Army Men: Air Combat review

by Martin Watts, 17 February 2018

Navigating a back garden full of Tan units - Army Men: Air Combat review header (N64)

One of three Army Men games on the N64, Army Men: Air Combat takes the classic plastic toy soldiers many of us played with as children, and brings them to life in videogame form.

Taking place in two dimensions – the world of the Army Men and the real-world – you play the role of a helicopter pilot in the Green Army’s never-ending, senseless war against the evil Tan Army.

This combination of make-believe and reality allows for some great action-packed moments and clever gameplay ideas across both Army Men: Air Combat’s 16-mission campaign and multiplayer mode.

The game’s single-player missions involve completing mission objectives, such as escorting allies, airlifting items, and seeking out and destroying enemies bases – all while blowing up plenty of Tan units in an effort to survive.

Green base on the picnic blanket in Army Men: Air Combat for N64

Despite being a mere child’s plaything, your helicopter has a number of abilities and packs a punch in terms of firepower.

In addition to your standard machine gun, there are a number of special weapons you can collect to boost your arsenal. These include homing missiles, napalm bombs and, somewhat worryingly, parachute troopers with dynamite attached to them.

Using napalm on a Tan base in Army Men: Air Combat for N64

You come up against a wide range of enemy land-, air- and naval units, and using the most effective special weapon in each particular instance not only saves time, but also increases your chances of survival.

Army Men: Air Combat isn’t an especially difficult game, but later missions can definitely catch you out if you play in a mindless or reckless manner.

Winching a cable up river in Army Men: Air Combat for N64

Your helicopter is equipped with a winch, which makes for an interesting gameplay mechanic.

Most of the time, you use it to pick up special weapons and health. However, you also often need it to airlift mission-critical items, such as batteries to power a toy train set or reactivate a radar system.

Freeing bugs from captivity in Army Men: Air Combat for N64

Army Men: Air Combat really does a great job of using its real-world setting to enhance the gameplay in a creative way.

For example, in one mission you must winch food – which is attracting deadly ants – away from your base, and ideally dump it in an enemy base so it becomes their problem instead.

Carrying a doughnut towards an enemy Tan base in Army Men: Air Combat for N64

Being able to pick up rocks and apples and dump them on enemy units is really satisfying, not to mention a great way to save ammunition.

It would have been great if this had been a bit more fleshed out, such as by allowing the player to use momentum to swing and chuck objects, rather than just drop them directly below.

Engaging Tan gunboats in Army Men: Air Combat's ninth mission (Nintendo 64 version)

You unlock new helicopters as you progress through the campaign. Each chopper is a vast improvement over the last one, so there’s little point in going back to an earlier chopper once you’ve unlocked the next one.

Before going on each mission, you get to choose a co-pilot.

Stereotypical character profile for Lt. Felicity Wannamaker in Army Men: Air Combat for N64

These characters don’t actually assist you in manoeuvering your aircraft, but instead serve as a modifier that can enhance the effectiveness of your weapons or winch. The difference they make seems negligible at best.

While you are the only one who can decisively affect the outcome of a mission, you do nevertheless receive backup in the form of allied Green Army units.

Killer ants attack green base in Army Men: Air Combat for N64

They don’t make a massive difference, but they do at least make it feel like you’re partaking in a grand battle, albeit on a miniature scale.

If you do actually need help, then there’s always the two-player coop mode. Having double the firepower at your disposal and being able to tackle separate objectives simultaneously really helps.

Unfortunately, mixing and matching in the coop mode doesn’t provide much in the way of tactical options.

Related: N64 coop games

Army Men: Air Combat, one of many N64 coop games.

There’s also a versus multiplayer mode for up to four people. This mode offers a number of different scenarios – rather than a bog-standard deathmatch setup – in which players compete to destroy the most bugs or rescue the most scientists.

It’s varied and fun, especially as the focus is more on battling AI enemies than one another (although you can do both). It certainly makes Army Men: Air Combat stand out a bit from other N64 multiplayer games, which is difficult on a system with so many classics.

Teddy bear using laser eyes to wipe out the Tans in Army Men: Air Combat for N64

With so much happening on screen at any one time in multiplayer, Army Men: Air Combat takes a hit in terms of technical performance. The frame rate is lower, and you can often seen the graphics popping up as you move forward.

The campaign mode, in both single-player and cooperative, is a lot smoother, but that shouldn’t come as a surprise given that Army Men: Air Combat generally looks pretty average.

A special guest appearance from Thomas the Tank Engine in Army Men: Air Combat for N64

Environments sport little in the way of detail, and character and vehicle models often have very apparent gaps.

Sticking an N64 Expansion Pak into the system results in a modest resolution boost, but it’s only noticeable when playing the game on a CRT TV.

Dodging incoming missiles in Army Men: Air Combat (N64)

Playing on a modern HDTV through composite results in a muddy, washed-out picture, and makes it difficult to distinguish certain objects from the terrain, such as your chopper when it’s flying over grass.

The game’s light-touch story is told through static storyboards, which isn’t particularly engaging. The image quality is especially poor, and so often you struggle to make out what’s actually in the picture (even on a CRT).

Killer RC cars in Army Men: Air Combat for Nintendo 64

The audio also disappoints. Voice clips feature throughout, but have been recorded in very low quality. It’s often difficult to make out what’s being said unless you crank the volume all the way up.

Not only that, but the vast majority of soundtrack simply doesn’t suit the game’s tone or style. That’s mainly because a large proportion of it has simply been lifted from BattleTanx: Global Assault – another N64 game made by 3DO that released almost a year before Army Men: Air Combat.

The heavy metal guitar riffs and thudding drums that go in hand-in-hand with BattleTanx: Global Assault’s dystopian and apocalyptic setting are completely at odds with Army Men: Air Combat’s more playful style.

Escorting a teddy bear downstream in Army Men: Air Combat for N64

Overall, Army Men: Air Combat is a fun and straightforward game that makes the most of its premise to deliver a creative and unique shoot-em-up gameplay experience on N64.

The two-player coop mode is a nice addition, especially when it doesn’t suffer in terms of performance. The competitive multiplayer is varied enough to warrant booting up the game the next time you have friends over for an N64 night.

The presentation and audio are where Army Men: Air Combat fall down, but they don’t make the game any less playable, nor do they affect your level of immersion – you are, after all, playing as a green toy helicopter.

Our verdict

good

  • Concept and setting are used for some truly creative gameplay ideas
  • Full two-player coop without any major performance issues
  • Varied competitive multiplayer mode
  • Special weapons and winch give you plenty of combat options
  • Allied AI units add to the game's atmosphere and scale
  • Budget visuals – Expansion Pak doesn't really improve these
  • Some noticeable slowdown in four-player multiplayer
  • Poor quality voice clips
  • Majority of soundtrack is directly lifted from BattleTanx: Global Assault

To learn more about how review N64 games see our review scoring system page. Because we focus on whether a game is still enjoyable to play today, we try to avoid discussing a game’s development history, impact or legacy in our reviews.