The PC version 1.0, subtitled Recon, was first released on July 4, 2002. Since then, there have been over 20 updated versions released, the most recent being AA:SF (Overmatch) v2.8.4. All versions use the Unreal Engine. The game is financed by the U.S. Government and distributed at no cost. It was originally developed by the MOVES Institute at the Naval Postgraduate School.
Rise of a Soldier is the subtitle for the Xbox version that was developed by the U.S. Army, Ubisoft and Secret Level. A version for the Xbox 360 subtitled True Soldiers was also published by Ubisoft. A mobile phone version, published by Gameloft, is also available. An arcade version using light guns has been developed.
America's Army has been developed since 2000 and still changes through add-ons and patches. The Windows version can be found as a download on the Internet or as free DVDs at U.S. Army recruiting centers. All versions use Evenbalance's PunkBuster technology to prevent cheating.
America's Army is relatively authentic in terms of visual and acoustic representation of combat, especially pertaining to its depictions of firearm usage and mechanics, but its critics have alleged that it fails to convey wartime conditions as accurately as it claims.
America's Army is the first computer video game to make recruitment an explicit goal and the first well-known overt use of computer gaming for political aims. The game is used as a playable recruiting tool and critics have charged the game serves as a propaganda device. America's Army was developed by the U.S. Army itself. The latest version is 188.8.131.52 which was released on October 9, 2008, with new features and bug fixes.
America's Army has over 9 million registered accounts as of April, 2008, with over 5 million having completed the "basic training" part of the game. With several thousand players online at any one time between 2002 and 2007, it ranks in the top 10 FPS (first-person shooter) games played online during the period, as tracked by GameSpy. It was similar in performance to Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory or Medal of Honor, also in the top ten, for much of that time period.
Until recently, the U.S. Army and Icculus had a contract saying that the former would port America's Army to Mac OS X and Linux (x86 & AMD64) in both client and server versions.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) had plans for using video games since the early 1980s. However, it was not until 1996, shortly after computer-based wargames were permitted on government computers for U.S. Marines, that U.S. Marine simulation experts modified the commercial game Doom II to create Marine Doom as a tactical training tool.
A 1997 report of the National Research Council, of which Professor Michael Zyda was a member, observed that the Department of Defense's simulations were lagging behind commercial games and advised joint research with the entertainment industry.
The success of Marine Doom led the U.S. Marine Corps to contract with MÄK Technologies for the development of Marine Expeditionary Unit 2000 the following year. This was the first game funded and developed by both the Department of Defense and the commercial game industry. The game was both used for U.S. Marine training and released to the public.
Lieutenant Colonel E. Casey Wardynski, at that time an economics professor at the United States Military Academy, West Point, took the idea of an online U.S. Army computer game to the Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel and the Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Army for Military Manpower. After convincing them of the project's cost-effectiveness, Wardynski – who later became director of the Office of Economic and Manpower Analysis at West Point and the head of the Army Game Project – began working with Professor Zyda.
Zyda said later in an interview with Gary Webb that, "We thought we'd have a lot more problems. But the country is in this mood where anything the military does is great. ... 9/11 sort of assured the success of this game. I'm not sure what kind of reception it would have received otherwise."
In May 2002 the game was announced and presented to the public at the E3 combined with a static display provided by the US Army that included Soldiers and an M6 Bradley Linebacker armored air defense vehicle.
On July 4, 2002, the United States' Independence Day, the first version of America's Army, named Recon, was released after three years of development and production costs between $6 million and $8 million. The game was easily available, the gameplay was similar to Counter-Strike, and it had the Unreal Engine as well as free servers sponsored by the U.S. Army.
America's Army: Soldiers, a role-playing game in the development stage that was to elucidate career paths in the U.S. Army "died a sad and whimpering death before ever seeing the light of day," a former developer concludes.
Also in 2002, the ArmyOps Tracker website was created by a German computer engineer with the purpose of tracking gameplay statistics such as a player's number of kills or hours played.
On November 6, 2003, version 2.0 of America's Army was published, with the full title of America's Army: Special Forces. In a booklet produced by the MOVES Institute, an article by Wagner James Au explains that "the Department of Defense want[ed] to double the number of Special Forces soldiers, so essential [had they proven] in Afghanistan and northern Iraq; consequently, orders [had] trickled down the chain of command and found application in the current release of America's Army.
