This is a review of the single-player content of Bohemia Interactive Studio’s ArmA II due out EU wide on the 19th of June, and on the 26th in the US. We haven’t yet got access to the multi-player portion of the game. One way or another, we promise to bring you a review of the multi-player content, hopefully played with by some of the other Reticulians.
I never was into Football. For me, time well spent out with the mates was with some kind of vaguely military themed escapade out in the woods or around the local estates which we called Manhunt. Two teams; one vastly numerically inferior, perhaps with just one man as the “target”, and the others tracking him down by any means necessary. Short of trampling local flowerbeds, if possible. I think this is why I’m so at home with ArmA II. It begins much as Operation Flashpoint and ArmA did; taking orders, hiding in a bush, and dying a lot until you get to grips with the now customarily obtuse controls. 5 fairly short chapters in however, and ArmA II turns that formula on its head. You’re given a target, a sizable chunk of America’s military budget at your disposal and some leads to follow. It’s virtual manhunt in the middle of a war zone.
The next chapter increases the scale even more. Rising insurgency in the wake of the US marine’s steamroller campaign traps the fictional state of Chernarus in a tense, violent militia war with the player’s squad “Razor Team” being given objectives in order to help quell the rising brutal violence. The omnipresent state of affairs; genocide, lynchings and ethno-political divisions drive home the impetus to succeed, while the ways you choose to conduct your operations affects the course of events throughout. You’re presented with some genuinely intriguing “moral decisions”. Apparently even hardcore military sims can’t resist the latest in Gaming Narrative Techniques™. You’ve got superiors, and orders, but it’s up to you to interpret them. It’s become a gaming staple these days to have a “living, open world”, but I think ArmA II is one of the first times I’ve seen a game really embrace the concept within such a powerful context. I certainly found myself considering the basis in real world conflict throughout ArmA II. To use one limited example, you’re given the objective of searching a town for weapons caches, finding them in the possession of a local priest who has been hiding them on behalf of the local guerrilla militia. Do you call in HQ to have them removed by military engineers, leaving the village defenseless, but preventing the guerrillas continuing an aggressive campaign against your mutual enemies; or let them keep them and hope the guerrillas keep their promise to only use them to defend their people? You can easily see modern day parallels with groups like the local militias fighting the Taliban in Pakistan or of course the recent Caucasus conflict in Georgia, of which there are numerous parallels in ArmA II.
If you’ve played either Operation Flashpoint, or ArmA I, you’ll more or less know what to expect from ArmA II’s combat. It’s tense, slow paced and tactically minded, requiring you to think intelligently before moving, and even more intelligently before you give orders to your squad. Because it takes place over far larger distances than pretty much any other game, when fighting across the hostile landscape of Chernarus half the battle is choosing the right angles of attack in order to maximise your firepower, often against numerically superior forces. You have to take into account wind and range when engaging enemies at a distance, and landing those long range sniper kills are infinitely satisfying once you learn to take command of ArmA‘s superior bullet physics modeling. Despite combat mechanics being generally slower paced than its less realistic ilk, ArmA II is no less intense because of it. Besides the inherent lethality of getting shot, the audio-visual effects of a firefight can be downright terrifying. Most small arms produce no tracers, meaning you’ll often have little idea where enemy fire is coming from, and is indicated only by the snapping and hissing going on around you, while explosions tend to fill the screen, and with a decent sound setup shake your room while they’re at it. The basic combat mechanics are incredibly solid, and have evidently evolved from previous iterations.
