There is a 6 minute short in the Futurama episode Anthology of Interest II in which the character Fry uses his video game skills to fight an alien invasion. Replace Fry with the less likable Zack Lightman and pad it out to 355 pages and you have Armada.
The story borrows heavily from The Last Starfighter, Ender’s Game, and Contact. The author lampshades this by having the main character point out the similarities. Without spoilers, the ending feels like the ending of an average original series Star Trek episode. The novel is not terrible, it has some decent twists, but it is disappointing.
In Cline’s debut novel Ready Player One the main character is a teenage boy who uses his knowledge of 80’s trivia and video games to win a contest and become the richest and most famous man in the world and find true love. In Armada a teenage boy uses his knowledge of video games to save the world, become famous and find true love. It feels like Cline’s only storytelling move is nerd wish fulfillment in which an obsession with video games turns out to be extremely useful instead of completely useless and brings the nerd wealth, power, respect, fame, and love. All things missing from the life of the average video gamer.
I find myself wondering if Armada might have worked better if it had been the sequel to Ready Player One. Wade Watts discovers that while the human race parties in the virtual reality Oasis, an actual alien armada is preparing to attack the Earth. He considers deactivating the Oasis to awaken humanity to the threat, but instead launches a new game in which the players are unknowingly piloting real drones to fight real invaders. Maybe Zack uncovers the conspiracy and reveals to the world that the invasion is real. Maybe that is exactly what Wade hoped would happen and he ends up selecting Zack as his successor. The similarities between the works become a strength because it is a continuation of the story.