This article was originally published in PC Gamer UK issue 252 .
There is a dead body in the cockpit of my MH-9. In my haste to get into the cerulean sky above Arma 3's Stratis island I accidentally spawned a chopper with a pilot in it and he wasn't budging. I could have hopped back into the editor and fixed it, but I was keen to see the island. And I had a rifle.
So I shot the pilot and then the co-pilot to save him from having to explain to the pilot's widow, and hopped in. The co-pilot remained, dead, slumped in his seat, his hand still gripping the joystick, as I flew around the rugged little Greek island cooing at the sights.
My girlfriend, who started to watch after hearing me giggle at the hunched dead figure, found this distasteful. To placate her, I popped back into the editor and switched a few things around. Like Craig the Magnificent, I produced a bunny. I began hopping around the island, showing her how the game allowed me to control the body of a rabbit. Arma 3, the newest version of the world's most famous milsim, is still ridiculous and I love it for that.
This alpha is the public's first opportunity to advance into Bohemia's long-held territory. Pre-order and you get access to it right away. It's not the full thing by a long shot, having just twelve varieties of gun and eight types of vehicle, on a test island that's a mere 20km2 chunk of rolling hills with a few settlements dotted around. The full game will have a 270km2 island.
You do get 'showcases' of the scripting and scenarios the game is capable of, however, and while they're pretty small scale, they give a taste of what the infantry, ground vehicle, underwater and air combat will be like. More importantly, the alpha comes with the full editor and will support modding. People have already made zombie mods and co-op missions. There's a lot of game here for £20, and it's only going to get bigger.
I didn't realise how important the ridiculous part of the game was to me until I was in Thumper's body. I had feared that Bohemia's drive to make Arma 3 accessible to everyone might smooth its edges out too much. But no, it remains true to the original template. It won't stop you doing what you want, either in terms of mods or you own playstyle, for the sake of military-realism aesthetics.
When I played the first showcase, a gnarly little fight for a village that tore up my squad on more than one playthrough, that willingness to let events go where they wanted, even if the player was pushing in an odd direction, was much in evidence.
The infantry showcase reveals Arma as a well-matured game series: the changes are numerous, but built on top of an already impressive skeleton. Animation and movement are a lot smoother, and there's a new stance-adjust system to exploit, which is important in this lumpy, rocky world. Each stance – prone, crouch, and standing – has high and low variants that give you extra height or better hiding potential.
When the first stage of the fight kicked off, with my team at the bottom of a valley protecting a crippled soldier as enemies closed in, it took a few restarts to get back into the Arma way of things. Hiding and firing helped. I was cowering really, as the bullets pinged all around me, and I dropped into cover behind a cluster of rocks. My AI squad leader was marking targets for me to fire at, and even managed to sound human while doing it. My new ability to peek made the cover a lot more useful, enabling me to aim up and over without exposing myself too much. I didn't hit anything, but my shots forced the enemy into a position where the AI squad could take them out.
Stage two: we're sent up and over the hill into a village. The world is full of lovely little spaces like this, and this one, a cluster of buildings hugging the coast, would have been welcoming if the enemy wasn't already in it. Another small squad, but this time they had buildings to shelter behind as we approached from our slightly hilly vantage point. This battle was tougher: the squad AI is surprisingly capable, and every building has an interior, so everywhere is a potential trap. I watched my squad push up against buildings, hunker down beside walls, and imagined the enemy doing the same. We all came together in one of those awkward 'everyone turns the corner at the same time' moments, but my squad was quicker off the mark and the enemy were soon all dead. We had a few minute's grace to look around, but before I had time to start renaming roads after my pets, mortars started to pummel us and I was volunteered to stop them.
I had to hunt the mortar spotters down. I wish I could tell you the next sequence was a tense battle through the undergrowth, but the truth was the AI spotted them up in a cluster of rocks north of our position. I'd already skipped (hammer 'V' as you run) up the hill to look at a little church, so I was parallel with them when the information came in. All I had to do was crouch-run along the lip of the hill then push in when I was close. I sighted them and swapped to the underslung grenade launcher.
Boom! My revenge for their shelling of Craigtown. Then I was told to run, as the enemy were about to shell this place, too. Spoilsports! I celebrated my victory by roly-polying (go prone then hit the lean key) down a hill and met my squad the bottom, who were fleeing to the trees.
There were a few Arma-ish flubs during this mission. The most serious was when an autosave was triggered just as a mortar exploded, which seemed like the sort of timing that could ruin someone's save game. But at no point did I see a man with a gun walking face first into anything. That's definitely progress.
The other big infantry addition is diving, and you can tell it's new. While the land action is confident, the underwater antics remain a bit soggy. In the scuba-diving section, I dived into the ocean and headed to the first of a series of mines I had to disarm. As I approached, a tutorial popped up telling me all about the mortar support I had. I took that to mean I needed to hit the mines with the mortar, so I ordered the AI to do so via the map interface. As I waited for the bombs to drop, the noise of a patrolling enemy helicopter thudded overhead, dulled by the layer of water. The mortar pounded the mine and... nothing.
