Arma 3 is a military simulation astonishingly huge in scope that lets players control an array of soldiers and vehicles to wage war across two massive islands. Death comes readily, from out of bushes and windows – to avoid frustration, Arma 3 requires intelligent play, resulting in an emergent conflict more detailed than that of almost any other game. Comedian George Carlin had a routine where he talked about the concept of ’military intelligence.’ “The words don’t go together, man.” It rings true here: Arma 3 is a game with robotic AI, a fiddly inventory system, and an over-complex command structure.
During one of the game’s Showcase missions – a series of singleplayer vignettes designed to teach combat techniques – a team of enemy guards was so effectively baffled by our lone wolf soldier climbing into the driving seat of a futuristic Humvee that they lowered their weapons and stood in place around a campfire. They held those positions as we ran them over one by one, eliminating troops that would otherwise end our life with a well-placed rifle shot from 300 metres away. This wasn’t an isolated case: Arma 3’s AI – both enemy and friendly – will whip back and forth from lethal to bumbling in a few seconds.
Simply climbing into a vehicle will tax those inexperienced with Arma’s idiosyncratic menu system. By default, rolling the mousewheel brings up a set of actions that can be performed in a given situation. As an infantryman in the field, they can be as simple as changing weapon or opening your backpack; flying a helicopter, you’ll need to manage auto-hover, countermeasures, and a host of other authentically complex actions across the length of a keyboard, all while controlling a whirlybird happy to careen out of the sky at the slightest tilt of the mouse. It’s earnestly realistic, and managing these mechanics while maintaining a projected course yields a certain militaristic thrill, but there’s been little attempt to cater for an audience unwilling or unable to put up with Arma 2’s UI roadblocks.
Fortunately, this third game in the series brings other improvements, and they’re significant. The basest interactions with your environment – running and shooting – feel vastly improved. Squeeze off a rifle round and your gun kicks back, firing out both authentically accurate bullets, and a muzzle noise both raspier and more deadly sounding than the guns in shooters less concerned with realism. Run for too long and your shoulders will heave, your breathing running ragged. Try and shoulder your rifle and fire and your crosshair will weave. Better instead to find cover, get low, and form a base of fire from one of three stances.
Bigger still – and significantly more beautiful – are the game’s two islands. The second of Arma 3’s vast landmasses was slated to be called Limnos, a reference to the real-world Greek holiday island of Lemnos. That plan soured after two of Bohemia Interactive’s developers were arrested during a visit to the island, but the influence remains strong: Arma 3 in its current form can feel more like a holiday destination than a game.
Both the island that was Limnos – now called Altis – and the smaller Stratis are huge, varied, and packed with secrets. Altis’ east coast is pockmarked by dry salt lakes – white, flat tumours on green and orange scrubland. Sets of wind turbines rise out of ridges in the island’s southeast, catching the gusts coming off the cerulean blue ocean. It’s the kind of landscape that makes the inclusion of a dedicated key for binoculars – B – a necessity instead of a luxury.
Bohemia is patently proud of its enormous play areas. Loading screens – surprisingly short for a game this size – tell fake tales of the islands’ backgrounds, of deserts north of villages that are ideal spots for pretend adventuring tourists, of the medieval history of a land apparently conquered by the Mediterranean’s most bellicose warlords.
Arma 3 has it under attack again. This time it’s the base for a battered NATO, fighting against CSAT, an army from the east headed up by Iran. Also present on the islands are another set of acronyms: Altis’ own armed forces, the AAF, and the resistance forces of the FIA. Altis and Stratis are bulwarks, NATO forces deployed in strategic position to stem the tide of CSAT soldiers. But play Arma 3 on launch day and you’ll feel like you’ve joined the conflict too early, before the battles have begun.
Retail versions of Arma 3 ship without the game’s campaign. That campaign, Bohemia promise, will come in three free chunks, the first of which launches in October. It’ll tell the tale of NATO Captain Scott Miller, following him as he uses the game’s ultra-detailed systems to infiltrate, shoot, drive, fly, and command his way around the islands.
But for now, Miller – and you – have to make your own fun. Arma 3’s editor is powerful, capable of making missions every bit the equal of developer-made fare. But it’s also, like much of the game, complex and fiddly, demanding an understanding of scripting and triggers before even the simplest of missions begins to gel. The best tutorial we could find for making such a mission was a 50-minute YouTube video. Without serious time investment – or a background in making similar missions for Arma 2 – then you’ll be left re-running short firing range exercises, re-completing the Showcase missions, or downloading user-made scenarios.
Fortunately, thanks to a lengthy beta period, there are already thousands of the latter. Some are tiny. Some are terrible. Some are strong, with beginnings and climaxes and frantic combat in between. Some are replications of Wolfenstein 3D. And some may grow to become as important in wider gaming culture as Arma 2 zombie mod DayZ. It’s these last ones that are the most promising, marrying Arma 3’s iterative advances and sheer scale to community ingenuity.
Buy into Arma 3 now and you’re buying into many promises. Bohemia’s pledge of a coherent campaign, its promise of a wider array of military toys to play with, and its intent to tweak and update AI errors, scripting issues, and pathfinding problems. But these promises are backed up by thousands of the world’s most dedicated players, people who’ve spent years crawling through Arma 2’s rough terrain to find the comparatively even ground of Arma 3. Buying Arma 3 at launch is buying a promise, then, but few games are so meticulously realised, or show so much promise.