Review: Here's mud in your eye . . . because that's about all this ultra-realistic combat sim is missing
Shooters often enough have the reputation for being mindless fun. They give players the chance to get on-line, blow away a few total strangers, get shot a few times, and generally have a good time without investing a whole lot of effort. The ?run and gun? mentality is part of this conception, since this play style pretty much involves moving around a map as quickly as possible looking for as many targets as possible without worrying so much about what the rest of the team is doing. Most popular shooters allow, or even encourage, this kind of gameplay, while only a few games in niche markets like the ?tactical shooter? or the ?combat simulation? require players to do things a bit differently. ArmA: Combat Operations from Bohemia Interactive and Atari definitely raises the bar on both combat realism and the demands it puts on its players. It offers plenty of innovations that should appeal to the hardcore player, including a detailed squad control system, realistic vehicle controls, a merciless damage system, and more.
The scenario isolates a small U.S. Army unit on the fictional land of Sahrani, an island located in the Atlantic, with some 400 square kilometers of varied terrain. Sahrani is home to two separate nations on two land masses connected by a narrow isthmus. In the north is the communist regime called the Democratic Republic of Sahrani, while the southern part of the island is home to a democratic monarchy, the Kingdom of Sahrani. The U.S. troops are visiting to conduct training operations in the south when a war breaks out and they suddenly find themselves enemies of the Democratic Republic of Sahrani. The single-player campaign tracks a series of battles across Sahrani, from the initial engagement to the final, climactic battle involving multiple units on multiple fronts.
The island system is one of the great features of ArmA, since every part of the map is available in every mission. Even if you're playing a single-player mission that focuses on a small area, you still have access to the whole map at all times. Even though it's only one island, there's a lot of variation in the terrain to keep things interesting. In the south, there's plenty of dry, desert-like terrain mixed in with some scrub land and a rugged, rocky peak called ?Sierra Madre.? The north part of the island has a cooler climate with more forested areas and rolling hills. Of course there is also a variety of cities and towns and other built-up areas. As far as looks are concerned, the landscape is a lot like the rest of the game: some things are great, but others are simply disappointing. For instance, there is a dynamic weather system with rain and cloud effects that can come and go, and the night skies have real constellations. Very cool. And if you stand up on a hilltop?ignoring the possibility of skylining yourself?you'll see great-looking terrain out to the horizon. On the other hand, many buildings are blocky and completely empty so that they would have seemed sub-par in an average game ten years ago. These are likely tradeoffs that had to be made in order to allow the player to navigate the whole island with no loading between areas, since the island isn't small. As already mentioned, it covers 400 square kilometers, but to put that into perspective, it would take some 45 real-time minutes to walk from one end of it to the other.
This kind of freedom does have its downside, though, since it's possible to get lost in all that terrain. Single-player missions include waypoint indicators (if you want them, that is, because many interface items are customizable), but in multiplayer, it's far too easy to lose track of teammates. There is no minimap in single- or multiplayer to give the player a bird's eye view of the battlefield. The closest thing is a secondary map screen that resembles a standard military terrain map. It shows the locations of objectives, nearby buildings and even visible troops and vehicles. It's useful for navigation and orientation, but doesn't zoom in close enough to really give the location of individual troops: when several are close together, the map will just be a jumble of overlapping icons. Playing ArmA requires the player to rely on what he sees and hears. To stay in contact with friendlies, it's best to keep them in line of sight. What you see is what you get, so to speak. It kicks up the challenges at the same time as kicking up the realism.
The single-player campaign isn't as strong as what's found in other, more conventional shooters. There's an attempt at a narrative with a few cutscenes between some of the missions, but they don't really do much to set the scene for the play. Several of them are extremely difficult, meaning that they'll require multiple play-throughs, since there's no way to opt out of a mission once you've committed yourself. The twenty or so required and optional missions of the single-player campaign might best be thought of as a training sandbox for the multiplayer rather than an end unto themselves. Beyond the story missions, the game includes another ten or so one-off missions, some of which are unlocked by playing through the others. There's also an extensive ?Armory? section that features unlockable information about the equipment used in the game along with training missions focused around each item.
The missions themselves are varied in the type of objectives, the units controlled, and the methods needed to carry them out. They start out with the player on his or her own, infiltrating enemy areas in order to destroy equipment or even assassinate enemy leaders. Later, the player is given control of groups of soldiers and vehicles for larger assault and defense missions. The game gives the player control over these units using an extensive (and very detailed) set of controls. Friendly units are selected individually or in groups using the function keys, then the number keys give access to a set of nested menus with a variety of settings. For instance, there are 8-9 different formations and a half-dozen or so different states of readiness, including combat stances. Units can be ordered to advance or retreat or move to the next waypoint. The game even includes some more whimsical commands like ?salute? and ?sit.? It's a lot of possible commands, but the menu appears in the corner of the screen to help prompt new players through the choices, and you'll find yourself quickly memorizing common commands.
The vehicle control system is a bit more complicated, but is probably one of the most exciting elements of the game. ArmA includes at least thirty drivable vehicles, including trucks, boats, helicopters, tanks, and other armored vehicles, and it brags that all in-game vehicles are drivable, including civilian ones. Steering for a truck or other ground vehicle is pretty straightforward. If you're in the driver's seat, you can pretty much steer with the mouse and use the keyboard for gas/brakes. Ground and air vehicles each have a different set of hotkeys associated with their movement (about 10 each), so it can be tough to learn and remember all these controls. With this many controls, it would have made sense if the game included some sort of hint system or heads-up display to help prompt new players through the controls. Another tough thing about driving ground vehicles is that there is no free look setup. Mousing left to look left always turns the vehicle left. It's strange, considering that the helicopters have a built-in free look. Pressing the spacebar temporarily allows you to look around with the mouse without affecting the direction of travel.
