Operation: Flashpoint defined the war simulation genre. Impeccable detail, intuitive controls, objective freedom, a sense of glory coupled with a large dollop of reality. Not only did you finally feel like a soldier, but the game provided the enormous battlefield and massive armoury to live out your wartime fantasies.
A few games since have tried, with varying levels of success, to replicate the O:FP formula for true operational realism. Has Bohemia Interactive returned with a true vengeance with ARMA 2, or have they pushed themselves too far to trump their successful predecessor?
ARMA 2 puts you in the experienced boots of Cooper, a reasonably generic marine, leading a troupe of five elite compatriots behind enemy lines in the appropriately drab theatre of Eastern Europe. You are tasked with protecting the local populace from the insurgent rise of… insurgents, and helping the western-backed government regain control.
If you think it sounds similar to most of Bohemia’s general choices of plot, you’d be correct, but it’s interesting nether the less, and thanks to a system of player controlled action/consequence, no mission play through is ever completely identical.
This is due to a complex system of AI, rather than scripting, which tasks both enemy and friendly with objectives and pretty much nothing else. As a result, your mission will begin and end in an entirely different way. As long as you and your team complete your tasks, the mission will be a success. But while AI is the touted miracle of programming in the case of non-human interaction, it also tends to be a significant flaw whenever you are actually in the thick of battle.
Your squad is controlled, (or “guided”) by a set of relatively complex commands. You can order them to attack, regroup, clear areas, defend areas and so forth, but the system that is provided to do this is needlessly complex. A mixture of backspaces, space button hits and middle mouse button clicks along with a healthy dose of fumbling usually finds you shot to bits unless you are behind cover that can’t be blown apart.
This is if your squad actually listens to what you say. In one particular mission I was tasked to assist the “general forces” with fronting an assault on a small city. During this assault, I directed my team to take a certain path via a number of checkpoints and hold an area. What actually happened involved crew members running into each other, walls, enemy fire and tanks. While this could be considered a “brain fart” in the case of the AI, it wasn’t the first, or last time it crapped out on me.
The first aid system in the game suffers a similar fate. While intuitive, it involves a combination of dragging your wounded compatriots out of the line of fire, stitching them up and getting them back on their feet. In one respect, it’s realistic, since it can take a few minutes to get your men up and running again. At the same time, getting shot down and waiting for your crewmen to acknowledge your request for assistance can be aggravating.
Objectives can be lost without any input or fault of your own. You could be setting up a complex system of moves to assassinate a key target, but a random member of your team decides to start engaging without your consent and blows the whole mission. In one case I had a friendly tank engage my own vehicle, I.E., the one I was driving on route to an objective. I wasn’t sure if this was done on purpose, to emphasis some particular element of friendly fire or teach me a lesson about lone wolvery, but it was irritating.
It might sound like I’m complaining about small potatoes while ignoring the meat of the game. But the issues that plague the system are too numerous and too game breaking to ignore. It’s just far too complicated and methodical to issue simple orders to pilots, drivers and squad mates. The inventory system is awful, and even changing weapons requires mouse clicks and button presses.
The graphics don’t really bring anything to the party. While not bad by any means, the world textures for the most part are washed out, grainy and blocky. The colour scheme is a mixture of dark greys and grass greens, while the frame-rate requires an absolute beast of a rig to run at a decent pace. It’s honestly not worth running at higher resolutions unless you are sitting on an i7 with the latest and greatest in GPU hardware, where most vehicles and weapons in particular do end up looking pretty spectacular.
But what the game does do right is present an absolutely amazing sense of distance, scope and realism. Almost every real world piece of military hardware has been coded from the ground up and provided to you. Helicopters, Tanks, Jeeps, Planes – even dodgy little Russian built sedans. The draw distance and map area are absolutely enormous, and looking out the window of your Apache as you hover over the smoking remains of the city you just blew to bits is absolutely brilliant.
The freedom that the game provides is immense. Your mission commanders seem to have no problem with how you get somewhere, just as long as you do. You even have a watch that provides a real-time sense of urgency. If a mission begins at 8am, you better be ready at 8am. You can open the map mid campaign and develop intricate systems of engagement, call in cruise missiles, bombers, fighters. The sense of war is real, and it’s just a phenomenal feeling to assault a city, feeling part of the battle alongside an army of fellow warriors.
Bohemia have put everything into the realism, and it shows. Bullets whiz past your ears before plunging into your brain. You usually have no idea that you are even being engaged, in most cases, before you perish. Walking while wounded has this morbidly slow, painful feel to it, as you wobble around, unable to see or aim. You can develop complex missions, pitting entire battalions against each other in epic recreations of famous battles and skirmishes. Weapons have multiple aim and zoom functions, as well as secondary fire and modification modes.
Even something as simple as relaying orders can blow the mind with a combination of authentications, call-signs, fire-codes and stop orders. Your squad will detail absolutely everything they see, attack, defend or locate with extraordinary clarity, so depending on your skill level, it may provide help or confuse you more then you are already.
What has been created here is less of a game and more of a system. Just like O:FP before it, ARMA 2 is likely to develop a strong cult following of meticulous modders and campaign creators who will develop and meld the title into their own. But for the rest of us, the single player mode is sadly unquestionably buggy and needlessly complicated to the point of sheer frustration, which is a shame because it’s at the same time brilliantly paced, challenging and thought provoking.
If the developers can solve their AI woes and improve the interface in future patches, many of the game’s flaws may dissolve and the impressive package that sits just blow the surface may rise up. But for the moment, ARMA2 is sadly swallowed by the black hole of its own sheer ambition.
A rough and inaccessible interface along with a complex control system peels off some of the paint.
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A plethora of bugs, bad interface design and broken AI have spoiled what is otherwise a fantastic experience.
Immersive sound, placing you in the heart of combat. Everything sounds right, from the M1A1 to the M16.
A variety of issues haunt this game, however, with the possibility of patches this game could be a simulator fan's wet dream.
ARMA2 succeeds in creating an impressive simulation, but fails in creating an accessible game.