War as we know it is a binary game, with the goodies (they’ll be the western-looking chaps with tidy uniforms and rugged but kind faces) and the baddies, who wear the away-kit version of the goodies’ uniform, look ethnically different and speak in a series of harsh consonants. Baddies kill, capture and loot in their attempt to wrest control of a country from the benevolent power, while the goodies selflessly throw themselves in the firing line between a defenceless foreign nation and its would-be evil usurpers. Got that?
If modern warfare was as clear-cut as it’s depicted in many conventional video games, then perhaps the British government wouldn’t have to spend so much on army recruitment advertising and we’d probably all be completely bamboozled by the multi-factional conflict portrayed in ArmA II. They might have invented the war and set it in a fabricated country, but developer Bohemia Interactive is appropriately placed in the Czech Republic, formerly part of a country that has seen more fractures and turmoil in the last century than a Californian fault line: it’s about as qualified an authority on the matter as you can get.
So with our limited knowledge of Eastern European wars of the last fifty years, it’s not such a struggle to get our heads around what role the insurgents, revolutionaries, national army and peacekeeping organisations play in the fictional, war-torn, near-future country of Chernarus.
ArmA II’s story is a chilling reminder of the hardships and atrocities committed in post-Soviet eastern block countries. Civil war between the Chernarus Red Star Movement (Chedaki), who want to reunite Northern Chernarus with Russia and a pro-western coalition, has resulted in the Chedakis seizing control of the area. After a request to be reunited with the motherland is thrown out by Moscow, the Chedakis declare martial law and install their own government for the region, resulting in the legitimate and democratic prime minister of Chernarus requesting support from NATO… this is where you come in.
That’s a more detailed briefing than that which you’ll get in the cinematics prior to your first mission, but as a part of Razor team, a Marine Expeditionary Force sent into Chernarus, that’s for the academics and the top brass to worry about. ArmA II does amount to an awful lot more than being told where to point your M4A1 SOPMOD QDS and shoot, however. You initially play the role of master sergeant Cooper, the number two in a small specialist reconnaissance force consisting of five men directed by first sergeant Miles. You have some limited control over the team, which extends later in the game to switching between team members, directing the team into vehicles and taking fixed formations, but nothing that approaches the complexity of Rainbow Six and its ilk.
Instead, ArmA II bombards you with a dizzying array of commands that even an MS Flight Simulator fanatic would blanch at, and certainly it’s enough to put the average FPS gamer off. Though some of the commands are creatively placed around the keyboard to make room for a higher level of functionality beyond the most detailed of mainstream first-person shooters, having had an hour or so familiarising ourselves with the interface in Boot Camp, we found them nowhere near as clumsy as we’d anticipated.
The default layout could have been mapped in a more intuitive manner and there are missed opportunities for more context sensitive menus, which leaves you occasionally fumbling for the appropriate key. But in the thick of battle your most immediate ergonomic needs are covered with less than a fraction of a second’s thought.
The significance of ArmA II’s attention to detail becomes immediately apparent in mission one. It’s 0430 hours and less than an hour before sun-up when razor team is inserted onto the outskirts of a Chernarussian village. It’s dark, so naturally you flick your night vision goggles on, before proceeding downhill across scrub and through a small copse of pine trees to a checkpoint. ArmA II allows you to switch from first to third-person at will, and each mode has distinct advantages.
Third person is better for gaining the bigger picture of your surroundings while on the hoof, but first-person allows you to focus more easily while stationary and moreover, it’s a much more immersive experience. Bohemia has paid the most incredible attention to environmental detail we’ve ever encountered and for the relatively indistinct forested area that is Chernarus, it’s teeming with realistic life in a way Bethesda never came close to realising with Oblivion: 225 square kilometres of real world terrain dotted with distinct settlements, a dynamic weather system and the odd rabbit or pheasant occasionally bursting out of nearly a million individual types of vegetation. Every possible noise has been accounted for, from rustling leaves and the whine of approaching mosquitos, to the supersonic crack of a rifle and terrifying bullet ricochet.
