Arma 3 hands-on: helicopter jousting, rabbiting and underwater action from the alpha

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.

"At no point did I see a man with a gun walking face first into anything. That's definitely progress."

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.

"Two divers splashed into the water and Arma 3's slow-motion underwater combat started."

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.

"My failed experiment of Helicopter Jousting grew into the bigger failure of Helicopter Formation Jousting."

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.