Originally released more than three years ago as a free downloadable PC game, America's Army has seen numerous updates and overhauls. The game has been spit-shined and polished many times over, like a recruit's boot just before inspection. With the release of Rise of a Soldier on the Xbox, the game originally funded and released as a recruitment tool by the US Army has finally reached full commercial status, available in boxed form on store shelves. Knowing the history of the product, there's something a little odd about having to pay for something developed as a marketing tool for a government agency. But if you don't notice or mind a light smattering of propaganda, you'll find that Rise of a Soldier is more than a competent shooter, offering a unique feel and spin on first-person shooters.
Rise of a Soldier challenges you to be an army of one. Or something.
One of the key ways that the game sets itself apart is with its RPG-like elements. You'll begin the game's single-player campaign by doing basic training missions that serve as a tutorial. Depending on how well you run obstacle courses and complete marksmanship training with a rifle, you'll earn certifications that translate into skill points that you can use to upgrade your character in seven different areas, including leadership, marksmanship, stealth, and honor. As you make your way through the campaign, you'll eventually unlock real missions that put you in combat situations. These range from convoy escort to oil field patrol duty. You'll face off against enemies who shoot back at you, so you'll need to work together with your squad to get through the scenarios. Just like in the training missions, your performance in the combat missions will give you skill points to further improve your character, as well as unlock new soldier-class roles for you to train in, like grenadier, or sniper. There are seven different soldier roles in all, each of which has five missions associated with it, making for a total of 35 different missions in the single-player campaign. There's no real overarching storyline, but that's still quite a bit of gameplay, and there's even some incentive to replay the missions so you can earn higher ratings for more skill points.
The skill points and attributes are all tied in to the unique way America's Army feels and plays. As a raw recruit, for example, you'll find that your aim is very unsteady. With no artificial crosshair to rely on, you'll need to aim down the iron sight of your weapon--you can compensate for your shaky aim by steadying with the right analog stick, but you'll still find that aiming at distant or even nearby targets is surprisingly challenging. If you're wounded, come under enemy fire, or have just stopped after a brief sprint, your aim will be even more shaky. You'll steady your aim if you kneel or go prone. Points you spend in marksmanship also can help steady your aim, while your honor attribute can help keep you cool under fire (and thus, keep your aim steady). Points in the leadership skill affect your teammates, both in the single-player and multiplayer game. Players whose leadership skill is high can keep your squadmates calm while they're being fired upon, steady your aim, and allow you to move faster while wounded. The observation skill can help you acquire enemies at range, making them easier to spot, and you can also lock in on them when you aim your weapon.
The fact that the game attempts to realistically model not only skill, but soldier morale in specific situations, is pretty cool and seems to work with tangible results. Casual shooter fans may find this all to be convoluted and not much fun, but those who crave more "realism" in their shooters will find that America's Army does a thorough job of attempting to model various real-world influences on combat performance. The different weapons you use also have a great feel to them, offering a believable amount of kick. The SAW machine gun, for example, is all but impossible to aim unless you go prone and set it on its bipod.
Each of the seven attributes that you can improve with skill points has a pretty meaningful effect on how your character plays. It can actually be pretty daunting and difficult to decide how to spend your points as you earn them, but thankfully the game includes several helpful "archetypes" that you can choose from that spends your points for you depending on how you want to play. So if you prefer acting as a marksman, a squad leader, or even a combat medic, the game holds your hand and shows you the best way to spend your points.