After the game proved successful, the lack of the Army's acknowledgment for the contribution by the US Navy annoyed the Navy and led to tension and political fights over the project. Eventually the project was withdrawn from the Naval Postgraduate School due to allegations of mismanagement in March 2004 and the development team was moved to two new locations.
One month after taking over production, the Army declared it has signed an exclusive long-term contract with Ubisoft to reach a wider and younger audience. America's Army: Rise of a Soldier, a different version of the game for Xbox was produced by Ubisoft in collaboration with the U.S. Army. Despite a 10-year publishing deal, the control over all communication and advertising remains with the Army. The Xbox version was released in November, 2005. It was also to be released on the PlayStation 2 but was later canceled. A version of the game was also made for the mobile phone by Gameloft.
According to Colonel Wardynski the game generated interest from other U.S. government agencies, including the Secret Service, resulting in the development of a training version that was similar to the public version but for internal government use only. At the Army’s Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center, one of the new places of the developers, the game is used to test new weapons.
The America's Army developers have recently been implementing the use of specialized hardware into the game. As of version 2.8.1, America's Army has limited support of NaturalPoint Inc's TrackIR motion tracking headset to use in lieu of a mouse.
Version 2.8.2 included improved support for the headset, as well as native support for the Logitech G15 gaming keyboard. The LCD screen attached to the keyboard shows game statistics and player information once the game is loaded.
The Developers for Americas Army also came out with a simulator hosted at various shows such as Xprize Cup. A model of a Humvee is placed in a tent facing 3 rear projection screens. the vehicle can seat five, with each person using a real M-16 modified for use as a light-gun. The Driver, however, drives the Humvee through the course, and his weapon is a 9 mm gun. The simulator features special effects, such as the truck shaking and making boom noises when driving over an IED. The Instructors give a small briefing explaining how to use the equipment, and during the simulation, point out IED's, terrorists, civilians, and allies. The simulator lasts approximately 5-10 minutes, and requires that the people sign up for an America's Army Experience card if they wish to use the simulator.
A game related to America's Army is Future Force Company Commander (F2C2) portraying the military in 2015. It is a serious game developed by Zombie Studios based on the Empire Earth II engine to promote the Future Combat Systems (FCS), a project to modernize the Army. It was commissioned by defense contractor Science Applications International Corporation, together with Boeing, the lead integrator for FCS, for $1.5 million, also ultimately paid by taxes. After developing it for more than 11 months, it has been available free at the Army website since March 2006.
In 2006, the Army National Guard worked with Rival Interactive to produce a National Guard-specific game titled Prism - Guard Shield. It was released free of charge. It is set in 2010 and allows the player to use futuristic weapon systems and equipment. It blends action with stealth gameplay. Unlike other official military games, its weaponry is completely fictional, although most of the weapons are either based on current real word weaponry (such as the Shavoff 7, which is an AK-type weapon with several modifications) or by combining current weapons together (such as the M14 shotgun, which is a cross between the Benelli M4 Super 90 and Beretta Cx4 Storm).
It also has other differences from other military games, such as a "stealth meter" which indicates how well the player is avoiding detection and the need to take weapons and ammunition off of dead enemies.
America's Army 3.0 version was announced for September 2008 but it has been postponed for a later release. Based on the Unreal Engine 3, this version is said to put emphasis on graphical performance and on graphical flexibility to cover a greater range of PCs, as well as decreased size for the full version download. The player's "jump" function will be radically changed. Several pictures of various guns have been released as well as a screen shot from the game released on America's Army official forums. The screen shot is located here
Before being allowed to play online, a player must first go through four training maps and have his or her progress saved online in a player account. Accomplishing the other thirteen training levels enables the player to become a combat lifesaver (medics are not depicted in game), Special Forces operator, advanced marksman(not to be confused with a sniper which is not depicted in the game), HMMWV driver, CROWS gunner, and Javelin missile operator.
The main section of the game is the multiplayer part, in which players fight either as the U.S. Army or, on "Special Forces" maps, as indigenous forces against an opposing enemy team.
The game is a medium-paced tactical shooter, similar to the Tom Clancy's Rainbox Six and Ghost Recon series. Pacing is fast in the sense that players can be killed very quickly, but the players' movements are a lot slower and the gameplay contains fewer firefights than most other online first-person shooters, especially on larger maps. Unlike many other games, players are encouraged to aim using their weapon's sights to shoot more accurately, though a crosshair is still displayed for non-sniper weapons even if the player is not using the sights. One of America's Army's unusual features is the design of the player's opponents. The players characters' are divided into two teams: usually an "Assault" group and a "Defense" one. The Assault team loses the round if the time limit runs out. Players always see themselves and their team as U.S. soldiers or friendly indigenous forces. The other side is always seen as the enemy (or OPFOR in the case of training maps.)
