Army Men: Sarge's Heroes

Developer: 3DO
Publisher: 3DO
Released: September 29 1999
Regions: NA, PAL
Genre: Third-Person Shooter
Multiplayer: 1-4 players
Cart Size: 8MB / 64Mbits
Saving: Controller Pak
Rumble Pak?: Yes
Expansion Pak? Yes
- Required? No
Identity Crisis of the Third-person Kind.

Army Men: Sarge's Heroes tugs on my nostalgia-strings in a way few other games do from the N64 library. When the 3DO Company converted a childhood favorite toy into a video game series I was hooked. In this 1999 installment to the Army Men series, the titular toys are pitted against each other in a "battle of epic proportions," featuring the Green and Tan armies in sandcastles, wintry weather, log fortresses and plain old battle encampments. Playing this game reminded me how I set up my army men meticulously by arranging like with like, M-16s in a string 8-wide, with bazookas at the fort's base and men cleverly crawling just outside the moat. But designing a game takes more than bringing the gamer back to the introverted hours of his lunchbox days. AMSH has some serious flaws, especially when it comes to controlling Sarge, the title character. It also is a melding of enough genres to stand out as a bit of an odd duck. But sometimes it's the ones steeped in originality that we remember, and the expressions of imagination go a long way in earning our forgiveness.

There are several mini-plots in the storyline, each of which focuses on Sargeant Hawk ("Sarge") performing damage control. In the midst of the Tan Army's assault on the Green Army, several members of the Bravo Company Commando have been captured. Under Commander Grimm's orders you must rescue each Green soldier and bring him to safety. Grimm and Sarge also discover General Plastro of the Tan Army is using portals to transport weapons of mass destruction (magnifying glasses, toy robots, etc) from the "Big World" into the world of Army Men, so it becomes necessary for Sarge to destroy the portals as well as the weapons. Throwing a wrench into things, Vikki Grimm gets captured and Sarge has to follow after her through the portals. Level after level, Sarge finally finds General Plastro, disposes of him and the final portal, making the Green Army victorious.

Throughout the story you can see 3DO's half-hearted effort at character development. Every time you save a buddy, Sarge has several minutes of bro time with the newly freed POW while they wait for the helicopter to swoop them up. The comrades portray stereotypical personalities loosely tied to their weapon; the bazooka man wants to blow the Tan Army to smithereens instead of getting rescued, etc. Speaking of stereotypes, during the introduction of Vikki Grimm, the only character in Army Mania with flesh, Sarge gawks at her polygon boobs. Sarge's quest to rescue Vikki from General Plastro is a weak presence of Damsel in Distress, especially considering she's outsmarted Plastro. The sexual tension between Vikki and Grimm, if you can call it that, is so awkwardly unappealing you'll think lower than a Teen rating would have been more appropriate.

It would have made sense to include any rescued members of Bravo Company Commando as a playable character in the next level. Instead, you're stuck with Sarge the whole game through, him being the Jack of all Trades. If you're sick of Sarge then there are secret codes which allow you to play as the comrades, as well as Vikki and as a tin soldier. This is a pretty effective avenue for replay-ability, although playing as other characters doesn't give you any unique capabilities from playing with Sarge. And no matter who you are, the captions will continue to call you Sarge. By typing in successive codes, you can play with any character in any level.

There is no strategy mode in AMSH. The levels are stream-lined into third-person action shooter, and are variations of very nearly the same theme. After a cut-scene of a few minutes, Sarge is left alone with several objectives to complete before he's given a password (you can also use a memory card). It's wise to tread slowly the first time through each objective, clearing the area of Tan Army Men by means of stealth and your sniper rifle. After you've become familiar with the terrain, it's fun to be a bit more brash and blow guys away with your M-16, machine gun or shotgun. It's always wise for Sarge to save his bazooka ammo in case he chances across an enemy copter, and also for the snags that are sure to arise directly before the level's completion. There are no level bosses per se, and there are plenty of ammo and health boxes throughout. Sarge will only have trouble when he lacks patience, forgets which way to proceed, or hasn't been frugal with his ammo.

Controls for AMSH are a nightmare for anyone new to the system. That is to say, they're significantly flawed but with an open-minded approach, still sufficient. It's an overall different experience than Goldeneye, where quick, C-button turns are easy. C-right is instead used for strafing, but can also be used with dexterity to peek around corners. Running and pressing C-left gets Sarge to dive on his belly, but it's more practical from a standing position. C-up pans out the camera slightly, but in no way does it provide the visibility available in Mario 64.

While it's unfair to compare a game's worst attributes to the legendary titles of the system, it really is puzzling the experience 3DO was trying to create with the controls in a game where stealth isn't always plausible. If you charge an enemy soldier and don't kill him before you get there, you run the risk of going straight past, then taking several seconds to rotate Sarge so he can shoot his victim again, all with the camera not taking the clue. Pressing B rotates through your arsenal (while Z plus B rotates backwards), and A simply jumps. However, Sarge will not always jump when you want him too; let's just say you have to feel the algorithm and pray to the gods that be. AMSH is many things other than a platformer, but it's terribly disheartening to have such a staple of gaming represented poorly, especially since some of the later levels require it.

