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Electronic action figures go to war

October 16, 1998
3DO's electronic "Army Men".   
Web posted at: 1:00 PM EDT

By CNN Interactive Editor Steve Baxter

(CNN) -- When I was about ten years old, my friends and I would play for hours in the dirt. We would line up our green plastic army men in clever formations under various forms of cover and then mow them down with a hail of small stones. But the real carnage took place in our young minds. We would take the World War II stories we had seen and heard and play them out in miniature, wondering what it was like to risk life and limb for a desperate cause, only guessing at the geo-political strategies that mold history.

Several years ago, software publisher Maxis coined the term "software toy" to describe its game products. Since then, CD-ROMs have become one of the most popular forms of entertainment. The TV screen and PC monitor have become a sandbox of sorts, a digital playground where hours go by like minutes. For many, it's a battlefield measured in inches, where toy soldiers come to life and die just as quickly. Where once the action took place in the mind, now it happens before our eyes in real-time, high definition computer graphics where you control the events as they unfold.

Tan vs. Green

Looking down on one of the 28 detailed "Army Men" battlefields.   
"Army Men," from software publisher 3DO is a classic not because it's such a great game but because it's based on that classic action toy, the two-inch-tall plastic soldier.

Pixar and Disney brought these generic action figures to life in the popular computer animated feature "Toy Story." That must have inspired someone at 3DO to make "Army Men." The nostalgia value of this game is high as you torture the poor plastic people just like you may have done in your backyard battles as a child.

Playing the part of "Sarge," you lead your squad of men (there's no women in this army) in 28 battles placed in three different types of terrain. Your "Green" army is pitted against the evil minions of the "Tan" forces, and you have all sorts of military plasticware at your disposal. Machine guns, grenades, bazookas, mortars and flame-throwers are just a few of the tools of destruction at your disposal. You can drive jeeps, trucks, half-tracks and tanks or test your tactical skills by calling in air strikes, reconnaissance missions and paratrooper reinforcements.

Everything in the "Army Men" world is plastic and acts and reacts like you would expect. Sarge morphs into any of the six types of soldiers depending on the weapons available and the mission to be accomplished. Flame-throwers will melt your enemies into plastic puddles while bullets and explosions will leave the battlefield littered with plastic pieces.

This is not your typical shoot-everything-that-moves game. The missions require some skill, stealth and strategic thinking. Some involve taking real estate, freeing prisoners, capturing important documents and even liberating money from an enemy bank.

The user interface is unique. It's very keyboard oriented and initially not easy to use, but the "Boot Camp" training facility lowers the learning curve considerably. Like many war/strategy games, your die a lot... so save often.
"Commandos" lets players command a small, elite force of Allied soldiers.   

Behind enemy lines

One of this fall's most popular computer games learns a lesson from history. "Commandos: Behind Enemy Lines" is one of the top selling games in Europe and is also gaining the attention of serious gamers in North America. Set during World War II, "Commandos" puts you in command of a small, elite team of Allied soldiers whose mission is to cause havoc behind German lines.

You control the team members individually or as a group. Each soldier has his own strengths, weaknesses and skills that figure into the successful completion of each mission. As "Commandos" commander, it's important to know your men.

There's a hotheaded Irishman, two Englishmen, an Aussie, American and a French spy. Each has a complicated personality and a bag full of nasty, military tricks.

The missions in "Commandos" are as difficult and complex as the soldiers that you control. The producers of the game went out of their way to base each mission on real WWII events, giving the game much more than just entertainment value.

The game's user interface is unique and well thought out. There are detailed training videos available that will quickly get you up and playing the game with skill. Be patient or prepare to die again and again. If one of your team members is killed you cannot complete the current mission, so save often.

Playing "Commandos" involves a lot of waiting. In many ways, the game's artificial intelligence reflects reality and can control up to 40 enemy units at a time. Watch the German guards long enough and you'll figure out when it's safe to move. But the A.I. can be rather stupid at times too. For instance, I set traps in the path of a German patrol as it made its rounds until there was no one left. But don't worry, the game will surprise you often with unexpected events.

"Commandos" missions are based on real WWII events.   
The game lets you assign software "cameras" to the action as it unfolds and then divides up the screen so you can watch up to six views at once. You can also select the German's field of vision. It shows up as a green shaded area on the screen. If you're caught out in the open, the guards will react with deadly force so learn when to duck.

One major difference between "Commandos" and other strategy games is that there is no resource management. You enter each mission with what you need and it's important to be conservative.

"Commandos" is digital dynamite. Of all the real-time strategy games I've played over the years, "Commandos: Behind Enemy Lines" is one of the best. It's got the right combination of intelligent gameplay, excitement and historical perspective.

Sure, maybe I did use my imagination more when I was ten years old, but playing with these electronic action figures in my digital sandbox is a lot more interesting than watching sitcoms on TV. The only downside is the investment involved -- not in the game's purchase price but in the endless hours of gameplay.

Ah, so many games... so little time.

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