Back in 2001, we at 3DO Redwood City released our baby, Army Men: Green Rogue, a game that attempted to recast the hoary Army Men franchise into a darker yet more retro mold. Were we successful?
Apparently not. I just found out that two Youtubers with a series called “Worst Games Ever” profiled AMGR. As you might guess, this wasn’t a compliment, although to be fair the show is fairly genial and humorous. It was a good opportunity for me to review our work on this project and apply the ol’ 20-20 hindsight and the view was indeed revealing.
You may not be familiar with Army Men, but it was a genius idea at the time: take ubiquitous plastic army men, which were already experiencing a renaissance because of the Toy Story movies, and make them the heroes of a new, kid-oriented videogame series. That’s what we were famous for at 3DO. The first entrants in the series were turn-based tactical affairs, which were generally well-received. Then our executives pushed the titles into more action-oriented efforts, spinning off new heroes and launching a set of helicopter-combat games and even a platformer starring the daughter of one of the army officers.
As you might expect, reviewers started to tire of the seemingly-boundless flogging of the series, and eventually the series (and the company) ran out of steam. Still, when launching AMGR, we had hopes it would find an audience. First, it starred a faceless supersoldier who looks unlike the usual WWII grunts. Second, there was the retro gameplay, which keyed on the fact that, if you picked up the same kind of weapon powerup over and over (i.e., the grenade launcher, while avoiding the other weapons), you armed yourself with more and more powerful versions of that weapon, including guided versions of some weapons, or versions with a vast area-of-effect. Eventually you got a pretty spectacular uber-weapon that could ace platoons of foes with little effort, making aiming at different elevations a moot point. Third, the constantly-advancing camera and multiple foes meant a kind of bullet hell lite experience where you had to be constantly dancing around incoming fire while laying down your offensive ordnance.
It wasn’t AAA-level fun, in my opinion, but it was different and surprising without being weird or obtuse, and for that alone we thought AMGR had a chance to be recognized by reviewers who were tired of rote Army Men titles.
And we were wrong. The reviews were terrible. Journalists saw the Army Men label and recoiled in horror, expecting dreck and reviewing it as such. Almost all of them failed to mention the upgradable weapons and the biostrike smart bomb.
The upgradable weapons are indicated with a very large 8-chambered UI meter in the bottom left of the screen, right above your weapon indicator. It’s hard to miss, but when you’re a bleary game reviewer with five other, much sexier games sitting ignored in your inbox, why bother? You can easily pan an Army Men game after 10 minutes of bored play, using the worst weapons in the entire assortment and never seeing a single boss, without anyone ever asking what that meter is. And that’s what our droll and amiable Youtube reviewers did.
Looking back, I feel that was our fault. We made it far too easy to ignore these core features of the game. A simple hard pause and a few dialog boxes would’ve done wonders. “Hey, you just picked up your first weapon powerup! Here’s how they work.” “Biostrike powerup? Press this button for boom!” “Want to slow down the game? Try kneeling.” “Hey, that weird numbered powerup you grabbed? Here’s what it does.” (Honestly, I don’t remember what those do.)
We also failed in production to make key moments of story meaningful, which added to the slapdash feel. (Story, anyone?) I remember asking if some of our in-game dialog could be made more audible and relevant, and there was some dithering about the idea of stopping the game to emphasize the story (a cutscene, maybe?) but nothing was done. Specifically, there was a moment where the enemy yell something like, “What is that thing?” and our faceless hero without a history says something to the effect of “I’m… I’m a monster!” Would that have been more affecting if it hadn’t been drowned out by explosions and death screams? I’m gonna say yes.
Some other flaws I’m seeing clearly now: Weapons not autocorrecting generously for terrain was a huge mistake. Offscreen enemies shooting at the player was not good. The terrain itself should’ve been much flatter — roads instead of paths — so the flaws weren’t so pronounced. “Our world” environments like kitchens and bathrooms should’ve been introduced immediately (this was one of my big gripes but I was shot down because of the “gritty” feel we were targeting). The “I am Omega Soldier” powerup animation is dorky and not explained, nor is it clear what effect it has. The audio levels and voiceovers are rough and many of the battle dialog bits are heavily repeated. And of course the hero’s movement and the movement of the camera are jerky and laughable.
In retrospect, like many other games and movies, AMGR was full of good intentions (really!) that were badly implemented or communicated. I wish we could go back and make a few tweaks so people could appreciate the (modest) value that we delivered. Please let me go back. I just need a time machine, two more weeks in the schedule, and the total compliance of management. That’s not too much to ask, right?
My fellow designer Keith Meyer says:
- He would have skewered the reviewers even more. He recalls pretty clearly some early reviews that completely missed the point/style/ how to play the game, which was frustrating because, although it wasn’t an AAA title, it was a pretty fun game for what it was.
- He likes to focus on YouTube comments like the person who said they loved the game and played the electrons out it when they were 12 or 13. “That was what we were aiming for.”
- Lack of a tutorial really hurts.