This review originally appeared in issue Issue 202 of PC Gamer UK
Shooters make a pact with you. Half-Life 2, Far Cry, even BioShock all have a basic formula: standard controls, guns that put bullets where you tell them to, enemies who are just looking for a lead injection. These games spit in their hand and tell you: "Yes, we will make shooting many, many people an easy thing." Offer your saliva-soaked hand to ArmA 2 and the game will slap it away. If you want easy, go somewhere else. What you'll get in ArmA 2 is a soldier's worst nightmare.
Before you know it you're the leader of a four-man squad, creeping through the darkest night you can possibly imagine, crouch-running through a village looking for a hidden transmitter, and hoping you'll get out without seeing the slightest movement. Movement means people. Enemies, civilians: both bad. Bullets fly. You push yourself to find any cover - even corpses provide some - and hope your squad's out of enemy sight. Orders are barked and the map hastily checked. It only takes one bullet to kill you, and to catch one means you've done something wrong. You will die.
ArmA 2 is the latest in the hardcore soldier sim series that began with Operation: Flashpoint and continued in 2007's ArmA: Armed Assault. Both turned the relatively simple notion (in gaming at least) of moving through a battlefield into a complicated series of button gymnastics. In Bohemia Interactive's games, war isn't a scripted series of dramatic set-pieces, but a fluid, dangerous and sometimes stunning approximation of a soldier's life.
This time we're in the politically complex faux state of Chernarus, a dynamic world that, at 225km2, is larger than a game this detailed has any right to be. The Americans are attempting to stabilise the region, but Chernarus's multiple factions are doing their best to tear it apart. At its best, ArmA 2 will leave you with war stories to tell, vivid, unexpected fights to describe, and a world to explore. The flipside is the weight of the simulation crushing what's underneath. Without structure and direction, ArmA 2 is liable to break like the previous games did.
The singleplayer game escalates at a slow pace, putting your small team through scene-setting missions that take you from squad leader to commander of an entire army. The four-man team you're part of is a recon squad that will stick together throughout the campaign. You're in charge of the team's movements, a notion that's made clear when you begin. Nearly every FPS finger-memory you have will betray you: the number keys, the preserve of weapons/powers in other games, are what you use to control your squad.
Every number brings up a menu, enabling you to set such things as combat state, formation, team configuration. You go to select a shotgun and instead you're given the option to split the team into colour coded groups. As they say: RTFM.
Yet every menu that pops up brings you a little closer to understanding what ArmA 2 is all about: control. As the squad leader, you have to make decisions on the fly to make the squad function. You're up against good AI: they zig-zag when fleeing, they aim carefully when shooting.
A bullet in ArmA 2 is a beautiful ballistic entity, capable of dropping you or a teammate with just one hit. You have to be careful at all times. Paranoid, even. You simply must have an absolute level of control over how your team approaches combat situations. The interface, how you tell them to move to a specific building in a particular way, is 80% great. The missing 20%? When the shit hits the fan, the same setup seems rigid and unhelpful. ArmA 2's ordering system is many things, but it's not quick. It takes time and a lot of effort to be comfortable with.
In dangerous situations you have to think your way out of trouble. If my panicked stabs at the number keys and the map are anything to go by, the system could do with some refining. There's an easy 'regroup' command, but tactically it doesn't cut it, particularly when the AI decides to have a bit of a quiet moment to itself.
That AI is capable of astonishing feats. For the opening missions you're given a helicopter to taxi you around. All you need to do is call in a request and wait for it. I love waiting for the choppers: I imagine the simulated gears grinding, the pilot spinning the blades up, taking off and proceeding to cover the distance from the base to me. You often hear it before you see it, a gentle but increasing thump approaching your position, then a dot that quickly turns into your ride. It spins around your designated co-ordinates, looking for a place to pick you up, then calmly sinks to the ground, hovering just above the grass, kicking up dust.
I spend most of my time in vehicles deferring to computer control. The complicated nuances of landing a jet or chopper are beyond my ken. On the ground I tend to crunch up people under tank tracks. But then I'm not the only one who has that trouble. At the start of one mission, I had to listen to a colonel lay out the situation, telling me what I could do to help his garrison. I stopped concentrating when, behind me, an APC was driving backwards and forwards, dangerously close to my character and the brass's tent.
The AI was acting like a learner driver trying to make a three-point turn. In the end it crushed another tent, leaving a square of grass and a desk. It looked like modern art. But this is a problem that has dogged both Op Flash and ArmA, and ArmA 2 is more ambitious than the pair of them. Its country is full of enemies, armies and insurgents, switching from urban and countryside warfare. You can get in a helicopter, fly halfway across the map get out and find someone to fight. Of course it breaks. If there's one thing I'd beg of Bohemia, it's to take a good look at the AI.
