War is Hell!
My review of ArmA ii over at Acegamez, however is not.
Read it Here.
Or read the full text below the cut:
War is Hell.
I’ll let that sink in. The fact that war is one of the most horrific and terrifying situations that a human being can find him or herself in is something that tends to get lost in the transition from reality to the spectacle and excitement world of videogames. When the normal interpretation of a battlefield tends to fall down to a single soldier bringing death on a scale usually reserved for Biblical events and natural disasters, it’s easy to forget that what is in fact being represented is the time-honoured tradition of sending hordes of young men out into the wilderness to slaughter one another in the name of peace or some other epithet.
When Bohemia Interactive Studios first brought out Operation Flashpoint: Cold War Crisis in 2001, they took the basic conceit of almost every war-based game and turned it on its head. Heroics now meant little when a single sniper sitting a mile away was enough to decimate an entire squad, and standard gaming techniques were ditched wholesale in favour of carefully weighed and measured actions and often hours of patient waiting for the right moment to strike. Due to legal reasons, the Flashpoint brand fell to the publishing company Codemasters and Bohemia released their own spiritual sequel in the form of ArmA: Armed Assault. The original ArmA was an incredible game, matched in its scope and ambition only by its niggling failures to make a coherently playable package out of the whole. Having now had a further four years to polish the formula and iron out the kinks – not to mention a third incarnation of the incredible Real Virtuality engine – you’d assume that this would be the ultimate in war games, a truly beautiful, painfully real and technical war simulation. You’d be right, and again, you’d also have a niggling doubt that something just wasn’t quite right.
Rather than tie itself into a real life situation and place, Red Harvest (the main campaign in ArmA II) takes place in the fictional post-Soviet state of Chernarus that’s built largely upon a perfectly modelled area of the Czech Republic some two hundred and twenty-five kilometres in size. For a change, this scenario is actually an incredibly well thought out military action, both politically and militarily. Primarily you find yourself in the guise of Sergeant Cooper, an enthusiastic if a little gung-ho sounding marine with an aptly blank face and personality. It’s through the eyes of Cooper’s Razor squad that we experience the action, from the initial briefings on the landing deck of the USS Khe Sanh through to the complete domination of all Chernarussia (which is only one of the possible endings, some being far less appealing). It’s a lengthy campaign and hours could be spent on a single objective, let alone a whole mission.
The game plays out well, beginning with simple missions where your only responsibility is the control of a single soldier and progressing naturally onwards to commanding first a squad then larger troops and eventually more or less the entire battle-group. Luckily there is a series of tutorials that can be played through on various difficulty settings before you even start the main game, which is especially useful when trying to memorise the obscene amount of functions and commands that are available at a keystroke or two. Kudos certainly needs to be given to a game that has a key mapped out for shielding the sun with your hand, a tool that seems at first ridiculous, yet before long you’ll wonder how you ever got along without it. Equally, the main campaign opts to start simply and increase the complexity incrementally with each separate mission.
It’s a good thing that Bohemia leads you through the game at this pace, because even fans of the previous titles will be surprised by the scale and totality of what is on offer here. As well as the control of individual soldiers and the weapons and kit they carry, all of the vehicular technology being sported can be utilised in-game, from helicopters and VTOL aircraft to the humble Humvee and tanks. Add to that the inevitable need to pilfer the odd AK47 from the corpse of a fallen enemy when ammo begins to get tight and the prospects of having a resupply are a distant pipedream, and you’ll begin to see that this sort of devotion to the pipe-smoke and armchair detail lovers is what endears ArmA II to the heart of any gamer who ever wondered just what it would be like to really be a soldier. But the nods to the audience go further; there are some great subtle touches in the game, varying from the main villain Akula resembling the Serbian assassin from Behind Enemy Lines and occasional quotations from war films cropping up in the dialogue to the more obscure, such as the main carrier being named after one of the bloodiest pyrrhic victories of the Vietnam War.