The combination of ArmA II’s meticulously detailed sound and vision creates a palpable atmosphere, turning an urban skirmish into a thrilling life-or-death encounter and a first-person, night-vision foray into the Chernarussian forests into something out of the Blair Witch Project. It’s a shame that the effort that has gone into creating these superb facets of the Real Virtuality engine wasn’t applied in other areas, because we can’t take the game as seriously when vegetation either parts like the Red sea or flattens like a cardboard stage prop with your every step, or when your team mates exercise their uncanny party trick of echoing their own voice.
ArmA II prides itself on being a realistic military operations simulator, the polar opposite of a run-and-gun shooter, reinforced by the fact that the Real Virtuality engine has been used in various forms by numerous military organisations for training purposes. So naturally you’re expected to make tactical combat decisions on whether to flank your target, snipe them from afar or take a full frontal assault. That’s a rather banal example, but with an unscripted and highly unpredictable enemy AI, these are calculated decisions that you often have to make under duress. The real coup-de-gras is the strategic scenario options that have long-term repercussions both on your success as razor team and ultimately, the outcome of this bloody civil war.
Your first mission revels in these decisions, with the entire operation completed in one swift and precise strike if you call in an air strike to level the Chedaki hub of communications. Of course, razing the village will kill numerous civilians, which won’t help NATO’s position, so forgo the easy option and you’ll have to satchel charge the site instead. Then there are the hostages: can you afford to take the time to save them? And will a subsequent escort mission do more harm than good? Finally, do you really want Razor team to take on another task when a time out is a viable option?
Bohemia Interactive has peppered ArmA II with these binary choices, with radio direction from Battlemage and your commanding officers, who sometimes allow you these executive decisions under the strict reminder that your primary goal is not to be compromised because of your choice.
But beyond that, you’re often given a completely open objective and a simple map reference to go on and beyond that, you have to use your wits to achieve it. It’s both daunting and confusing at first, especially if you’re used to the standard first-person shooter format. But once you’ve wandered around, shot some livestock and rallied a hummer down a dirty forest track, you’ll realise that ArmA II has a similar agenda to any RPG, that it’s just asking you to follow orders. It can be frustrating if your jeep gets stuck in the foliage and you have to yomp several miles of potentially deadly territory to your target, but this is the daily reality of recon and getting used to it isn’t a problem.
What we shouldn’t have to get used to is the crippling state we’ve played our version of ArmA II in – and this is post patching, too. Sure, it’s playable and there are large chunks of it that are very enjoyable too, but there’s an awful amount of broken game to hamper progress, frustrate and even elicit the odd chuckle.
Graphical glitches, clipping and simple physics flops are two a penny: we’ve found fully functional jeeps half sunk into the floor with turf for seats, while driving into a herd of goats nudges them forward as if you were shunting a few train carriages forward on rails. Our major issues are with the odd mid-mission crash and game killing bugs as an objective fails to complete, leaving your squad floundering with no way to move forward and no way to exit the mission. And because there aren’t multiple save game slots, just a user save and an autosave, if you’re in the habit of saving often it means you’ll usually have to restart and repeat the chapter from the beginning again.
The main offender is the AI, a horribly inconsistent mess that for about 50 percent of the time, is almost completely unresponsive in close combat. On a number of occasions we encountered snipers and static enemies who remained stock still when flanked or approached anywhere but dead on, failing to react even when we began to pump rounds into them. And because it’s sometimes difficult to distinguish between friend and foe (such is the nature of guerrilla warfare), more than once we’ve run straight past these prone soldiers assuming they were friendly NATO types, only to be immediately gunned down having run into their sights. Bizarrely, Razor team AI seems just as confused by the malfunctioning enemy, because in an effort to come to our aid and patch us up the corpsman got shot to pieces in exactly the same way.
Sadly, the other half of the time when the Chedakis aren’t doing their fallow deer calf-under-threat impressions, they’re actually presenting a highly realistic and seriously tough challenge that forces you to engage your brain as much as your steely resolve and steady aim. It’s the same predicament for ArmA II as a whole, with a catalogue of issues that break immersion and sometimes the game regularly enough to pose a problem. For large swathes of gameplay it’s a sublime, compelling and one of the most realistic combat experiences we’ve ever played but ArmA II could have benefited massively from a little more development time, because by contrast, the rest of the time it limps along like a crippled marine.