Special mention with the combat mechanics must go to the unit tactic AI, which are the source of most of the challenge within ArmA II. Enemy infantry will lay down suppressive fire while advancing, and is generally adept at reacting to the player in combat. Particularly improving over ArmA I is the way individual infantry and units seem to be in keeping in cover and acting independently. It’s particularly evident within your own squad – possibly because you can observe it without being shot at – as they carefully advance between cover, laying down fire, and generally behaving intelligently for the most part. I do occasionally find they require a large degree of micromanagement however. Unlike AI leaders which can relay orders upon deciding what to do, us fleshy meat bags have to navigate the ever complicated order system, which often left me realising that my squad is sat 100 metres behind me stuck creeping along in “Danger” tactics mode long after the gun barrel smoke has cleared. It’s nice that they know how to advance properly in a combat situation, it would however be nicer if the AI was a little more context sensitive in dictating when these behaviors are activated.
Criticism in general needs to be forwarded towards the interface, which has not really evolved much in the 8 years since BIS first implemented it in Operation Flashpoint. Controls were fiddly back then, and they’ve not improved a huge amount since. You need a lot of patience to put up with it. An interesting development is the way a whole key is now dedicated to that most difficult of real world actions – stepping over knee height fences. Now, that’s a great improvement in environment navigation, yes. But a whole key? Most amusing is the way you still do the animations to step over waist height fences when hitting V regardless of said obstacle being there not. It would be genuinely great if they took this design philosophy to augment other areas in a more context sensitive fashion, so rather than being the Fence Key, it could simply be an “obstacle” key. I would say things are getting slightly better. The “colon” key menu system that has ever earned my ire throughout BIS’s games is still there, but you generally use it less. Furthermore, hitting Spacebar now brings up more context sensitive order menu. So I’m no longer quite so irritated with the interface as I was with ArmA I, but I think when it comes down to it, a lot of people will find themselves quickly fed up with its fiddly nature. I’m a patient man, and I can put up with it, but I don’t think it’s unfair to say that a comprehensible interface would improve ArmA II in gaining a wider appeal without compromising its credibility as the discerning military simulator of choice.
Regardless of this digression into my disdain for the ArmA interface, combat comes together excellently in ArmA II. The wealth of content brings variety to the table, as well as game play depth. The array of military hardware is staggering, and there’s a lot of fun to be had just throwing a load of units down into the editor and watching them duke it out. Everything combines to create combat scenarios basically unparalleled in the world of gaming. When all this is combined with the dynamic “warfare” missions that not only have shifting objectives, but also react to player input, you have what is coming closer and closer to BIS’s vision of the ultimate combat simulator.
Unfortunately however, this is, and all that dynamic campaign talk I discussed above is stymied by the fact that ArmA II has the habit of not really working. The huge scope of the single player campaign is brought to a stunning, and frankly unforgivable halt by the numerous bugs that appear in the chapter “Manhattan”. To the extent I could not honestly finish it. And I tried, oh how I tried. I still want to finish it, because ArmA II is so damn full of good ideas I hated seeing it grind to a halt just when it’s getting good. But really, I’ve restarted it 3 times now, only to have objective triggers completely mess up on me repeatedly. Because saving is restricted on higher difficulty settings, you can’t even opt for the old adage of “saving often to get through the bugs”. Let’s reel off a number of examples. First off, one objective has you arresting a potential insurgent sympathiser. You’re given a schedule of her errands and chores, some photos and the model of car she drives. Well I ride into town in a Humvee, ready to pick her up from Church. No problem, right? ArmA II disagrees. She’s not there. I can’t go inside the church, so I figure I’d have to wait the 15 minutes for her to leave. So I slapped it on x4 speed and read some more String Theory. That’s fine. As I say, I’m a patient man. 12:45, and she’s still not about. Great. So I decide to give up on her and go and destroy some insurgent camps. Along the way I find her car in the middle of the road – so she must be around, surely? Apparently not. Never mind, there’s those camps to seek and destroy. Driving along the road, I find her wandering down it. A bit random, but problem solved, right? Nope. As soon as I get her to the extraction point, and a helicopter comes to take her off my hands, she runs off into the woods, and there’s in fact no way to stop her.
