The U.S. Army has brought its recruitment strategy up to the standards of the 21st century with its computer game, America’s Army. My biggest fear when I cut open the disk sleeve, was wondering if this game was going to be more recruitment pitch than pure fragging and fortunately, it isn’t. Oh sure, there’s the standard Army principles spelled out in the training levels and the menu contains a direct link to the U.S. Army’s Web. But if you don’t have the slightest inclination to head on down to the recruitment office, then no worries since America’s Army provides some realistic gaming for the tactical shooter fan at a nice price, that’s right – free!The game starts off in Basic Training and then moves you to online play for the completion of “in the field” combat training. From there, you try out your gaming skills with regiment training in select missions. The gameplay is very similar to what you would experience with a game such as Tactical Ops, where a*ault and defend is the bread and butter, so to speak. The key difference is that America’s Army provides a realistic setting so don’t expect to frag to your heart’s delight since stealth and smart battle tactics are key to staying alive and reaching your team’s objectives.The battle scenarios are highly realistic with enemy detection guides being non-existent. The only aid is a reticule that turns red when you have an enemy within shooting range and that’s about it. There are no mini-maps with visual indicators or any type of visual aid on the enemy to tell you which side they are on. This is definitely not for the faint of heart or someone with small monitor! Throw in the nighttime environments and it’s just flat-out tough. Nighttime goggles help but the view is restricted due to limited peripheral vision while wearing the goggles. I can accept this difficulty but what really throws a damper on things is the fact that once you die, you’re dust for that particular session. That’s right, you have to sit out the game until the timer ends, which can run as long as eight minutes. I understand the logic behind this since once your dead, that’s it but does it translate into fun gaming? Not really and this is by far, my biggest complaint with America’s Army. The game is tough to begin with and to have to wait to get back into the action makes the difficulty level that much more frustrating.If you have the patience to deal with the death timer, America’s Army is actually a pretty decent shooter. The levels are varied enough to keep things interesting and the challenging gameplay can be addicting if you keep at it. There is a fair amount of sneaking around since being spotted by an enemy usually results in a one-on-one shootout, with someone definitely coming out on the short end of the stick since it takes only a few shots to put someone away. The only issue to sneaking around is that the levels are time-based so you have to make sure you get to your objective if you’re on the a*ault side. Fortunately, an adequate amount of time is alloted for completion of objectives. This definitely adds to the overall tension in the game and helps to elevate it to the same level as other popular tactical shooters such as Rainbow Six.The game’s graphics and sound are decent but I was expecting more with the graphics since the game uses an updated version of the UT engine. It’s definitely not Unreal II since it looks slightly better than Unreal Tournament. It’s not a major deal especially when you consider the game is free but a higher level of graphics would have played well with the modern military settings. On the other hand, the sound is top-notch with all of the weapons sporting realistic sound effects. The hand grenades and smoke grenades are definitely cool to listen to, which is the only upside when one lands near you.The game does suffer from lag during online play, which puts a drag on gameplay especially during shootouts. The game requires highly accurate aiming and since it only takes a few shots to bring down someone, it really becomes a crapshoot when trying to kill someone when lag kicks in. There were a few times when I surprised an enemy but they were able to respond quickly enough to take me out, before I could get off my killing shot. I’m dead and waiting for the next game to kick in and they get to stay in the game. Ughh!There is no doubt that America’s Army is the best value PC shooter on the market and exhibits many of the gameplay characteristics of mainstream (and full price) first-person shooters. It’s not perfect (one-time death mode and some online lag) but it’s hard to hammer a title that provides a relatively high quality of gameplay without costing you a dime. For that fact alone, this is one recruitment pitch that’s worth putting up with.