ArmA 2: Operation Arrowhead released today . It's the most realistic military sim ever made. It's the proper successor to Operation Flashpoint. It lets you missile terrorist camps from eight kilometers away with remotely-controlled aerial drones. And you should absolutely play it--but not for any of those reasons.
Steam tells me I've donated 11 days of my life into ArmA 2. Nearly all of that has been in co-op, jogging through sections of "Chernarus" (fictional Czech Republic, satellite-modeled directly after the country) with my band of e-brothers, 12 or 20-some PC Gamer community members at a time in assassination or demolition missions. This is how the most active members of ArmA 2's playerbase consume the game, downloading player-created missions by the dozen from armaholic.com and hopping in as a squad with little or no foreknowledge of the ambushes, counter-attacks, and Harrier strafing runs that may lie ahead.
Some of my finest moments in the game (a hat-tip to Mikeon for his video captures) have been driven by that unpredictability--calm helicopter rides that become panicked skydiving or spontaneous, ill-advised pursuits after a little peer pressure from the people you're riding with.
Those last-second ejections may be my favorite—you're left disoriented, spinning in the wind, trying to spot your tumbling bird through the first-person camera shake. If you don't see your aircraft hit the ground, you'll hear it (if it's hundreds of meters away, that might be seconds later--sound travels more slowly in ArmA), and then spy the smoke plume soon after.
I hope these videos convey it: ArmA 2 is an anecdote machine. That's a trait of many other PC games we regard well: we like Deus Ex because it's a parade of stealth punctuated by frantic hacking, meleeing, or pepper-spraying as many AI guards as you can; we like Oblivion because thieving clay pots and cookware on a whim from a peasant's house while he's sleeping can be more fun than saving Cyrodiil.
Call it emergent gameplay if you'd like--ArmA pairs hundreds of square kilometers of open terrain with unscripted AI, a playbox of military equipment, and high-fidelity ballistics modeling--but it really boils down to player agency. What ArmA 2 allows the player to do is absolutely vast.
Watch the video above of our community playing a convoy mission, " Insurgent Surprise ." In bland terms, it's a skirmish where I sat, stomach against the grass, with 10 other men while we waited for a line of trucks and APCs to pass over our mines. It took five minutes of preparation, and another 10 of quiet waiting...after which I died instantly after peering my head from behind a rock. Time-wise, that's a heavy investment for little payoff. But when you've got a group of people that buy into collaborating on an experience together--being patient, contributing minor bits of roleplaying through half-authentic, half-Rambo radio comms (I can recite the better part of the NATO alphabet thanks to this)--that time spent lightly coordinating, positioning yourselves, and building up a playfully-dramatic idea of the ambush you're about to produce is more fun to me than racking up headshots.
It's player-driven narrative. And that sense of ownership can be more valuable than fulfilling a set of plot points someone else has written for you. Most of that is driven by the community of people that you play with-- we've got a great one, as do the folks at Shack Tactical and Tactical Gamer . Having a crew to chew through co-op missions with in ArmA balances the hard, nuanced, nose-in-the-grass realism that's often frustrating in its single-player campaign (accounting for bullet drop and recoil; wrangling the vehicle dynamics) with a healthy amount of co-op camaraderie and nonsensical multiplayer. At its best, ArmA resembles you and your eight-year-old friends playing backyard army--taxiing teammates to a sniping point in your tank, chasing down parachuting enemies by motorbike, or firing advanced weapons that you have absolutely no certification in.
My bottom-line: don't let taglines like “ultimate military simulator” deter you from ArmA. Its complexity and improvisational spirit represent some of the essentials of PC gaming, as does its moddability. I'll have more ArmA write-ups for you through the rest of the month (and year, assuredly), mostly because I can't help myself from telling people about it.
ArmA 2 is half-price in today's Steam sale, grab it for $19.99 / £12.49 / €14.99 by 6PM BST / 1PM EDT (30/06/10.)