Combat Operations is a soldier sim. We see a boatload every year, but this one is special. This is the follow-up to Operation Flashpoint, the game that was so realistic it became a professional military simulator. The raw facts about ArmA tell one hell of a story: 400 square kilometers of island to explore, 30 different weapons, 30 controllable vehicles, accurately modeled bullet ballistics, a full weather system, accurate tides and constellations, pesky insects...
It’s the product of developers obsessed with getting things right, which makes their decision to release it in a clearly broken state utterly baffling. It’s playable and enjoyable on many levels, but level-breaking bugs, game-crashing bugs and pathfinding bugs mean you don’t know what level of quality you’re getting from one mission to the next: will it be the astonishing military sim, or a comedic run around?
This time, Bohemia has set their game-world on an Atlantic island. A schism between the democracy and dictatorship governing the north and south of this landmass means that when the Kingdom of South Sahrani allows Americans onto its land to help train its military, the northern Democratic Republic of Sahrani see it as an act of aggression. So they invade, leading to a myriad of conflicts across the island. And you, as a member of the American deployment, take a role in the warfare.
ArmA, despite the name change (Codemasters own Operation Flashpoint), is clearly of Flashpoint’s lineage: a complex dissection of the soldier’s role.
It’s not just about pointing the crosshairs at someone’s head and firing: it’s about where you are on the map, understanding where the cover is and how to use it effectively, knowing your guns fire realistically modeled bullets that won’t always hit where you intended, and that in any case firing will most likely give the enemy enough information to draw a bead on you. Sometimes all that stands between you and death is a handily positioned bush.
You’ll spend a lot of time on your belly. Maneuvering takes place in fits and starts as you inch your way across the map to get the best position. By making the world as real as possible, and by making the AI ruthless, Bohemia has created a game of pure stealth, where the greatest moments are often terrifyingly tense. In one early sub-mission, we were ordered on a midnight raid into an enemy encampment to plant an explosive device near a group of tanks. The remarkable engine showed off a clear night sky, constellations twinkling, enemy campfires burning yellow and orange in the dark night.
It’s all about assimilating the data: the fires gave off enough glow to let us see the guards, and the guards themselves were constantly chattering to one another (albeit in co-ordinates: “Move to one zero one”). The darkness obviously gave cover, and approaching the camp it was necessary to lie in the long grass and watch the patrol route. But we got it wrong. On the approach we chose to run the tank about 20 meters ahead of us with no cover in-between. There was a campfire off to the right and a patrol suddenly passed between us and the tank. In any other game bullets would fly, but in ArmA we froze and then backed off slowly on our belly, somehow managing to keep hidden.
ArmA can be incredible, but the flip side is when it breaks it does so spectacularly. Another small mission asked us to booby-trap a bridge so that it would collapse, leaving the enemy forces with only one exit - through an ambush. We crept under the bridge, only to find its supports submerged. Given no explanation as to where exactly the charges should be placed, we slipped into the water. ArmA’s swimming is atrocious: we can only assume the water was fast-flowing, because it was like trying to breaststroke through a wall. Eventually we reached a strut, selected a charge from the menu (ArmA reuses Flashpoint’s clumsy collective menu system for selecting gear and actions), and... nothing. Now what?
Maybe we’re in an awkward position for bomb placement? Trying to move in the odd rushing water was a nightmare - we floundered around for a bit. Eventually we got a charge on the riverbed, although the opacity of the water made it difficult to tell. We had four more charges still to go, but the game said “Mission Accomplished” and didn’t allow us to plant any more, instead ordering us to the next waypoint to await the convoy. The order came in and... “Kaboom.” Except the single charge wasn’t enough to bring the bridge down, and the now alerted convoy backed off, causing the mission to fail.
Attention, Bohemia: it doesn’t matter if the tides are correctly modeled in your game if you can’t get the swimming or even the damn mission triggers right.
And these flaws are just two in a litany of game-breaking bugs: ArmA has crashed more than any game we’ve ever played, dropping out when trying to load saved games, missing out certain mission triggers leaving it impossible to continue because a truck hasn’t turned up. This is serious: if we weren’t reviewing ArmA, we’d have given up. If we had paid for this we’d be storming back to the shop.
Yet the inconsistencies and crashes can’t hide the incredible potential of the engine. As the main campaign advances and the troop and vehicle numbers grow, you’re given squads and armor to control and the battles take place over large areas. Squad control works well enough if you’re careful and plan properly in advance - all squaddies are attached to the Function keys, and you can select them individually, in groups or as a whole to deliver orders.
These larger battles allow the subtleties to shine: Bohemia has made sure that the relative speeds of light and sound are modeled, so that you’ll see a distant explosion before you hear it. The authentic weather effects mean a foggy early morning glows eerily red as the fog droplets catch the dawn sun. It’s beautiful, but there’s a price to pay: it’s a heavy load for any PC to carry. ArmA is a demanding mistress for those who want to experience the full range of shaders and draw distance (up to 16km).
There’s a school of thought among some Flashpoint fans that Bohemia’s real reason for Armed Assault is to deliver the updated engine to the players. Certainly Flashpoint is one of the most modded games ever, and ArmA’s editor and scripts enable a degree of quality way beyond that found in the bundled single-player missions. For example, there’s a script in there that tells AI units to drag injured people out of the line of fire, and it never pops up in the prepackaged tasks.
If it’s the case that we should be reviewing the tools rather than the game then there’s definitely a whole lot more to be said. At their most basic you’re able to plunk down a few soldiers, tanks and helicopters with a few guiding waypoints and tell them to kill one another, and the resulting firefight will be short and spectacular. Spend some time with it, work out the coding and triggers, and you’ll be setting up the sort of mass parachute drops and land battles that we’ve not seen since WWII.
Even the already revamped multiplayer (it now allows up to 100 players and enables them to join a battle that’s already begun, unlike Flashpoint) can be tweaked. CTI, the mod that completely opens up the entire island as an online battlefield, is in development. Perhaps they’re right: the most important element of Flashpoint was the fact that it gained a massive, obsessive fanbase who took it on themselves to make what they could of the game.
But what does that mean for the gamers who pick it off the shelf because they like the box? Will they care that there’s a massive amount of accurately modeled vehicles, or simply be annoyed that the pathfinding of the AI drivers causes them to swerve off roads and crash into each other? Is the 400km enough to offset broken save-games and missing triggers? We know these are problems that Bohemia Interactive or their fanbase will eventually solve, just as they have with Flashpoint, but the majority of gamers, unaware of this fanbase, would rather pay for a fully-working game.
For the patient, the willing, and the people who know exactly what Flashpoint and its fans are capable of: go buy ArmA. View it as an investment for the future, because by the time PCs and Bohemia manage to catch up with the game engine it’ll be just as important as Flashpoint’s. For everyone else, we’d advise heavy caution: you’re not missing out on anything by waiting a few months. ArmA will get better; at the moment it’s too broken to wholly recommend.