ArmA 2 review

Craig Pearson at

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.



A brilliantly in-depth and vast war simulator that rewards your patience. But buyer beware: this game has AI issues.