America’s Army: Proving Grounds Preview

Yeah! The game is fun.

America's Army: Proving Grounds is the latest in the America's Army franchise, a first-person shooter designed to reflect Army values. It has a tough job to do. It has to be simultaneously fun and enjoyable to new players, but also display a degree of realism and incentivize teamwork. In order to meet these goals, the developers have tried to strike a balance between arcade shooters and tactical shooters, combining arcade control features and physical abilities with the team-based play and lethality of tactical games. The balance, the devs told me, is a constant struggle between what they need to have in the game from the perspective of the needs of the Army and the desires of mainstream players.

How this plays out makes Proving Grounds a very competent mix of first-person gaming mechanics similar to sandbox, contemporary military shooters like the Battlefield or Medal of Honor franchises, with precision team-based tactical shooters, and short-running intense matches in tight corridors a la Counterstrike. This makes for some great innovative gameplay ideas that enhance the game's experience.

While Proving Grounds has a number of features that are already a part of mainstream games, the two that really enhance gameplay are the bleed mechanic and suppression. When shot in the game, provided you aren't instantly killed by a headshot, you begin to bleed, with a section of your life bar slowly running out. You can stop the flow of blood from the bleeding completely by bandaging yourself; you have limitless bandages, something the devs said they went back and forth on, but ultimately decided that with the short play times was alright, since if necessary in the field you could tear strips off of your uniform. Of course, if you've already been shot, it's most likely necessary to find cover to bandage yourself.

And you'll want to find cover, especially if you're still taking fire. The America's Army team call the experience of taking fire suppression. While an enemy is firing upon you while you remain outside of cover, the screen begins to grey and shake in a way that is completely disorienting. It doesn't affect aim, in that it doesn't move the crosshairs or targeting reticule to a different location, so it can be fought through if necessary, but it makes concentration incredibly difficult. It's a great simulation of a biological panic response, and it reinforces a more cautious play style. What's fantastic about it is how natural it feels and is a far better indication of danger than portions of the screen turning red. Bravo America's Army, bravo.

These mechanics highlight their target goal of getting players to adopt the tactics of "move, shoot, communicate." Similarly, points and experience are awarded for team-based objectives as opposed to kills. This can include reviving fallen teammates who have entered a neutralized state (which can be done up to two times) or capturing opponents. There's even a feature where, if you reach a captured teammate before he disappears from the map, you can cut him free.

The game does have a framing story, set up in the America's Army comic book, which the devs told me is a great platform, because it allows them to explore the political side of modern conflicts and specialist roles that aren't as suited for a first-person shooter game. The game is set amidst a conflicted region where the fascist government of Czervenia is encroaching upon the Republic of the Ostregals. When the Czervenians are discovered to have acquired radioactive material, the US intervenes.

The game itself takes place in a training facility, JTC Griffin, nicknamed Proving Grounds, where the smaller tactical teams (which the devs told me reflects current changes in the military's structure) are trained for missions against the Czervenia forces. The environments are a mix and match of Conex containers (i.e. metal shipping containers), arranged and shifted to resemble potential deployment areas for the tactical teams. This also helps explain the game's reason, good for a game created by the military, that you will always play as a US Army soldier.

A lot has been done to optimize the game for a public that's more used to run-and-gun gameplay, while still maintaining the more tactical and team-based gameplay, a core value which the military needs to express. One of the best things about this is that assist features and other automatic mechanics provided to ease players in can be turned off, either one at a time or by playing in the game's hardcore mode, making the difficulty customizable. Additionally, they've brought over the favorite maps from America's Army 2 and 3.

America's Army is a free game and will be available on Steam for PC on August 29th. The devs told me that calling it a recruitment tool (for which they've taken public flack in the past) is a misnomer. They see it more as an educational tool about the Army's values and tell me that it's the game that people in the Army prefer to play. Regardless of how the game is received ideologically, it's a strong online shooter that bridges the gap between hardcore tactical shooters and arcade shooters, and worth checking out for fans of the genre.