Bohemia Interactive’s epic combat simulator is as close as you can get to real war without donning a uniform and shipping out to Afghanistan
Armed Assault caught a lot of flack when it was released in 2007 and not just because of its numerous bugs; Operation Flashpoint fans accused it of being nothing more than a minor incremental update, the same game with prettier visuals. Now, with Codemasters preparing to unleash Operation Flashpoint 2 in a few months time, developer Bohemia Interactive has stepped up and fired the first shot in what could be an epic battle of warfare simulators with ArmA II, a true sequel to the original Operation Flashpoint.
For the uninitiated, OpFlash and its follow-up Armed Assault are ultra-realistic military simulators set in an open sandbox world where every gun and vehicle is playable, allowing you to fight on the ground, sea and air alongside hundreds of computer controlled or human players. ArmA II is set in Chernarus, a fictional country modelled on Bohemia Interactive's home country, the Czech Republic. Pro-communist forces have split from the ruling Democratic government and are fighting for control. The US, aided by friendly Chernarus forces, has sent in a task force to help.
You need to be on the ball in ArmA 2 as the battlefield situations can change rapidly.
Air support is a vital resource, and of course you can hop in and take control of choppers and planes.
So far, so Operation Flashpoint, but where ArmA II stands out is the believable, dynamic world that Bohemia has created. Visually, it's nothing short of stunning. Chernarus was built from 225km² of real satellite data and populated with towns, villages and other structures for players to explore and the result is not only realistic and varied, with battles taking place in factories, farm houses and open country side, but absolutely gorgeous. You'll come across bridges, ponds, dams and forest stretching for miles into the horizon, remote farms on lonely dirt roads, coastal ports and urban areas. Peer through binoculars across a field and you’ll spot rabbits, sheep and cows. The audio effects are outstanding as well, with every explosion, ricochet, chopper engine and supersonic bullet crack accurately recreated. It's a revelation, making OpFlash and ArmA 1 look flat and featureless in comparison.
You don't need a massively beefy PC to run it at a decent framerate, either, with a few tweaks to the settings it's easy to get running smoothly on a mid-range system without compromising on quality too much. In any case the graphics, although frequently jaw-dropping, are not the most impressive aspect of ArmA II, that honour goes to the clever dynamic battlefield that constantly throws up surprises and ensures that a mission is never quite the same each time.
In the single player campaign you jump into the combat boots of Cooper, part of Marine recon outfit Team Razor. Your five-man unit is sent in to perform precision strikes and work behind enemy lines to take down targets and aid the main US and Chernarussian forces, but unlike a conventional shooter these tasks are never linear.
The first mission has Razor heading into an occupied village under cover of darkness to destroy a communications centre. It's easy to call for an air strike, but doing so will incur heavy civilian casualties and upset the population, so an alternative is to sneak in close and use satchel charges for a little more precision. But while you're there you also come across civilian hostages being tortured, and freeing them can lead you to a mass grave. Aside from the main comm centre objective none of this is compulsory, they're additional objectives you can take on if you wish. Later on Razor is chasing down a war criminal, but rather than pointing at a specific location and telling you to go get 'em, you’re dropped in the world and left to your own devices with a few vague clues and a support chopper to get around.
Wandering around the picturesque Chernarus countryside you'll get calls for help from friendly forces, offering optional missions, and come across unscripted battles between Communist insurgents and American or Chernarus troops. This random element is not only enormously good fun but also helps to create a realistic, involving and consistently engaging depiction of war.
The huge viewing distance means battles can be fought from kilometres away using tanks and other powerful weaponry.
The detail of character models, guns and vehicles is very realistic and truly impressive.
Unfortunately the campaign is also where the game's biggest problems lie. The complex scripting and AI frequently breaks down causing all manner of bizarre and frustrating issues. This ranges from minor glitches like NPCs who talk while facing a wall, to AI pilots that slam helicopters into trees while trying to land, or bugs that can prevent completion of an objective. Your fellow Team Razor troopers, although an elite Marine unit, have a habit of wandering into the path of machine guns or charging distant enemies, requiring some micro-management with the squad command functions to keep them alive.
Enemy AI is inconsistent too, occasionally you can get right up in their face before they take any notice, other times they are capable of putting a bullet between your eyes from hundreds of metres before you've even spotted them. It's nowhere near as bad as the x-ray vision and psychic powers of Armed Assault's CPU controlled opponents, but one particular bugbear is that they completely ignore the presence of grass as cover and are able to see your team even when you appear to be hidden - highly frustrating when fighting in fields and forests.
At the time of writing there are several patches available that improve matters but there's still a good chance of running into an error that, if it doesn't halt your progression, may still prove incredibly annoying. It isn’t as broken as Armed Assault when that first launched but is still going to prove a sticking point for anyone who expects a completely smooth and hassle-free experience.
These quirks are less of a worry outside the single player campaign where you're granted the freedom to create your own missions and explore the world. Like OpFlash and Armed Assault, ArmA II offers plenty of additional content in the form of single missions, multiplayer and the powerful editor. Using this tool you can create scenarios for either single or multi using all the available units, buildings and resources in the game, but it has been streamlined from previous versions. There are now modules that automate tasks like spawning enemies and random missions which can be dropped in to create an instant open-world combat sandbox. For the average player it means choosing weapons and vehicles to go on a rampage, taking on missions and tooling about randomly killing anything you find. For modders, the modules remove the need for some complex scripting without compromising the depth of the mission editor.
Single missions extend the life of the game with a selection of pre-configured assignments and provide the ability to quickly create simple operations that can be saved and replayed later. There's also the chaotic Armoury, where you choose a vehicle or unit (everything is playable, including enemy soldiers and wild animals) and then enter the game world to complete random tasks which unlock further vehicles, weapons and troops.
The new Designated Marksman Rifle is our favourite gun - long range kills and a satisfying sound effect.
Urban warfare is tense and atmospheric, there could be an APC or mounted machine gun around every corner.
But it’s the multiplayer that will earn ArmA II a permanent place on hard drives. Just like OpFlash and Armed Assault it's highly configurable and flexible, and servers are already running popular mods. There are deathmatch and CTF games, though it’s co-op mode that seems to be the favourite right now. Working together to conquer towns against the AI provides some of the game's most memorable scenes. Flying choppers full of team mates into a combat zone, leap-frogging between buildings and sneaking up on enemy positions is a completely different experience when you're playing with real people.
There’s no getting away from the fact that ArmA II is rough around the edges. Bugs and glitches are rife, and the unforgiving difficulty and focus on realism will prove frustrating to those used to the comparatively cosy warfare of Call of Duty 4 and other shooters. But it would be foolish to dismiss ArmA II because of this as Bohemia Interactive has crafted an extraordinary simulation of modern war that is among the most immersive, atmospheric and technologically astounding games we’ve ever seen, and every occasion it breaks down is balanced out by an amazing moment that will have you recounting anecdotes to friends.
TOP GAME MOMENT
“Somebody is hiding somewhere in this 225km² map but we’re not sure where, go find them”.