Originally, "America's Army" was two games: "Training" and "Operations." The pair has since been combined to make the current version, "America's Army: Special Forces." But while the two original games are now conjoined, players can't get to the missions until they've completed training. What's more, if they don't do a good enough job during training, they won't be allowed to download subsequent missions.
During training, players gain experience in weaponry like the standard-issue M16A2 rifle, the M9 pistol and heavier weapons like the M24 and M82 sniper rifles and the M249 machine gun. A player is graded on his marksmanship, earning an "expert" rating if he is able to hit 36 of his targets with 40 rounds of ammo. From there, training expands to more advanced weaponry, like the Javelin missile and grenade launchers.
Field instruction includes other aspects of real-life Army training, and virtual drill sergeants and Special Forces members guide the players. From these avatars (virtual representations of real people), a player receives medical classes, parachute training, escape-and-evade training and instruction on driving Humvees. The training course is so lifelike that much of it takes place in a classroom setting.
After players complete training, their scores are submitted to the "America's Army" site. Depending on their ranking, players will either be furnished with their first level, also called a map, or told they need more training to hone their skills.
If allowed into operations, a player can find himself in a variety of locales: the desert, woods, urban areas and even a foreign infrastructure, like a water treatment plant. Operations include assaults, reconnaissance, recovery and sniper support missions. The bad guys that players fight are terrorists, purposely created to be of vague national origin. Some are even masked to completely disguise any ethnicity or race.
Players fight alongside indigenous forces -- friendly local militants -- just as the real Green Berets do. One underlying theme of the game is promoting teamwork, and lone wolves are not encouraged, nor do they last long. There is strength in numbers, and -- through online play -- gamers can play with one another in teams, taking the enemy head-on together.
Players submit their maps as they complete each level to "headquarters" and receive another mission.
"America's Army" has birthed a franchise. The U.S. Marines, Air Force and Navy are all rolling out their own training simulation video games as a result of the game's success. And other militaries, including those of Palestine and Hezbollah, have also developed their own versions of the game.
The "America's Army" brand is also expanding. The Army and game developer Ubisoft released "America's Army: True Soldiers" in September 2007. This version of the game differs from the original in a few ways. It's for purchase rather than free, and it's tailored for the XBox and PlayStation game consoles rather than for home computers. It also differs in that a player develops a single virtual soldier over time through training and combat. A stand-up arcade version of "True Soldiers" is also poised for release.
It looks like the Army scored a home run with the "America's Army" franchise. But not everyone is pleased with the results. Read the next page to learn about some of the controversy that surrounds "America's Army."