Get into the habit of mentally adding the qualifier “which is good, if you’re into that sort of thing” to the end of almost every paragraph of this review. Look, we’ll do it for you this once, just to get you into the swing of things.
ArmA II is a military simulator set in the fictional Eastern European state of Chernarus, now a dynamic battlefield in which insurgents and peacekeeping forces take AI-controlled pot-shots at one another. A wide-ranging contingent of land, sea and air vehicles patrol dynamically from base to base, while civilians and wildlife try to get on with their lives without catching bullets between the eyes. It’s fundamentally hardcore army make-believe - the sort of game where every key does something strange and wonderful and the list of controls when printed could fill a toilet-paper roll. Which is good, if you’re into that sort of thing.
The thing is, many people won’t be. ArmA II’s biggest problem is that, for a lot of players, it simply won’t be “their thing”. Bohemia have made few concessions to accessibility and presentation, and as such the game is incredibly difficult for unwitting users to pick up and play. Everybody will have some idea of what to expect – the game warns you, patronisingly, that it isn’t like other shooters, as if anyone was under the impression that they were booting up a game of Call of Duty – but once you’re in, ArmA II is an overwhelming torrent of engaging, tactical combat, clever troop movements, intricate squad commands and utterly confusing menu systems.
Here’s a game in which the majority of soldiers whose heads you’ll so dutifully pop will be hundreds of metres from you, mere speckles of pixels through your gun sights. You’ll walk with your weapon pointed down, rather than with it hovering around the bottom of the screen. You’ll raise it to shoulder height and peer down the sights in an accurate, authentically motion-captured manner. You’ll spend ages trudging across the countryside, then die as a single bullet tears through your skull. It’s that sort of game, and being set in this gigantic open world means it’s equally blessed and cursed by the semi-autonomous AI that populates it.
The campaign introduces some narrative structure, which often falls foul of the game’s underlying AI systems. What we mean here is, your character might break away from his group to investigate claims of a mass grave a kilometre away and, upon discovering it, have a bit of a blubber about how horrible it all is over the radio to his commander. Once this bit of scripting relinquishes control of the radio back to the AI, your commander forgets your traumatised state and screams for you to get back in formation, like some senile, bellowing grandparent. ArmA II’s campaign is peppered with these holes: hallmarks of a powerful simulation engine simply trying to do what it thinks is right, but in the wrong context.
There are frayed edges here then, and ArmA II is, unfortunately, as unpolished as the original ArmA, but the roughness is the sort that will only bother those used to the perfect sheen of blockbuster shooters. We don’t think we’re being too forgiving when we say that if you’re predisposed towards this breed of game, you’ll happily overlook many of its quirks. For that reason it’s difficult to give ArmA II a straight verdict: this was always going to be a hearty recommendation with some fairly significant caveats hanging over it.
When it all works as intended, ArmA II is an incredibly involving and complex military sim. The campaign moves quickly from linear, objective-based missions to open-ended areas of operation. You report to your superior, who gives you a daunting list of objectives spread across huge distances, three underlings to command, artillery support when required, and access to a useful helicopter taxi service. Arresting non-combatants, destroying key structures, wiping out insurgent bases – how you proceed is entirely your choice, and at times you’ll be asked to make decisions which have ramifications later in the campaign.
Having secured a small rebel ammo dump, for example, the local priest pleads with you to leave it there so that the rebels might better protect the village. Let him keep the guns and he’ll give you some useful intel, and when you report the cache to high command you get big props. Again the AI tends to put its foot in it in these situations, as if throwing a tantrum having had control taken away from it. For instance, as he pleaded with us the priest was gently rotating on the spot.
When not being pock-marked by oddness, everything about ArmA II is steeped in authenticity. When you begin to think your handgun feels pathetically weak, you can be fairly certain that’s because it’s just as flimsy in reality. Conversely, the assault rifles and heavy weapons might often sound reedy in the open air, but in no other game do they feel this deadly.
Accurate ballistics carry your rounds realistically to their destination, and to fire from a prone position at a target in the distance only to have your round thud into the dirt around him – well, it feels like serious business. You spend enough time not firing your weapon to make that moment of squeezing the trigger mean more than all of the endless rounds you’ll have fired in Call of Duty 4. Couple that with the pervading notion that where you’re firing from, who you’re firing at and why, has all happened by chance and choice, and you soon appreciate that this truly is an open-ended and unpredictable world.
Though you’ll spend a great deal of time chatting with locals and strolling eventlessly through villages, combat remains at the game’s core, and from low-level exchanges between your squad and straggling militia troops, right up to aerial and armoured combat, it’s intense, enthralling and exhaustingly realistic.
The original’s penchant for lengthy vehicle and weapon rosters returns, and you’ll be able to commandeer and pilot everything from hatchbacks and tractors to M1 Abrams tanks to Kamov Ka-52 gunships. The Armory mode acts as a playground for the game’s extensive cast of usable vehicles, throwing challenges at you (maintain an altitude, reach a top speed, etc) which allow you to unlock further vehicles in that game mode.
They’re all meticulously detailed too. The frequent encounters with helicopters hovering a few feet above the ground, beating the grass flat with their rotors’ downforce and kicking up a blinding cloud of dirt and dust in their wake, is one of the finest sights in any game.
Your ability to command your units is extensive and exact, though it’s hidden behind the fiddly and cumbersome interface. Said interface is at least consistent: you’ll use the same crappy menu system for ordering a single man into a barn as you will for commanding whole battalions to open fire. ArmA II’s interface, while powerful, is as intuitive as shitting in a wind tunnel. Immense reserves of patience are required to get the most out of it.
That’s perhaps the best summary of ArmA II you could hope for: it’s for the patient. There’s a fantastic military simulation here, with genuinely spontaneous moments of tense drama and elation arising from intelligent and dynamic systems, but it’s obscured by the awkward relationship between hard-scripting and dynamic AI, as well as the unfriendly interface. Fans will look right past these problems and enjoy the game endlessly – and that’s sort of the point for Bohemia - they don’t seem terribly interested in presenting their game in a way that attracts new players. ArmA II is the pinnacle of fan service.
Where that ultimately leaves you depends on whether you’re “into this sort of thing”.
Jun 22, 2009