Still, ArmA II is not for just anyone – in fact, it’s anything but filled with universal appeal. It’s a long, frequently slow and very difficult slog, where a single well-placed round can spell death for any member of your squad – and they all need to survive each mission. Snipers can fire upon you from literally kilometres away, safe inside hidden nests on wooded hillsides and abandoned buildings, relocating just when you thought they were pinned down. There is also a haphazardness to the experience, as it’s equally possible for you to snipe a target from a long way off if you get a sweet shot.
One of the major complications of the game is that it really expects you to act with some form of military decorum. Play this like a standard shooter and not only will you bring about your own tragic death, but the likelihood of the team surviving more than a few minutes in any situation will go from slim to none. Crawling on all fours is a fairly safe bet, yet the necessity to use two-cover-two formations and putting the right men in the right place is an absolute must, which means in short that a lot of people simply will not be able to handle the game without spending a great deal of time and patience getting into the correct mindset – and all this before you even scratch the surface of the underlying difficulties.
And when I say difficulties, I mean bugs. Honestly, considering the problems that plagued ArmA and Operation Flashpoint, you’d expect that there might have been a lot more attention paid to ensuring that the AI and scripting worked properly. Sadly though, it still suffers huge problems even after the most recent patches, and this occurs from the get-go, as even during the tutorials there are quirks that should never have appeared in the final game. It’s one thing to program an AI to actively seek out enemy soldiers and move around the terrain realistically, but it’s quite another to find a mission end in failure itself because an enemy has wandered out of the practice zone and shot a superior officer during a training mission. To then later ace a firing range while a condescending voice shouts out at every successful bullseye that you missed a target is just lazy work. The flaws continue into the game proper, with mission-critical enemies vanishing off into the ether and enemies frequently gaining almost psychic abilities to work out where you are on a raging battlefront. Worse still are the vehicles; it’s not an easy thing to fly a helicopter or a VTOL but you make the assumption that the computer AI would be able to do it, even if you struggle yourself. Calling for support or extraction mid-mission can often be more dangerous than walking upright through a live fire zone. I’m all for adding the possibility of friendly-fire casualties, but the moments of water-on-the-brain idiocy shown by some of the pilots in the game play like something from Catch-22.
Control of the vehicles firsthand is better, although the woolliness of the steering of even the land craft is unsatisfactory so you’d be wise to plug in a controller if you are tempted to use them any more than is necessary. Luckily, the controls for the soldiers are more intuitive, with the wide scope of possibilities making it a joy to barrel roll between points of cover while glancing about in all directions. The ability to switch between first, third and ‘command’ viewpoints means that you can get your bearings enough to really gain a feel for the battlefield, with the GPS information, maps and other esoteric gobbets of information (which no-one outside of Sandhurst will never understand) giving you more data than you will ever need.
The Real Virtuality engine needs to be mentioned too, as it really is something to behold. If your PC can take it then it can be cranked up to levels of opulence that border on the surreal; however, seeing as the average player doesn’t have access to NASA levels of technology, it’s fair to say that most will run it at lower settings. Thankfully the game copes well, being designed to scale down to almost any currently used rig. Sadly, the same can’t be said for the music, which can jump from quietly stirring mood music to thrashing rock in the slightest of moments, often utterly disorienting you when trying to immerse yourself in the experience.
Another great aspect of the game is the mission editor, which allows you to use the pre-made maps to construct any mission you can imagine, from a simple sweep and clear to a massed infantry skirmish through a city. You can even put yourself into the form of a random animal, should you wish to pit a band of soldiers against a rabbit in true Monty Python style. It’s a fairly daunting system to get to grips with, but with some patience it can yield good results.
Again and again, patience is the name of the game with ArmA II. It’s not a game to be picked up and played for five minutes, but rather for entire days of reflective judgement where a lot more care and attention to detail in high pressure situations is required than many games can attest to needing. It’ll be too much for many casual gamers and quick-dippers, but if you feel the need for a challenge then it’s well worth the effort, as there’s more of a sense of achievement in beating this than you’ll find in any other shooter this year. For old hands of ArmA and Flashpoint it’s even clearer – you’re needed on the firing line soldiers, so it’s time to step up.