'Army Men' hits target

3DO's latest effort gets a B for graphics and for sound quality

Finally, 3DO got it right.

They've been flogging their "Army Men" franchise like a rented mule, pushing out a series of games based on the great idea of having those plastic Army men of your childhood stand in for flesh and blood GIs.

A while back, we looked at "Army Men: World War" for the PlayStation.

It was terrible.

But 3DO is trying again, and this time, with "Army Men: Air Combat," they seem to have gotten it right.

This time, the Nintendo 64 is the target, and choppers replace foot soldiers for your Green army. You play as Capt. William "Bill" Blade, a swashbuckling chopper jockey whose picture makes him look a bit like some Civil War ne'er-do-well.

You get to select one of four co-pilots, each of whom brings something special to the battle.

On the other side is the faceless horde, the Tan army, led by the sadistic Gen. Plasto.

There are four helicopters to choose from, although not all are available at the start of the game. You start out with the Huey of Vietnam fame, a military workhorse, speedy and able to dodge enemy fire.

Also in your hangar are the Chinook, a slow beast but able to carry a lot and take a lot of damage; the Super Stallion, a blend of the first two; and the Apache, the ultimate attack chopper with the best of everything.

Choppers are armed with a variety of weapons, starting out with a machine gun and supply of rockets. As you progress, you'll find new weapons -- napalm, homing rockets and others -- which you winch aboard. When you run out of ammo for one weapon, you move directly to whatever is left in your arsenal.

There's also a multiplayer mode, in which you can gang up on the Tans. They whine a lot, but all's fair in love and war.

And there are a number of special games available. My favorite was Bug Hunt, which pits you against your favorite backyard insects.

There are 16 major missions, each with a variety of assignments that must be completed. In one, you are asked to shoot down a Tan chopper, winch up the battery it drops and move it to another spot so a train can move, then follow the train and protect it from Tan predators.

Many of these battles take place in settings suitable for tiny rubber soldiers -- back yards and playgrounds, for instance.

The action, unlike the dismal World War game, is fast and furious. Take your finger off the trigger and you're a puddle of melted plastic.

Graphics get a B, for being clean, crisp and using a few more colors than "Army Men: World War," which came in varying shades of mud.

Sound also gets a B. So do the controls, which are fast and easy to use and learn.

Give "Army Men: Air Combat" a solid B, for being an entertaining action game with plenty going on and a difficulty level high enough to make it challenging. And give 3DO an E for effort for sticking with the Army Men idea and -- this time -- making it work.

"Army Men: Air Combat" is rated T, for ages 13 and over.

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