Release: Out now
Publisher: 505 Games
Developer: Bohemia Interactive Studio
The allied forces claim a hard-fought victory over an insurgent-held village. In the case of our squad, it is more accurately a hardly-fought victory, as we personally spend the battle on our bellies in a field. Nonetheless, we are jubilant simply at the rare event of not being dead. We stand in the road, awaiting extraction, watching the allied APC as it bumps across the valley towards us. A sense of triumph – so elusive, so fleeting – wells up inside as the vehicle draws near. The APC ploughs over and kills two members of the squad, immediately initiating a cutscene which overwrites the last save game, before dropping us straight into the subsequent mission in an automatic fail-state. Could this be an accurate representation of the blueon- blue tragedies that can occur during warfare? Or is it simply that the overambitious scope of firstperson military sim ArmA 2 means it can look forward to months of user-QA and post-release patches?
Helicopters prove to be the dipstick for the game’s oft-entertaining failings. Calling one in to evacuate your character and the three-man squad you control initiates a lunatic sequence worthy of Catch-22: the chopper dallies with one landing site, only to lift off at the last minute, circle round and T almost land somewhere else – our squad scurrying back and forth across the LZ like extras in a boot-camp edition of The Benny Hill Show. Then there’s the madness of ordering your squad to actually get in – members of the team refusing to mount the craft without explanation – followed by the cryptic process of instructing the pilot to actually take you somewhere. The choices may be realistically broad, but the means of accessing them demand an obtuse combination of key clicks, menus and scrollwheeling that does not match the process of just telling someone to do something. As the bullets start pinging off the chopper’s windscreen, you yearn for the simple restrictions of a context-sensitive bit of scripting – a sop to the player along the lines of ‘Press Enter to select destination’. But there are no sops in war: you need to man up, soldier. We would, but we can’t remember the key combination.
When we finally take off and buzz across the rolling pastures and deciduous forests to the destination, our relief is curtailed by the pilot’s decision to land in a tree, killing all occupants of the craft instantly. This may all sound like Carry On Post-Soviet Power Struggle or, worse, the game development equivalent of the Battle for Stalingrad but, actually, Bohemia Interactive can be commended for more than just ambition and bravery. Once the cordite smoke has cleared from the battlefield and the casualties have been chalked up, the end result is that Bohemia scrapes a defiant victory, pyrrhic though it may be. The campaign, although besieged with flaws of execution and glitches, is a believable and smartly orchestrated war narrative set in a bitterly contested ex-Soviet state – the fictional eastern European country of Chernarus. The scale of the landscape before you is boggling, and drawn with convincing detail, its distant pastures and quiet hamlets seeded with conflicts you may never see, but playing out in your absence. Missions make full use of the player’s freedom to approach objectives in any manner they choose, and combat is accompanied by RPG-lite intel gathering and dialoguing – you’re here for the hearts and minds of the Chernarussian people, as well as the insurgents’ heads. Randomly generated objectives add to the thrilling unpredictability of every excursion. No battle plays out the same way twice.
The careful recreation of military vehicles, weapons and ballistics lends an undeniable, and terrifying, sense of credibility – even if Bohemia’s obsession with realism drives the game in problematic directions (see sidebar). Each bullet is precious and lethal – the use of them must be sparing, exact. The player’s decisions can only be similarly precise: how, when and where to move defines that taut, thin boundary between life and death, the difference between a bullet making that gut-churning zipping sound as it skims past, and actually churning up your guts.
But the successes of the campaign are almost by-the-by: ArmA 2’s own Rorke’s Drift takes place when you open up the scenario editor. Modding tools are usually relegated to side-bar mentions, but Bohemia claims to have spent 50 per cent of its development efforts on this alone – and it shows. This isn’t, however, a terrain editor; with the entire state of Chernarus at your disposal there is landscape enough to serve most purposes. What the editor provides is the ability to drop any number of units, player-controlled and otherwise, into the game and set them objectives – culminating in scenarios as complex as any in the main campaign itself, and all of it is simply controlled through drop-down menus. Already, the game has seen players set up vast tank battles and fill the skies with fire as hundreds of planes plough straight into each other – but that’s easy stuff. The editor permits the creation of scripted events, with intros and outros, win and fail conditions, quickly saved and loaded and ready for play in co-op alongside the entirety of ArmA 2’s official campaign.
And it is in co-op, and multiplayer in general, that the game comes alive, bypassing many of the frustrations created by the spasmodic, robotic team AI, and providing the player with an experience as malleable and intense as any wargame yet made. While smashing together a few tanks and choppers and seeing how it plays out will be sufficient for some, multiplayer scales up to include grand RTS-flavoured conflicts that take in the complexities of basebuilding, multiple factions with different objectives, civilians and more. No doubt the avid community that has followed Bohemia Interactive’s games since Operation Flashpoint will further sustain the title with extra content to rival the developer’s own.
ArmA 2 isn’t just dogmatic and unforgiving – it’s also very awkward in its construction and the weight of its ambition frequently proves too much for the sometimes-brilliant main campaign to pull off. Nonetheless, its vast, detailed world and unapologetic dynamism turn the game from sandbox to snowglobe – something you can’t resist shaking up just to see how it looks. With a scenario-scripting editor as deep and efficient as any seen in a game, providing instant simulatory skirmishes and enduring co-op crusades alike, ArmA 2 is, for all its snafus, a commanding presence.
This article originally appeared in E204. Like what you’ve read? Buy your copy of Edge now for £4.50 and get it delivered to your door (UK and Europe only) at www.myfavouritemagazines.co.uk/gamesradarshop.