I approached it, which every fibre of my being told me not to do, and was then presented with a simple dialogue to disarm it. At which point it occurred to me that the whole idea of me being underwater was probably to approach these targets stealthily. As tutorials go, that one about the mortars was really poorly timed.
I continued to the other mines, keeping low in the bay. The chopper that passed over was also a target, but to destroy it I would have to take over an enemy camp and shoot it with a guided missile.
Arma's tendency to make trouble popped up again here. There was a speedboat that I could sabotage to make my mission easier. After finding it by popping my head above the waves, I sneaked underneath and watched an awkward animation play out a full metre from the boat. This was the sabotage, apparently. It looked lame and awkward, but given the level of detail in the rest of the game it was forgivable.
At this point two divers splashed into the water and Arma 3's slow-motion underwater combat started. It turns out you can fire guns underwater, and my positioning behind a rock let me take them out without too much hassle.
There were other problems. Above water, the enemies exhibited psychic powers and spotted me instantly. The remaining soldiers on the boat took pot-shots, joined by the soldiers on land. If I hadn't discovered a barricade of rocks I wouldn't have made it out of there alive. I don't mind the idea of being spotted, but the speed and accuracy of those guys in that situation needs dialling down. Thankfully I found myself in a good position to take them all out, and was left with the chopper and the guided missile. The rest was relatively easy.
The water-based stuff is an alpha implementation of a new feature, but the elements are there. In another playthrough I decided to attack the boat before making for land. I popped above the waves and shot at it, before ducking under. I watched a scuba-less soldier leap into the water and sink to the bottom. I could still grab his gun as he sank. Conversely, there were a few times when I alerted the patrols, when I had no idea how or why. They just knew.
It might have been the helicopter that alerted them. These birds are my favourite thing about Arma 3. They manage to be both terrifyingly functional and gorgeously atmospheric. The thud of the blades from inside the cockpit is nearly enough to lull me to sleep. For the aerial showcase, I was plopped into a chopper and sent on a delivery drop with a belly full of soldiers. About a minute in I was wrenched away from a neat little bit of formation flying to stop a couple of OPFOR [Opposing Force – Jargon Ed] from rustling a radar. My Ka-60 was directed along a slice of hill that gave way to a network of roads. Two trucks were trundling towards the bulbous station on a hilltop. I'm OK at flying, but bad at aiming. It took a few passes, and a few near flips of my bird, before I'd wrangled an angle. It's worth noting that on subsequent playthroughs I just hovered alongside the road rather than trying a dramatic pass. I was making a meal of it.
I was ordered to land at the radar facility and deploy my troops, but that plan was scuppered by mortar fire. Then I remembered I had a secondary missile system, and that the cockpit view makes acquiring targets pretty easy. After locating the bombers in the hills I just had to line up a couple of squares on the HUD and fire, killing them without getting closer than the length of a football field.
This was followed up with another, similar little encounter out to sea, after which I spotted a fight for the lighthouse area. It was as big as anything the showcases had involved me in, but I was simply ordered around it. It carried on without me. I love that Arma does that. A The AI squads move slickly through the small towns. Tactics! I am sniping from behind a vehicle, like a soldier would. Just me on one of my helicopter trips through the island. dynamic, emergent battle across kilometres that doesn't want or need me.
That can happen in scripted or freeform environments. I'm not an expert with the editor, but all it takes is a few clicks to turn an empty corner of the map into a battle your kids will ask you about. It's where I tossed in a couple of dozen BLUFOR (friendlies) and OPFOR and watched them tear each other apart in a nasty little battle for a village. It's where I made a game of trying to escape a single enemy attack chopper on the game's hilariously cumbersome quadbikes. It's where my failed experiment of Helicopter Jousting grew into the bigger failure of Helicopter Formation Jousting, and ended up in the now banned Helicopter Formation Jousting: Oh God, I Can See The Bone.
It's also where I learned to appreciate the cold beauty of what Bohemia have made. I'll often just pop into the editor for a spin in a chopper or a hike in the hills to see the lovely details that the devs have imbued their island with. There are bases, churches, lighthouses. The weather cycles from cloudless blue skies to thundery grey glumness. Stratis is a test island, but you can see glorious sunsets and watch clouds forming from the hilltops. Every blade of grass seems to cast a shadow. And it runs better than Arma 2.
There are some problems, and some holdovers from the earlier games. The AI seems sharper, but they also still go through a clumsy dance when attempting to flee. The cars feel floaty, like they're full of helium. There's a lot missing that I'd hoped to play with, particularly the dynamic missions that will generate all kinds of challenges.
But this is an alpha. There's nothing here that can't be fixed. And if Bohemia don't do it, the players have proven more than happy to do so. What is here is probably the most confident and assured game the developers have ever released, and it's still months from being finished.