Arma 4 devs reflect on finally leaving behind its 20-year-old engine

It's not easy to throw away everything you've made and start from scratch, but that's exactly what Bohemia Interactive did when it started planning the next generation Arma. We sat down with Bohemia ahead of the PC Gaming Show 2022 to talk about the future of Arma and just how big of a leap forward its new Enfusion engine is for the original milsim.

We're now a few weeks behind the surprise release of Arma Reforger, a $30 appetizer for an eventual Arma 4 meant to show off the capabilities of the Enfusion engine and get Arma's active modders in on the ground floor of its new toolset. With only a single Everon map, one multiplayer mode, a limited pool of guns and vehicles, and an upfront plan to only update the game for a year, Reforger is effectively a paid demo meant only for the hardest-core Arma fans and modders.

According to Bohemia devs, that is more-or-less who is playing Reforger, and the feedback they've received so far is largely positive. "We've learned that players like Reforger a lot, and they appreciate the work we've put into it," creative director Ivan Buchta told PC Gamer. "We also realize that players like modding a lot, and they really view this as a key quality of our games."

Game studios will often switch engines between projects for a variety of reasons, but usually that means incremental upgrades to the same toolset, like moving from Unreal 4 to Unreal 5. Bohemia has done the same with upgrades to its in-house Real Virtuality engine since the early 2000s, but in time, the technical limitations of its boutique tools became impossible to ignore. For one, did you know the tech powering every Arma until now was designed for single-core CPUs?

"So when we started working on the very first Arma, Operation Flashpoint, we worked on single core CPUs with no dedicated graphics," said Bohemia CEO and founder Marek Španěl. That was surprising to hear for me, considering multi-core CPUs have been the norm in PC gaming for over a decade. As of 2021, over 70% of Steam users had CPUs with at least four cores. I guess that partially explains why I could never get a great framerate in Arma 3 or the old DayZ mod no matter how many settings I tweaked.

Instead of continuing to adapt old tech to 2022 standards, Bohemia scrapped everything and started new with Enfusion. "This time, many more computations and intensive rendering techniques can be done directly on the GPU, but it requires a completely new approach," Španěl said. The studio has been heads-down at work on Enfusion for three years, and Reforger is its first official test drive. "So this was the radical shift. And luckily, it's past us and we now keep growing."

Simpler times

Going into Reforger, it's immediately clear how much Bohemia has streamlined movement and shooting. Gone is the scroll wheel-operated contextual interaction menu previously used to open doors or pick up items. You just press a key for that kind of stuff now. Running and mantling ledges is now responsive and weighty with smoother animations all around. Ditto for shooting, which is way less jerky and awkward. Arma 3's absurdly nuanced stance system that'd let you contort your body into a dozen different postures is also gone—just left and right leaning now.

The basics of Arma are undeniably simpler now, but just how far to go in this streamlining process has been a sticking point at Bohemia. "It's a very tricky subject because even internally, it's an ongoing kind of fight," said Španěl. "I myself am very much on the very purist side of things, so no HUD, no save games, no superficial helpers, and this fight can get very intense even in-house." Španěl said the goal is to maintain Arma's purist milsim gameplay while making it more comfortable to play. Or as Buchta put it: "I believe that players should not fight the controls, they should fight the challenges which are part of the game."

arma reforger

(Image credit: Bohemia Interactive)

The result is something that feels closer to the fluid-yet-weighty combat of Squad or PUBG: Battlegrounds with the potential for higher complexity lying underneath the surface. And that's where Bohemia thinks Arma Reforger and the Enfusion engine really begins to shine. The studio is describing Reforger as the "premiere of a tool suite" with the capabilities to adjust darn near anything about the game. Just days after launching Reforger, players had already added features that Buchta says were deliberately left out of the game, like a stamina bar, player marker on the map, and weapon crosshairs.

"I believe that players should not fight the controls..."

Ivan Buchta, Bohemia creative director

"So even the sound of a character or the sound of a gun, it has so many variables," said Španěl. "Unlike previously where it was hard coded in the C++ engine, now [modders] can check the data of every single element of the game and go much, much deeper than in previous games. So this will be super exciting."

Buchta compared Workbench to the old process of making changes to Arma 3, which included waiting upwards of 20-30 minutes for a special version of the game to load terrain and millions of individual objects. Now the editor all exists in-game and changes can be playtested seconds after making them. Bohemia has designed Enfusion's tools to cater to those already familiar with modern game engines like Unreal or Unity.

To the group of modders who spend countless hours crafting custom combat scenarios and adding more to an already big game, Arma Reforger is probably a dream come true. But for the average player, there's not much of a game to play right now. Reforger isn't the next proper Arma game, again, it's the "premiere of a tool suite." I don't think I'll sink many hours into Arma Reforger, but I can't wait for what Arma 4 will become.

Morgan Park
Staff Writer

Morgan has been writing for PC Gamer since 2018, first as a freelancer and currently as a staff writer. He has also appeared on Polygon, Kotaku, Fanbyte, and PCGamesN. Before freelancing, he spent most of high school and all of college writing at small gaming sites that didn't pay him. He's very happy to have a real job now. Morgan is a beat writer following the latest and greatest shooters and the communities that play them. He also writes general news, reviews, features, the occasional guide, and bad jokes in Slack. Twist his arm, and he'll even write about a boring strategy game. Please don't, though.