The players on either team appear as U.S. soldiers carrying U.S. weapons such as the M16A2. Their opponents usually appear as non-uniformed people carrying Warsaw Pact weapons such as the AK-47 on multiplayer maps. The AI enemy on co-op maps appears to be wearing the typical indigenous forces' uniform in Special Forces maps and carry MP5SDs.
However, when a player is killed, the corpse, from the perspective of his enemies, drops his weapon as in the form of a Warsaw Pact counterpart weapon, while his teammates still view the dropped weapon as a NATO weapon even when picked up by the enemy. This does not apply on co-op maps in which some of the AI characters carry MP5SDs but drop AKS-74Us.
Each round starts with the two teams spawning simultaneously and each player always starting with the equipment of his soldier class. This equipment normally consists of one or two firearms and several hand grenades (M67 fragmentation grenades, M84 stun grenades, and M83 white smoke grenades). The regular rifleman carries an assault rifle (M16A2 or M4A1), but there are specialists like the automatic rifleman (M249 SAW), grenadier (M16A2 with M203 grenade launcher), advanced marksman (M24 SWS, M82A1 SAMR, or SPR, plus an M9 pistol as a sidearm), or team leader (assault rifle and binoculars). For balance, the defending team will usually have less grenades and often no night-vision goggles.
The round usually ends with only one team winning. In certain circumstances, such as when both teams are eliminated or both sides have not completed their objectives and time runs out, there will be a tie. A team wins when its objectives are completed or when all members of the enemy team are eliminated. For example, the objective on the SF Hospital map, one of the most played maps, is to kill the rebels' "VIP," while the other team's mission is to keep him alive and escort him to the extraction point. Popular maps such as SF Hospital has a SE version of it released in updates, in the hope that it will be as popular.
The game features a kind of honor system making use of operant conditioning, which means that gamers who obey to the rules, dubbed "Rules of engagement" (ROE), are rewarded with experience points or else punished with a decrease of them. Rewarded are the completion of specific mission objectives, killing enemies and healing injured teammates, although one receives more points for completing an objective or healing a teammate than for killing enemies. The highest honor level on AA is 100 which will take many players around three years of playing to achieve. However, players will need to create new accounts, thus resetting their experience points, in America's Army 3.0. ROE is punished by friendly fire and eliminating objectives which are assigned for protection. Players can be kicked from the server if their ROE reaches a limit set by the server admin and their characters can be sent to the Fort Leavenworth military prison. However, this option can be disabled by the server admin. A higher honor level gives the player priority over other teammates in selecting specialist classes such as automatic rifleman, grenadier, advanced marksman, or team leader.
Any player character killed before the round is over becomes a spectator; their chat or text messages cannot be seen or heard by the players still alive, but they can watch the rest of the round. Spectators can communicate with those still playing through third-party programs, which has become a common type of cheating, widely referred to as ghosting. As is common in multiplayer online games, cheating, such as through the use of wallhacks or aimbots, is common in America's Army, though the game uses PunkBuster to reduce it. In the more recent versions, cheating activity not related to ghosting appears to have been significantly reduced. Various anti-cheat organizations also work on reducing cheating. Most anti-cheat run a master ban list that prevents blacklisted players from playing on servers using the ban list.
Depending on server configuration, spectators can watch the rest of the round in up to three ways. One, which is always available, allows the spectating player to choose a member of his own team (or even an enemy's on some servers) and view in first-person; another allows spectating individuals in third-person; there are also certain fixed viewpoints that allow the spectating player to observe a specific area of the map.
The latest version 2.8, includes a tool called AAEditor (also referred to as the America's Army Mission Editor, or AAME), based on the same Unreal editing tool used to create the official maps currently in AA, in order to allow players make and submit their own custom maps. The submitted maps are judged at AA Mission Depot and in the future in could be included on the full package with the normal maps. There are official tutorials available in the game manual, which is written using the Wiki system.
The U.S. Military's expressed intent of America’s Army is to explore how games could be used to attract young Americans alienated or bored by traditional approaches to Military Recruitment. Also, the military intended to build an online community focused on building and maintaining social connections between the military and civilians.