The inconsistency is more than comedic: there are frozen enemies, stuck allies, ridiculous vehicle crashes and awkward movement to contend with. It never functions 100% correctly, and makes the fidelity they're striving so hard for impossible to achieve. After all that work to make a believable world, the beautiful graphics and astonishing sound, it's a kick in the teeth to allow the game to break. I may not be a trained soldier, but to all intents and purposes the NPCs are. They shouldn't be killing tents as often as they kill the enemy.
Even so the fighting is remarkable. There are three stances in ArmA 2: standing, couching and lying. If you're standing when the combat begins, you're doing it wrong. It's terrifying. Bohemia's AI is so economical with bullets you can count the number of shots. It makes you think about movement: when, how, even if you should. Crawling along under bullet fire, hearing that twig-like crack from the gun and the high-pitched ping of the impact on the wall behind you is fundamentally shit-scary. It says: "Whatever's out there knows exactly what it's doing, and God help you if you make a mistake." There's no comfort zone.
It makes survival that much more exciting. If you look up 'accomplishment' in the dictionary it'll explain what the word means. But the feeling you have after wiggling your way out of a tight situation... that's the real thing. Missions are meted out by superior officers, but you'll be given multiple objectives to do as and when you please. One asked me to patrol a wooded area, looking for scout camps and the main camp of a local warlord. You're given the area to patrol - a massive chunk of forest and hills by any normal game's standard but a relatively sane landscape by ArmA 2's - and some orders.
The rest relies on your understanding of the provided intel, an ability to prioritise and a calm, patient approach. You're not led through the space, you don't have any overriding orders other than your own initiative, and this is precisely the reason to play ArmA 2. During my patrol, things got nasty. I blundered across an insurgent camp because I was using the freelook camera to admire the gorgeous forestry. My team were given permission to engage and we slaughtered the little squad easily enough. I was too focused to notice a truck moving in from the rear.
One of my squad screamed and his icon turned a worrying shade of red. I hit the grass and desperately summoned the map screen to see what I'd missed. Soldiers were fanning out from the truck, I was one man down and face first in the dirt. The camouflaged enemy were only visible thanks to their movements, so I was shooting where they'd been, not where they were. Squad members were shouting positions and returning fire. Fubar.
ArmA 2 does this a lot. The chaos of war is never as loud or scripted as Call of Duty makes it feel. It's just you trying to outthink a capable, deadly enemy. I died and restarted. In the second patrol, I was given an order to help and assist with a downed helicopter that never occurred in the first playthrough. Dynamically generated missions? Brilliant!
If the main set of missions isn't enough (and it won't be), you can use the game's editor to create a single or multiplayer mission anywhere on the map. Feed the game intro and outro conditions, plonk down some enemies, bases and vehicles and set the thing in motion. It can be done via a simple UI: load up a multiplayer server, and there's an option for a wizard that'll help you create and host a game. It's as easy or as diverse as you want it to be. Slightly more complicated sessions can be created in the editor, setting waypoints for troops and vehicles. Higher-end players will find a scripting language in-game of frightening exactitude. If you do pick up ArmA 2, this is where you'll find yourself six to twelve months from now. It extends the game to a ludicrous degree, giving you freedom to create whatever scenarios you choose.
Multiplayer is another boon. The games can be as small or as big as you choose. For example, there's been a shift in ArmA 1, dictated by its remarkable community, toward a RTS-style of multiplayer game that takes advantage of the massive landmass. The commander builds a base, helicopter pilots ferry ground troops, jets scream overhead. It's never as simple as deathmatch: there are ongoing campaigns between factions, with multiple objectives, squads, even civilians. This community has sustained Bohemia since Op Flash, generating missions, fixes, new islands, new factions, and more for both games. Buying ArmA 2 with an expectation of more of the same would be a good investment.
Yet ArmA 2 has issues beyond the occasionally twitchy AI. Most importantly the engine and technology only felt smooth on my work PC: an overclocked, water-cooled mammoth the specs of which you'll find on the review intro page. On my more modest Q6600, Radeon 4870 PC at home, it struggled to top 20 frames per second. I still feel the UI needs a complete overhaul, to make the experience smoother.
It's fine being complicated, but I really see no need for the multiple button presses and myriad menus you're required to grapple with. Yet Arma 2 continually wowed me. I subjected my squad to frequent helicopter rides just to sit watching the world pass below, wondering what would happen if I ordered the chopper pilot to drop us off in the villages below. One mission was interrupted by one of our recon planes being shot out of the sky by a rocket, which had nothing to do with anything. I've yomped through forests to stumble across tank battles in full swing without me. The singleplayer storyline genuinely takes the ArmA series and war games to new places, and the multiplayer, although I've not yet had the pleasure of a 50+ player battle, has all it needs to bring you back when you're done. Even a ten-minute fiddle in the editor gives you something fun to do.
If ArmA 2 hooks you in, you've just found a war game capable of providing infinite entertainment, and that's astonishing.