There's something about ArmA II and games of its sort that is at once exhilarating and exasperating. On the one hand, you have the undeniable thrill of rummaging through the toybox of the world's military forces, playing with everything from 9mm pistols to VTOL jets on a massive, dynamic battlefield with plenty of players on either side of the conflict. On the other hand, the sheer number of systems and behaviors that must be modeled to make it all work are at best frustratingly complicated and at worst totally unreliable. ArmA II excels in both areas, delivering a battlefield experience that's as thorough and comprehensive as we've ever seen, while crushing the player's enthusiasm with a cumbersome interface and inconsistent scripting system.
With that in mind, it's honestly hard for me to render a solid recommendation for or against this title. Do the profound positives and maddening negatives merely cancel each other out, leaving us with a game that's merely average? A lot depends on what you expect from the game and what types of dynamic encounters you're looking for.
When you're leading your squad through a dense Eastern European town, and you have to rush out and drag your wounded medic who was just hit by a sniper out of the road so he won't be spotted by a patrolling AFV, and then patch him up so you can both make it to the helicopter extraction, then the game is truly transcendent. Even when you're sitting on your motorcycle by a roadside gas station in the middle of nowhere and trying to figure out where you are on your map, there's a certain sense of rightness in the game's approach to accuracy (if not in its approach to fun). But when you have to wrestle with the controls to give even the simplest commands to your squad, and when missions succeed or fail based on buggy code rather than your own participation, well, it can make you mad enough to swear off the game entirely.
Games of this type, and this series in particular, seem unable to escape from this contradiction. ArmA II is Bohemia Interactive's continuation of its own Operation Flashpoint series, now owned by Codemasters. While all the games in the series have been praised for their approach to realism, the developers have seemed incapable of tempering that with any concessions to usability or accessibility. The name ArmA itself seems to be a total admission of this fact by the developers, having no real meaning to anyone outside of their established fan base.
The game itself takes place in Eastern Europe in the fictional area of Chernarus. The battlefield ranges over beaches, towns, farms, forests, hills and a wide variety of locations in an area that is, at 225 sq km, more than twice the size of the entire county I live in. If your chopper gets shot down before you reach the objective, you'd better prepare for a long, long walk. The players take on the role of the leader of a US Marine recon squad, sent in as part of a larger force to help out in a civil war between Chernarus's democratically-elected leaders, Russian communists and a number of ad hoc guerilla groups.
The notion of command is new for the Bohemia Interactive games, and it works well to give the player an ever-expanding sphere of involvement and responsibility. You'll start off with this small recon squad but will eventually be coordinating efforts with larger forces within the Marine Expeditionary Unit. The command system is, like every other part of the interface, full of options and flexibility but they're buried under so many layered menus that it can take a few days before you really get comfortable with it. Even then, it's a struggle to issue even the simplest commands like "heal" or "stop" and, given your squad mates occasional lapses in judgment, that can make for a very frustrating experience, particularly so when the enemy AI seems so good at fighting intelligently.
As a consequence, you have to show a little more responsibility and initiative. This isn't like Modern Warfare where you're a one-man killing machine, but there's a nice balance between feeling like your own individual contributions carry a lot of weight in the overall battle. And it's not just how good you are at being a soldier that matters; it's the choices you make about what objectives to take and how to approach them that really opens the game up and gives you a sense of significance in the world. HQ will send down your orders but it's up to you to determine how (or in some cases, if) you're going to accomplish them.
In an early mission, you're tasked with taking out an important piece of enemy equipment. If all you care about is the end result, you can spot it from a distance and call in an air strike. But that causes a lot of collateral damage and civilian casualties. If you want to preserve your integrity, you'll need to sneak up to the objective, avoiding or dispatching enemy guards, and plant some small charges to blow up the installation. The game gives you the choice to approach the objective how you want to and, as an added bonus, opens up new opportunities and challenges based on the decisions you've made.
Of course, the downside to all this is that there are loads of triggers required to pull this off and they don't always work correctly. We've had missions that were won or lost literally within seconds without a single bit of involvement from any of us. We've had objectives that we accomplished not be flagged as such, even in the game's boot camp tutorial section. While these are mostly inconvenient, you can even hit blocks in the main campaign line and, with so many moving parts, you'll never really have any clear idea what you did or didn't do to break the game.
Still, the sheer wealth of hardware in this game has kept us coming back for more, giving us the chance to drive T-72s through the middle of a small town, use laser designators to pick out targets on a distant beach, and climb to the top of a water tower armed with a trusty sniper rifle. Everything's very well designed here, and the ballistics model is really impressive. Unfortunately, the vehicle physics leave a bit to be desired. APCs can take out stone walls and drill instructors but can't run over tin sheds. Motorcycles can zip and dash over the countryside but come to an inertia-free instant stop the second they hit a tree. And since the AI is still pretty awful when it comes to driving vehicles, you'll have to do a lot of the driving yourself.
There's a great opportunity to play with all this stuff in a more relaxed environment in the game's armory mode. Here you can take out anything for a test drive, and even compete in some interesting mini-challenges. The game even goes so far as to give you the option to play as some of the wildlife, though what good it does you to experience the battle from a chicken's perspective is beyond me. Personally, shooting chickens is about the only fun you can have when wandering around the countryside.
Poor friendly AI isn't much of a problem in the game's cooperative campaigns, but given the length of most missions and the inevitable bugs, there are other frustrations to be found online. More enjoyable is the multiplayer warfare mode, with a sort of RTS level laid over the whole affair. Players can build barracks where they can buy vehicles and even AI units with case earned through accomplishing objectives and eliminating the enemy. It's as broad as the main campaign, which can sometimes lead to a lack of direction, but overall the online experience is very satisfying. It should only grow more attractive with the mod support that's already gathering momentum.
The game uses the current generation of the Real Virtuality engine and it truly looks phenomenal. The level of detail in this game, from the soldier's expressive faces to the multi-colored foliage to the weathered fences, is just amazing. The fidelity of the numerous vehicle and soldiers models and the variety of effects, from smoke to rain to lens flare, will actually lure you away from the action from time to time and leave you enthralled by the amount of work that it must have taken to get it all to look so natural.
It all comes with a price, however, and the system requirements are understandably high. Even running the game on a system that met the recommended requirements, we had to turn more than a few of the quality selectors down to "low" or "medium" to get a frame rate that we could live with. Even so, the game still looks amazing and we're willing to sacrifice a few frames here and there in order to explore this world.
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