under an endless stream of Army Men games.
The Army Men series remains one of my greatest guilty pleasures when it comes to gaming. Few of them are actually any good, most of them are just mediocre, while some of them are just downright agonizing to play. My relationship with them is complicated; on one hand, I can’t help but derive pleasure from their depictions of the classic toys of my youth, while on the other, they’ve cause irreparable mental anguish that can only be undone with a lobotomy.
I just wish they had been able to reach their potential. Goodness knows, they had ample opportunity.
In 2004, the last game of the classic series was released, Army Men: Sarge’s War. While it was released after the company’s demise by the new rights holder, Global Star Software (a subsidiary of Take-Two), it was largely developed at 3DO before it all fell apart. This was no ordinary Army Men game, either. Someone knew this was the end, and as a result, you can see the sky falling from within.
A SAD GOOD-BYE
Everything’s weird. Sarge’s War kicks off by killing the entire principal cast of the Sarge’s Heroes sub-series before the end of the first act. The Tan have finally been defeated, and they’re set to surrender at a ceremony, but some jerk has other ideas. A bomb goes off and obliterates Colonel Grimm, General Plastro, Bravo Company, and Sarge’s girlfriend, Vikki Grimm. Sarge then loses it and vows revenge again the perpetrator, Colonel Malice, going on a tear through his private army. Killing Tan soldiers is hardly going out of Sarge’s way for revenge, I mean, I’m pretty sure it’s what the guy does on a Saturday, but I guess it’s personal now.
If you can’t tell, Sarge’s War has a much darker tone than the rest of the series, which comes across as a bit bizarre. Sarge’s voicework was previously done brilliantly by Jim Cummings, but apparently he was too animated for the new atmosphere, as it’s now done by a guy who can only seem to talk in a gravelly, macho whisper. All the textures have been caked in grime, and the soldiers wield weapons that look more realistic than their old, colour-coordinated standard issues. I imagine this was done more for the sake of visual diversity, but it also comes at the expense of some of the series’ identity.
This runs in contrast to the more cartoon-y elements that are still in place. Unlike the World War series, which focuses entirely on the scaled down plastic world, Sarge’s War does dive into the giant other world, which means more climbing across kitchen counters. Limbs can be shot off enemies, holes can be blown into Sarge, which is a neat effect, but it seems a little off message when a headless soldier spins comically in circles while Sarge grumbles about how his plastic heart melts under the heat of his smoldering rage. It’s like Max Payne if Max was trying to take revenge on the citizens of Toon Town. This would actually work, if only Sarge’s War had any self-awareness, but if it recognizes how ridiculous it is, it doesn’t show it. At best, some of the enemy soldiers make a few light jokes, but you could probably count these instances on one hand.
REVENGE ON TOON TOWN
As for the game, though, would you believe it if I told you it was middling? To be fair to Sarge’s War, it plays pretty comfortably, mainly owing to the modern conveniences that developed in the near three-year gap since the last third-person Army Men title. Everything has been tightened, and the game feels less rickety than even the best of the previous titles. Shooting is still done using a targeting system, rather than the old auto-aim, so you now have better control over what you’re aiming at. AI is still not super-great, but it’s more responsive than the previous games.
On the other hand, perhaps some of the appeal of the previous game stems from the fact that they were willing to try and fail in certain aspects. Sarge’s War feels really safe in comparison to something like the first Sarge’s Heroes whose inability to say enough is enough resulted in some tremendous, inventive levels. A comparison of the kitchen levels is enough to demonstrate this. In Sarge’s War, the kitchen is a multi-segmented stage: you fight across a counter, load at a hole in a wall, fight across another counter, load, and so on. In Sarge’s Heroes, this was all one gigantic battlefield, and while enemies only existed when they spawned directly in front of you, the cohesiveness made the environment almost awe-inspiring. Sarge’s War has none of that.
By stripping out all of that inventiveness and playfulness, you’re left with a pretty standard shooter. Not a bad one, just not one that’s easy to recommend over any other. Sarge’s War is just a bunch of killing, paused occasionally by the need to destroy a wall to progress. The other world stages are as gritty as anything in any other war game, showing none of the redeeming qualities of the previous games. The fact that they fit in so well with the plastic world locales is disappointing on its own, since it leaves very little variety and nothing to look forward to. Say what you will about the series, it at least had that variety to it.
It’s not that Sarge’s War doesn’t have any personality, it just seems to struggle with its own identity. One of the earliest trailers for the game was a simple teaser that depicted a tan soldier being dismembered by an off-screen shooter. That was how it was announced, “hey, look, now you can blow the arms off your enemies.” It was still rocking its old artstyle and gave no indication that this was the direction it was going in.
I’m not sure when the change happened, whether this was how things were originally planned out or if the direction changed as things went down hill, but it certainly feels like this was an act of the last person out locking the door behind them. As mundane as the actual game may be, Sarge’s War feels like a series that’s crying its last. There’s something sincerely mournful and angry underneath all the cartoon violence and grumbly voices. As someone who has spent the last few weeks wading through the maligned library, examining the wreckage of this curiously forgotten corner of gaming history, I can’t help but pity it. In an uncaring industry where a series can suddenly disappear off the face of the earth because of an ever-changing market, to see a game that overtly displays that it is very much aware of its own fate is palpably disturbing.
WAR IS OVER
The 3DO era of Army Men games leaves us without any attempt to restore the status quo. Everything wraps up with a mere contingency; hinting that the series can continue, it’s just not promised. Sarge and the rest have been AWOL for over a decade now, and it doesn’t look like they’re every going to come back, even if the series itself finds a way to lurch back to life. I will, perhaps, try to collect my feelings on this at a later date, but it is a weird feeling that is underlined by how weird this game is. Eschewing the bright optimism of the series past, Sarge’s War demonstrates a bleak acceptance that the series has no future. One final scream into the void.
The game, though, is fine. It doesn’t actually feel that much like an Army Men game, simply because it lacks the inventive playfulness that served as the exclusive redeeming feature of many of the titles. Instead, it’s an uncharacteristically competent but straightforward third-person shooter. It would have been nice to have gotten a little of both worlds. But when you consider that the series had no fixed formula, Sarge’s War doesn’t seem that out of convention. Army Men has run from wacky to grounded, bubble-gum happy to the more straight-faced, so having a title that’s gritty and depressing still has its place. It’s just unfortunate that the story, aside from a generally intriguing setup, is absolutely horrid.
All in all, Sarge’s War isn’t a bad game. It’s bland, but it’s short, so it doesn’t waste too much time. If that appeals to you, you could certainly do worse, but it’s probably not worth seeking out unless you want to witness the embodiment of how 3DO’s saga came to a close.
This review was conducted on a Gamecube using an original copy of the game. The game was purchased by the author and is still stained with the tears of a bittersweet good-bye.