Giving up on the bitch, I decide to attack the main enemy camp which for no reason at all the game has decided I’ve now found, despite being nowhere near it. C’est la vie, I’ll adapt. That’s what the military is all about! Command wants me to wait for reinforcements to arrive, and I’m willing to. The enemy have armour, and I have no anti-tank equipment, so I lie patiently in wait. Hello Brian Greene you lovely big physics egghead, come to daddy. Except after skimming through the complexities of space time outside the game, in game the reinforcements never arrive. I load the game again. They arrive, but I have no control over when the attack commences, and it’s a disaster. I tried to adapt again, using the mortars I’d been promised access to in order to sow destruction before moving in, except for no reason the game steals my ability to use mortars; which is even more grating because mortar strikes are glorious to behold in action. I can’t even withdraw to try to scavenge some anti-tank equipment because again, my ability to call for helicopter extraction has been taken from me. They say it’s easy to criticise. But when this much, and a whole lot of other issues happen to prevent what is an otherwise excellent game from being played, it’s very hard to retain faith. Not only because this is the third game in a famously buggy series, but because the release date has seemingly been brought forwards two weeks now. Honestly, for now I’m giving up on the single player campaign until it’s sorted. Once it is, I will tell you, and at this point I’ll be able to recommend ArmA II far better.
Another serious issue with ArmA II are the system requirements. I’m playing on a mid-high spec system, with a 3ghz quad core, an ATI Radeon 4870 and 4 gigs of RAM, coincidentally on a totally fresh install. It’s by no means the dogs bollocks, but it can hardly be described as a bad system by any terms. ArmA II runs really quite inconsistently. Occasionally I can run it on mid-high settings at a playable rate (around 30-40 FPS, sometimes hitting the maximum of 60), particularly when using the editor and on the one off scenarios, but the main campaign really does run quite badly unfortunately, and it seems that no matter what settings I use, my average is around 20 FPS, reaching the heady realms of 25 when staring at the floor. It can genuinely look glorious, and on high it perhaps one of the best looking games out there. I respect that BIS want to push boundaries. It’s just irritating that it’s so hard to find settings that consistently give playable frame rates.
Despite these fairly serious problems with ArmA II, I do think it is a genuinely excellent game of the same pedigree of Operation Flashpoint and has done a lot of regain my faith in BIS, since I really did not enjoy ArmA I. Furthermore, the one off single player scenarios not only demonstrate the game working properly, but actually seem quite re-playable. One in particular stands out, having the player take control of a Guerrilla fighting to push the Russians out of Chernarus, and is based on the Warfare mode mechanics where you are able to “buy” units, defensive emplacements and weapons. It’s hard as nails, and great fun. Plus it works. If the campaign worked as intended, as the guerrilla scenario did in its limited scope, the ultimate verdict would be far more positive. Regards multi-player I can’t say for certain, since I’ve not got access to ArmA II online, but I genuinely believe these modes could be one of the most unique experiences out there, and could certainly redeem the game massively. Once I’ve been able to try it out online, I’ll be doing a total review of those components as well. It goes without mention that the ArmA fan network will keep the game alive for years to come. I believe the Invasion 1944 team have made massive steps to port their WWII themed content into it already.
With all this in mind, can I recommend ArmA II right now after some 20 hours with it? If you’ve got the patience of a snail trying to cross the M6, a system capable of running it, and can fight your way through the bugs, then I would say ArmA II is an essential purchase. But that’s a lot to ask. It really, really is a great game, even if the interface is somewhat ham-fisted. It just doesn’t work at the moment, at least regards the single player campaign, which is understandably for many the meat of the game. The editor will provide for immense re-playability, while the scenarios demonstrate the immense capabilities ArmA II has to offer when it works. Furthermore, it goes without saying that the ArmA fan community will improve the game in leaps and bounds over the next few years, while online play looks set to offer what really is coming closer and closer to the ultimate total modern war simulator. It’s ultimately an investment that will pay out fun-bucks eventually. Finally, and frankly, I think it’s an outstanding achievement.
It just doesn’t work. Yet.