Chris Chambers, the deputy director of development for America's Army, admits it is a recruitment tool, and "the Army readily admits [America's Army] is a propaganda device, " wrote Chris Morris, a CNN/Money columnist and director of content development.
America's Army, considered by the U.S. Army to be a "cost-effective recruitment tool," aims to become part of youth culture's "consideration set," as Army Deputy Chief of Personnel, Timothy Maude, testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The game has also been described as an extension of the military entertainment complex or so-called "militainment", further blurring the line between entertainment and war, with criticism that it contributes to a militarization of society.
The Army Game and its official webpage, which must be visited to be able to play the game, contain links to the army recruitment website goarmy.com, another recruiting tool that, according to the Army Subcommittee Testimony from February 2000, has a higher chance of recruiting than "any other method of contact." Leading American players to the website is a major goal of the game, and it was confirmed that twenty-eight percent of all visitors of America's Army's webpage click through to this recruitment site.
In the Frequently Asked Questions section of the game's official website, its developers argue its suitability for teenagers. It reads, "In elementary school kids learn about the actions of the Continental Army that won our freedoms under George Washington and the Army's role in ending Hitler's oppression. Today they need to know that the Army is engaged around the world to defeat terrorist forces bent on the destruction of America and our freedoms.
Gary Webb argued that the game's other purpose was aptitude testing of potential recruits and that this had never been noticed by the public. He concluded that this could be the only reason for spending taxes to track players and collect statistics.
One commonly brought up example is gore, which is much more tame than it is in real life. One reason for this is that too much gore would raise the ESRB's rating of the game above Teen, while the target audience is teenagers just below recruiting age (17). Another reason is that high gore would not attract potential recruits to join the military. As one post on the official forums states, "[...] I doubt anyone would want to join the Army after watching their arms and limbs get shot off and such." Another possibility is that a high gore depiction may direct even more intense criticism towards the Army for the perceived glorification of violence that other developers have been the target of.
As well, Alexander R. Galloway, an associate professor at New York University notes that, "What is interesting about America's Army, is not the debate over whether it is thinly-veiled propaganda or a legitimate recruitment tool, for it is unabashedly and decisively both, but rather that the central conceit of the game is one of mimetic realism." In his analysis, Galloway concludes that America's Army, despite being a fairly realistic game, with real-life settings, does not make even the least attempt to achieve narrative realism—that is, accurately representing what serving a tour in the Army would actually be like. Instead, it simply expresses a nationalistic sentiment under the guise of realism, being little more than a "naïve and unmediated or reflective conception of aesthetic construction.
There has also been some criticism about how the game portrays the reaction of the human body when hit by a bullet. For example, an injury to the knee won't result in the player dropping to the ground, and subsequently facing difficulty in movement or not being able to move at all. At most, the result would be the player going from the "Green" status (healthy or lightly wounded) to the "Yellow" status (wounded) usually by bleeding, causing just a slight reduction in movement speed and weapon accuracy. Note that the player would still be able to jump, even in the "Red" status (severely wounded). Likewise, an injury to an area usually not protected by body armor like hands won't result in the player dropping his weapon nor subsequently not being able to fire at all.
It is interesting to note that this game has been cited for its realism in first aid training. In November 2007, Paxton Galvanek credited this game in how he helped two passengers who had been seriously hurt in an automobile accident. The game has some training tutorials and Galvanek credits that for teaching him how to assess the situation he came upon. Galvanek used the information gained from the training to slow the bleeding of one man who had several fingers taken off.
At the United States Military Academy, 19 percent of 2003's freshman class stated they had played the game. Enlistment quotas were met in the two years directly following the game's release, as it had two years prior to its release.
M. Paul Boyce, an Army public affairs officer at The Pentagon, was quoted as saying it would never be possible to find out what difference the game has made to recruitment numbers, but that he hoped no one has been recruited because of the game alone on the grounds that America's Army makes no attempt to help answer "hard questions" about the Army, such as "Is it right for me, is it right for my family, and is it right for my country?
Because America's Army focuses on the technological aspect of war rather than the moral, it has been referred to as How We Fight, alluding to the U.S. government's series of films named Why We Fight, which supported the war effort for World War II.
Propagandhi's "Die Jugend Marschiert" (meaning, The Youth Marches in German), from their album Potemkin City Limits, is an intense criticism of the game and parents who allow their children to play it.