This review originally appeared in issue Issue 202 of PC Gamer UK
Shooters make a pact with you. Half-Life 2, Far Cry, even BioShock all have a basic formula: standard controls, guns that put bullets where you tell them to, enemies who are just looking for a lead injection. These games spit in their hand and tell you: “Yes, we will make shooting many, many people an easy thing.” Offer your saliva-soaked hand to ArmA 2 and the game will slap it away. If you want easy, go somewhere else. What you’ll get in ArmA 2 is a soldier’s worst nightmare.
Before you know it you’re the leader of a four-man squad, creeping through the darkest night you can possibly imagine, crouch-running through a village looking for a hidden transmitter, and hoping you’ll get out without seeing the slightest movement. Movement means people. Enemies, civilians: both bad. Bullets fly. You push yourself to find any cover – even corpses provide some – and hope your squad’s out of enemy sight. Orders are barked and the map hastily checked. It only takes one bullet to kill you, and to catch one means you’ve done something wrong. You will die.
ArmA 2 is the latest in the hardcore soldier sim series that began with Operation: Flashpoint and continued in 2007′s ArmA: Armed Assault. Both turned the relatively simple notion (in gaming at least) of moving through a battlefield into a complicated series of button gymnastics. In Bohemia Interactive’s games, war isn’t a scripted series of dramatic set-pieces, but a fluid, dangerous and sometimes stunning approximation of a soldier’s life.
This time we’re in the politically complex faux state of Chernarus, a dynamic world that, at 225km2, is larger than a game this detailed has any right to be. The Americans are attempting to stabilise the region, but Chernarus’s multiple factions are doing their best to tear it apart. At its best, ArmA 2 will leave you with war stories to tell, vivid, unexpected fights to describe, and a world to explore. The flipside is the weight of the simulation crushing what’s underneath. Without structure and direction, ArmA 2 is liable to break like the previous games did.
The singleplayer game escalates at a slow pace, putting your small team through scene-setting missions that take you from squad leader to commander of an entire army. The four-man team you’re part of is a recon squad that will stick together throughout the campaign. You’re in charge of the team’s movements, a notion that’s made clear when you begin. Nearly every FPS finger-memory you have will betray you: the number keys, the preserve of weapons/powers in other games, are what you use to control your squad.
Every number brings up a menu, enabling you to set such things as combat state, formation, team configuration. You go to select a shotgun and instead you’re given the option to split the team into colour coded groups. As they say: RTFM.
Yet every menu that pops up brings you a little closer to understanding what ArmA 2 is all about: control. As the squad leader, you have to make decisions on the fly to make the squad function. You’re up against good AI: they zig-zag when fleeing, they aim carefully when shooting.
A bullet in ArmA 2 is a beautiful ballistic entity, capable of dropping you or a teammate with just one hit. You have to be careful at all times. Paranoid, even. You simply must have an absolute level of control over how your team approaches combat situations. The interface, how you tell them to move to a specific building in a particular way, is 80% great. The missing 20%? When the shit hits the fan, the same setup seems rigid and unhelpful. ArmA 2′s ordering system is many things, but it’s not quick. It takes time and a lot of effort to be comfortable with.
In dangerous situations you have to think your way out of trouble. If my panicked stabs at the number keys and the map are anything to go by, the system could do with some refining. There’s an easy ‘regroup’ command, but tactically it doesn’t cut it, particularly when the AI decides to have a bit of a quiet moment to itself.
That AI is capable of astonishing feats. For the opening missions you’re given a helicopter to taxi you around. All you need to do is call in a request and wait for it. I love waiting for the choppers: I imagine the simulated gears grinding, the pilot spinning the blades up, taking off and proceeding to cover the distance from the base to me. You often hear it before you see it, a gentle but increasing thump approaching your position, then a dot that quickly turns into your ride. It spins around your designated co-ordinates, looking for a place to pick you up, then calmly sinks to the ground, hovering just above the grass, kicking up dust.
I spend most of my time in vehicles deferring to computer control. The complicated nuances of landing a jet or chopper are beyond my ken. On the ground I tend to crunch up people under tank tracks. But then I’m not the only one who has that trouble. At the start of one mission, I had to listen to a colonel lay out the situation, telling me what I could do to help his garrison. I stopped concentrating when, behind me, an APC was driving backwards and forwards, dangerously close to my character and the brass’s tent.