The AI is peculiar, even for a land of toys. Any rescued comrade is pervious to injury and tends to get left behind if you're in a hurry. Any Green Army Men you come across will be fighting valiantly against the Tans, but when you see one glitchingly attempt to run through walls, you'll lose your pride for your team and... put him out of his misery. The Tan Army AI is at least consistent. Sarge has the ability to see some, but not all enemies in an area, even with his sniper scope. When enemies do come into view they will shoot, but not with the best of aim. If Sarge stays out of sight then he's safe, but in the hard difficulty setting he must not use loud weapons if he wants to avoid giving up his position. Sometimes soldiers run at Sarge before opening fire, in which case they are easy targets. Every now and then a soldier will unexpectedly drop in on Sarge and open fire, so Sarge will have to find the source before dispatching it.

Each level has its own music, and although most of them sound similar, a couple are the right kind of bright to be a motivation. It's the proper amount of dramatic quality with a military theme without being overly patriotic. The sound effects aren't too great, just explosions, bullets fire, the occasional sirens, and Sarge piping in with three different, Duke Nukem-like reactions. The music of the game is an overall positive, however I think voice acting in the cut-scenes between levels would have been a great touch. Voice acting would have given the characters a bit more depth and made the plot development that much more compelling.

AMSH can support the expansion pack, but even with it, cloudiness occurs. There are quite a bit of glitches involving character movement. Sarge can get stuck in the terrain and have to restart the level if he's not careful, and occasionally an enemy soldier will advance against you only to be swept to his death by a river in broad sight. Large inanimate objects will sometimes have boundaries that expand beyond the visual border, making Sarge unable to shoot from behind its edge without exposing himself. It feels as if 3DO sacrificed a purely polished presentation for level expanse and variety.

The option to vary your strategy between speed and stealth adds some replay-ability. There is enough variation of weapons to not feel cheated, although more would have been welcome. In addition to Campagin mode, there is a training, or "Boot Camp" mode where you can try out all the weapons, and survive a live-fire course. Bootcamp is fun to tool around with a bit, but its use extends as far as newbies or re-familiarization, and doesn't hold lasting appeal. There is also Battle Mode, where up to four players can play each other by choosing teams, or going every-man-for-himself. It was wise to include this Mode to add replay-ability, but it's not a strength of the game. At first it feels strange to be chasing a character just as quick as you. Going 2-on-2, or 2-1 against if you have an over-confident friend, adds a teamwork aspect that is absent in the Campaign.

The overall difficulty is very appropriate. Although Normal may be best for an initial go-through, those replaying the Campaign will probably want to up to Difficult for their next Campaign. The pacing of the storyline is also sufficient, although several of the levels seem randomly inserted and only loosely connected to the plot. The ending sequence is weak in my opinion: let's just say Plastro's demise could have been more convincing. Then again, 3DO wasn't by any means through with making Army Men games.

Army Men: Sarge's Heroes is a fun game with token flaws, but still worth anyone's while who is unfamiliar with it. It's not generally considered the best game of the Army Men franchise, but it does embody that certain something that makes the series endearing. The development of AMSH entailed quite a bit of genre-blending, which could be a deterrent for anyone not immediately sold by the concept. Some examples of the game's broken identity include:
1) Why isn't this a first-person shooter, when there are glaring difficulties with this third-person format? Duke's... er Sarge's grunts sound borrowed from another source.
2) Is this a war game, a spy game, or sandbox scenario? No blood and guts, but no time limit to complete my stealth missions either.
3) Is this a game for kids or adults? I see a lot of toys running around, but I just shot twelve of them in the head, and randiness seems to be a character trait of my avatar.

It's always a risk to make a non-cookie-cutter game, but I'll appreciate the effort that's a risk over a trusted game like a dozen others. Even throwing into the mix portals, a sci-fi element shows ingenuity. How else did we explain the battles we used to have in the backyard sandbox between our Legos and toy dinosaurs? AMSH is definitely fun enough that I'll look for its sequel, Army Men: Sarge's Heroes II on the N64. Its predecessor showed promise, and I'd like to think it can make the leap to being a great game.

Presentation: 8.5
Army Men: Sarge's Heroes draws from many genres but leaves out the strategy element of the series' roots. It's a game with edge that has a way of hooking you.

Graphics: 7.5
Not bad for a toy game. You really get that sandbox feeling.

Sound: 7.0
The music sets the right tone but the sound effects weren't great.

Gameplay: 7.5
Controls are a pain but I like playing with the WW2 weapons and improving my "stealthsmanship."

Lasting Appeal: 8.0
Army Men: Sarge's Heroes is great the first time through, though it might be a minute before you get the itch to return. Not much to offer other than the Campaign, but overall the game is a sum worth more than its parts.

Overall: 7.7

Written by Joseph Moore
Screenshots by Aaron Wilcott
December 25 2012