2002 marked the decline of the Army Men franchise. After spewing out countless titles for the previous 4 years, 3DO had lost steam and could only muster two unique titles for the year. One was the console and PC title, Army Men RTS, while the other was the Game Boy Advance Army Men: Turf War. It’s no doubt for this reason that Turf War is something of an obscure title; having a surprising dearth of information on the internet. It’s the third title for the series on the GBA, following the mediocre Army Men Advance and the pretty okay Operation Green. As far as titles for 3DO to end their handheld run with, it could have been worse.
THREE’S A CROWD
You’re placed into the plastic boots of recurring protagonist, Sargent Hawk, a soldier in the Green Army. You’re once again tasked with taking the fight to the Tan Army, who is… Okay, I’m really not sure what’s going on here. You’re assisted by Colonel Grimm and a Blue Army spy, but what they’re trying to achieve is a bit of a mystery and seems to change as the plot advances. It may be clarified in the instruction manual, but I don’t have that, and I can’t find a copy of it online.
The Turf War moniker may refer to the fact that the whole game seems to take place in somebody’s yard, but that’s only a guess. The levels play out in a linear fashion, with your progress fenced in with literal fences. Along the way, you fight off tan troops, blow up boats, and sometimes drive vehicles. There’s eight “levels,” and, again, I have no idea what the primary goal is. I have no clue what you’re progressing towards. None. I know how it ends, now that I finished the game, and I’m still unsure of how it got to that point.
So, I have frustrations.
THE SMELL OF MELTING PLASTIC
Are you familiar with the GBA versions of the Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater series? They were pretty good, but most notably, they featured graphics that involved 3D character models over a static, 2D isometric backdrop. It worked quite well, and managed to look pretty good. Army Men: Turf War uses the same technique, but looks way uglier. Which is a shame, since its predecessor, Operation Green, looked fantastic, even with less technical trickery.
The problem is that it looks devoid of personality. The colours are drab, and the environments are very same-y. There’s very little continuity from one place to the next, so it doesn’t really feel like you’re in a cohesive environment; just a bunch of backyard themed pathways. You occasionally see glimpses of areas that look like they’d help ground the setting, like a sandbox in one of the final cutscenes, but nothing like that really turns up throughout the course of gameplay. It’s almost aggressively bland.
There’s also approximately one music track that plays throughout every level. I’ve taken to referring to it as snare-pop, since it consists of a repetitive, constant, military snare beat combined with chirpy flutes. The game is not particularly long, but hearing this song for over an hours is almost excruciating.
The gameplay fares slightly better, but only because it’s not bad. It mainly apes the Sarge’s Heroes subseries of Army Men games, with a bit of verticality mixed in. There are climbing obstacles, zip-lines, swing ropes, and minefields. Had these been placed in more interesting locales, they might have enhanced gameplay, but you typically just come across them at random in your path.
Combat works reasonably well, once you’ve gotten used to it, because of an aggressive auto-aim. There’s no dedicated strafe button, but once you’ve locked your sights on an enemy, Sarge will automatically rotate to shoot them as you move. Unfortunately, the auto-aim isn’t quite so helpful when firing rockets or throwing grenades, as rockets normally fly directly into the ground, five feet in front of you, while grenades will often fall short or go too far. You can roll or drop prone, but the controls for these actions are also something that takes adjustment.
You also get the chance to drive vehicles; specifically a tank and a jeep. The controls for the tank are actually pretty slick. You aim the turret by holding the fire button, then release the button to shoot a round. It’s not exactly an intuitive schema, but it works quite well. It’s just too bad that you only get to drive vehicles a couple of times.
Turf Wars is over in, like, an hour and a half, maybe. It’s not the shortest Army Men game to grace a handheld (that would be the first two on Game Boy Color), but it’s far too short for what it is. I assume this issue is due to 3DO’s policy of having a game out the door in 6 months. Mechanically, it’s a reasonably playable game. All the elements of a decent handheld translation are here, but it just doesn’t go far enough to really make use of them.
There’s a multiplayer mode, but I wasn’t able to test it, because I’m not sure where I’d find another owner of Army Men: Turf Wars. It’s production time that would have been better spent on the singleplayer, anyhow, since I don’t recall multiplayer ever being a big draw on the GBA.
Also, having bought a used copy of the game, when I began the game, I was started on the last level without realizing it. I was confused when the credits rolled after finishing the level, and thought that every level must’ve been episodic. I then started from the 2nd level, and figured out several stages in what my mistake was. I then had to go back and complete the tutorial after everything was done, since I inadvertently skipped it.
I bring this up to demonstrate a few things: the difficulty is so flat that I completed the last level without having even played the tutorial, the user interface is so confusing that I didn’t realize I had to specifically tell it not to skip the entire game, and the narrative is so undercooked, that I didn’t realize I was playing the climax. Add to that the game’s bland visuals and annoying soundtrack, and you have, in a nutshell, how I feel about Turf War. There are worse game’s out there, especially when it comes to the Army Men series, but you can safely skip this one without missing out on much.
This critique was done using a GameCube Game Boy Player and an original cartridge copy of the game. It was paid for by the author.