Army Men: Sarge's Heroes
Nintendo 64 version
Real combat. Cheap toys.
To anyone who’s unfamiliar with the franchise, Army Men is a series of games about those little plastic soldiers many of us grew up with. It started out humbly enough, but between 1999 and 2003, 3D0 spammed multiple platforms with these games until they ultimately went bankrupt and the rights were bought by Global Star. The unfortunate thing was that many of the games weren’t all that great, most of the titles in the series were questionable at best. Oh, and ports upon ports, my goodness. In the case of the Sarge’s Heroes sub-series, each port was almost entirely different, aside from the plot. Yet, despite all I’ve just said about the franchise, it’s still a guilty pleasure of mine, and I’ve recently been playing as many titles in the series as I can get my hands on. Don’t judge me.
Army Men: Sarge’s Heroes was the first game in the series to land on the N64. In addition, it’s a bit more action-oriented than previous entries, such as Army Men 3D, and it incorporates the “real world” areas of Army Men II that give it a lighter tone. Like in the previous games, you play as a green toy soldier and battle against the tan army. To me, it’s fairly obvious that the developers had a deep love of the plastic soldiers. The characters often take the figurines’ signature poses when holding the various weapons, and levels include such common battlefields as the rim of a bathtub and a sandbox. The weapons and even the vehicles should be recognizable to anyone who had a decent set of the mass-produced toys.
The pacing of the game is pretty well done. The game switches between missions in the “plastic world” and those in the “real world”. When in the plastic world, everything is scaled to the size of the soldiers, so you could easily replace the characters with more realistic, human ones, and you’d be left with a conventional war game. However, in the real world you’re a tiny figurine climbing on huge objects like couches and wrapped presents. It flows between the two quite well and you’re initially given small tastes of the real world to whet your appetite before the game rolls out some absolutely huge, detailed environments. While the plastic world levels are bathed in oppressive draw fog, the simpler geometry of the real world allows for it to be pushed back to impressive distances, giving you a fantastic view of the scale.
That’s what I really love about the game: the scale. The levels are rather large for an N64 game, and they’re crammed full of nooks and crannies that you can explore. While the levels are linear, they do allow for some deviation as you advance towards your objective. The value of deviating is a bit questionable, as the game loads you down with more ordinance than you could ever use, but there’s no denying the fun of exploration. While the climbing is cumbersome, it certainly adds a lot to the sense of discovery in these large environments. However, some areas, such as the staircase in the living room level, lead to dead ends and are often much more trouble than they’re worth.
The graphics, while not spectacular, are rather appealing. Level size aside, I found the art to be extremely clean and colourful. Sarge’s Heroes also takes advantage of the N64’s optional expansion pack to allow a high-resolution mode. There is some slowdown present in some areas, but I never found it to be overly intrusive, especially since poor frame rate was fairly common in this era of consoles. The music also stands out. Again, it isn’t overly special, but some of the tracks are quite memorable and appealing.
It’s been said that Super Mario 64 defined how the camera should be controlled in 3D video games. If that’s the case, the Sarge’s Heroes team didn’t get the memo, because this game has one of the most vexing cameras I’ve encountered. Its biggest problem is that there’s severe lag in keeping up to where you face. So if you turn around a corner, the camera struggles to catch up until you stop, which gives off-screen enemies the advantage. What’s worse is that there’s really no way to deal with it. Aside from zoom, you can’t directly control the camera; there isn’t even a button to realign it behind you. After a while, I found myself shooting as I ran around corners in hopes that the over-zealous auto-aim would pick off any enemies who waited off-screen.
It’s kind of strange though, the poor camera doesn’t make the game any more difficult because it’s balanced by another problem; the dimwitted AI. Enemies aren’t loaded in with the level, they only appear after you walk past an invisible point (which doesn’t work that well in some of the more open levels). So once you walk through, say, a doorway, enemies will appear from nowhere and pop their heads up. Each of the enemies are given a very simple routine and have no will to deviate from it. If an enemy pops up from behind something, he won’t ever move from that cover, even if you go where he can’t hit you. They’re also given very limited vision, so it’s easy to pick them off from a distance because they have difficulty spotting you. This can sometimes make things very easy, as it’s not difficult to outwit AI this rudimentary.
The tanks, robots, and helicopters are by far the easiest to outwit. The collision detection is iffy, at best, and it’s easy to get it to work to your advantage. The hit boxes surrounding vehicles are absolutely massive, and when a vehicle spots you, it stops moving and mindlessly fires at you. So all you have to do is position yourself somewhere that it can’t hit you, and launch rockets at its general area. These are supposed to be fearsome foes, but dealing with them is as easy as walking around a corner. However the out of place hit-boxes can work against you and, on many occasions, bullets will be stopped by what seems to be nothing at all. Vegetation and insects in particular have massively disproportionate collision boxes, which can block your bullets from reaching your target.
Of course, it doesn’t help that the controls are a bit lacking. To say that they take some getting used to is a dramatic understatement. The button mapping alone is a bit of a mystery, even muscle memory has failed me on occasion. The worst part is the crouching control. There’s a button for both prone and kneel, but you have to press the jump button to get out of either. Also, pressing the prone button while crouching doesn’t make you go prone, you instead have to press crouch again. It’s confusing as all hell, but luckily you rarely need to go prone. The game gives you freedom to remap the controls, but that won’t necessarily help you.
What really doesn’t help is Sarge’s movements. The guy’s a tank. It takes him about a year to turn around. His animations don’t interrupt each other either, so controls seem unresponsive at times. The worst is when you get hit by a projectile while running. Sarge flinches whenever he’s hit, which causes him to ignore further command until the animation finishes. Yet he keeps running, potentially straight into danger, and there’s nothing you can do about it until that blasted animation runs its course.
The Bottom Line
It feels weird to say this, but Sarge’s Heroes reaches a balance in its poor design. One terrible game mechanic seems to counter another; Bad camera made up for by poor AI, frustrating controls are offset by an over-abundance of pick-ups, and so on. What it results in is a surprisingly playable game. I actually enjoy Sarge’s Heroes quite a bit. A lot of creativity and love went into this game, even if it was weighed down by something else. However, it’s a difficult game to recommend. If you have a fondness for those plastic soldiers, then you may have a soft spot for this game. Approach it assuming it’s going to be horrid and you may be pleasantly surprised. Just don’t expect to be blown away, because as a whole, Army Men: Sarge’s Heroes is merely OKAY.
I’d like to clarify that this review applies only to the N64 version of this game. The Playstation version appears to be an entirely different game with its own level arrangements, an oppressive draw fog, and FMV cutscenes. The Dreamcast version, on the other hand, is apparently an enhanced port of the N64 version by a different team, with many of its problems corrected. In fact, I’m hoping to come across a copy, so that perhaps it can scratch my itch for a superior Army Men product. However, as it stands, I have no experience with the other versions, so I can’t compare them.
by Adzuken (836) on January 20th, 2011