Things are made more complex by the fact that most vehicles have more than one position, and if you're the gunner or commander in a tank, giving orders to an AI driver is vague, at best. You can order him to advance, retreat, or move to a waypoint, but the AI pretty much ends up taking its own path, which often proves frustrating in a Keystone Kops sort of way. In multiplayer, meanwhile, having a decent team manning a tank or helo is exhilarating, to say the least. The helicopter controls are stellar in this game, and find a great balance between the ultra-detailed controls of a flight sim and the dumbed-down systems of a more arcadish game. The game includes several different types of helicopter, and each has a distinct feel as you bank, work the pedals, and drop the nose for forward motion. It's possible to learn the basic controls pretty quickly, but it would take quite a few hours' practice to get good enough to fly with any sort of precision. They weren't tested for this review, but ArmA supports add-on steering wheels and joysticks for those dedicated pilots and drivers out there.
The first-person controls for a player on foot are almost as challenging as the vehicle controls since Bohemia has changed the familiar mouse look and aim setup in a way that's frustrating, takes a lot of practice and doesn't add much to the experience. The first thing a new player will notice is that the mouse movement isn't directly linked to looking/changing directions. If you move the mouse slowly or within the screen, the crosshairs move but the whole view doesn't move. In order to actually turn, you'll have to make larger movements or mouse over to the edge of the screen. The game supports a head tracking system, and it really seems like the controls are designed to support this by allowing the player to look around without moving while using the mouse for movement control. With just a mouse, however, the control system takes a lot of getting used to, and it can really make moving difficult, since you'll initially lose some of the fine movement control you're used to with other games.
Of course, ArmA includes many elements familiar from other games like leaning, sprinting, and walking. Multiplayer junkies will be happy to hear that there is no jumping at all, so they won't see players hopping around in on-line battles. There are the usual three stances: standing, kneeling, and prone. ArmA's fatigue modeling is a bit different and more complex than other games, though. Like many games, sprinting causes fatigue and fatigue affects how steady you can hold your weapon while aiming. And of course fatigue wears off after a short rest. But in this one, fatigue affects movement speed, so that the more you sprint, the slower you'll move. Crawling in the prone position also creates aim-affecting fatigue. Even aiming itself creates fatigue! If you spend a long time zoomed in, aiming down the sights or looking through a scope, you'll start breathing heavy and your sights will start to wobble. There are small details like this scattered throughout the game, and when they're this well-thought through, they really help to set ArmA apart from the mass of other shooters out there.
Multiplayer is where ArmA shines and where it will definitely build its reputation. Forget all the complaints about stupid AI, lackluster visuals and mission difficulty?none of that matters in a full-featured multiplayer game like this one. First off, the game has built-in VOIP (although you'll still see people using 3rd-party solutions) and allows players to join games in progress. Yes, that means no waiting in a lobby for a match to start. Plus, the game world is persistent until the server resets. That means that if you wreck a vehicle or knock down a building, it stays wrecked until a repair vehicle comes along. Things can get tough as a battle continues and the number of vehicles at a base begins to dwindle. Vehicles are essential in this game, since it uses the whole island for every battle, and it commonly takes a good ten minutes or more to drive from a the base/spawn point to the battlefield. It's a downside of having such large maps, since all that driving and waiting between spawns can get tedious.
Speaking of the vehicles, the multiplayer has a rank/score system that dictates which vehicles and weapons a player can use and how many AI bots the player can spawn. It's not a bad idea, since it means that not just anyone can jump into a Blackhawk, load it up with player, and then proceed to crash it into the side of a mountain. It definitely rewards dedicated players with more freedoms. On the other hand, it does exclude new players from parts of the game they might want to try out.
On to the good stuff. Multiplayer in ArmA is about teamwork. Just like the single player, ArmA multiplayer is a tough game. It's easy to get wounded, and one-shot kills are commonplace, so it's essential to use terrain, walls, and vehicles as cover from enemy fire. You'll need a partner who can fire on enemies to suppress them as you try to circle in for the kill. It's essential to stay in touch, because a second (or third or fourth) set of eyes means a better chance for survival. Since it's so easy to die and the spawn point is generally on the other side of the map, players generally have a greater investment in this game and need to play cautiously, even in open servers. If you can get over the steep learning curve and find a group of players you get along with, you'll definitely find a rewarding experience in ArmA.
It's strange, though, that with all its attention to detail, ArmA lacks polish in many areas. For instance, there aren't any entering/exiting vehicle animations, and none of the vehicle doors open. Characters simply ?teleport? into and out of all vehicles. And the game is packed with clipping problems. NPCs in single player run through vehicles, poke their gun barrels through walls, and so on. Fortunately, they don't clip through walls in vehicles?they just crash into them. It's not uncommon to see the AI drive into walls, into other vehicles, and generally drive so bad that they flip over tanks. Then there's the Valley of the Dolls effect. Although the character models are detailed right down to moustaches, facial lines and camo patterns, they have no idle animations. So when you're sitting in a vehicle with them, they stare straight ahead without blinking. Or if they're standing somewhere on the battlefield, they just stand there like statues. And while the audio in the game is good overall, much of the battle orders are composed of bits of monotoned dialog pasted together into sentences like ?Rocket. Soldier. Twelve. O'clock.? or ?Move to. That. Bush. At. Three. O'clock.? It probably made sense from a programmer's point of view, but on the players' side, it's like spending hours with an automated phone menu system.