posted 8/18/2009 by Dave Gamble
other articles by Dave Gamble
While the gaming segment for military-based shooters is quite wide, running the gamut from ancient history to future wars yet to be fought (with a notably large spike surrounding the WWII era), the types of games available can be categorized more readily. The spectrum of types goes from the scripted “rail” games that concentrate more on action, theatrical presentation, and high body counts such as the Call of Duty series,  to the more cerebral strategic/tactical games like Full Spectrum Warrior where you don't shoot much at all, instead concentrating on squad tactics and leaving the dirty work to the computer controlled players. There are, of course, many games between those endpoints that layer various components together for a more hybrid approach. The Brothers in Arms series is a good example, with its squad leader mechanics smoothly dovetailed with actual fighting to provide a seamless merging of squad tactics with individual fighting.

With such a broad range of design elements available, game developers have to find their niche by focusing upon the needs of desires of their intended gamer audience. Those gamers looking for an intense, fast-paced battlefield rife with explosions and plenty of available targets are going to gravitate to the more cinematic offerings like Call of Duty, while those looking for more reality are going to be drawn to games such as Bohemia Interactive's ArmA II. ArmA II could be described as a tactical shooter that offers squad-level tactical command, strategic-level command, and individual-level down-in-the-trenches fighting in a realistic battlefield environment. All of this is available on a relatively massive, completely open scale that does not funnel the player through scripted paths and events. Nor is the player limited to action as a ground-pounding infantry grunt. A very diverse collection of vehicles is available, up to (down to?) and including farm tractors.

As you might imagine, this kind of depth and breadth to the military experience incurs a cost in complexity. ArmA II is not the kind of game that you can just sit down and play. Well, at least not with a great deal of success. There are a number of somewhat steep learning curves that a player must go through to get full, effective use out of the game. For example, as an individual soldier you will need to learn the various keyboard commands at your disposal. Some, such as the standard WASD movement commands, are similar enough to other games to pick up quickly. Other things such as weapons selection and configuration, require a little more time to become natural enough that you can perform them under pressure.

With the realistic health model providing absolutely no latitude for carelessness, negligence, or incompetence, there is no time to be fiddling around trying to find the correct key to select the weapon you need if you are in an enemy's sights. In fact, in my experience it is very likely that you will be dead before you ever even see the enemy if you aren't extremely careful. Again, realism can be a real bitch. A single shot from a soldier you never knew was there can bring a quick end to a mission, which can be very frustrating since the size of the physical environment is such that you may have been walking or running for a great deal of time before meeting your untimely end. Unlike some of the more forgiving games, you can't just cower behind a wall while your health recovers or pick up a mysteriously abandoned health pack and enjoy its instant recuperative properties. In ArmA II, if you get shot it is very likely to be your first and last time. So be careful!

Once the basics are mastered, realizing the full utility of ArmA II will require a lot of independent study and practice. An invaluable resource for learning advanced tactics, techniques, and procedures is the aptly named Dslyecxi's ArmA II Tactics, Techniques, & Procedures Guide available at the web site.

When (if?) you do find yourself in the laudable position of being the hunter rather than the hunted, you will have yet another opportunity to humble yourself in front of the altar of reality. The weapons are modeled to include trajectory effects and the guy holding the weapon (you!) doesn't hold a perfectly still aim. Even visibility can be an issue; facing towards the rising sun in the east in the morning will blind you and quickly give the tactical advantage to your target. There are quite a few factors to consider when maneuvering yourself and your troops into position for a battle. Because of this difficulty, I found it helpful to practice in less threatening or uncertain environments. I found two ways to do this: first, when I found myself in open fields and pastures, I practiced weapon operation by shooting cows. That had the salutary benefit of having a target that wouldn't shoot back, but that benefit soon became a detriment. I had to find a more advanced, interactive means to hone my skills.

That means of creating more realistic training scenarios was found in the mission editor. Using the editor, it was a simple operation to set up a group of infantry, a squad of tanks, or any combination of disparate military elements to use for target practice. Make no mistake about this, though: they fought back, and they fought back well enough that my survival required that I pay close attention to what was going on. Just knowing where the targets were and how many of them were arrayed against me was not enough – it still required careful planning and execution to nail them all without getting blown away myself. That said, this eventually came to be my favorite way to play ArmA II for reasons I will get to a little later. 

When it came time to practice the operation of weapons and vehicles without dealing with the risk of having other AI folks trying to kill me, I found the Armory to be useful. Well, mostly. I didn't feel that I gained much useful expertise from the time that I spent as a chicken. What I primarily used the Armory for was my futile attempts to configure the controls of the air vehicles to use my Saitek X52 throttle and joystick. In this I was quite unfortunately unsuccessful. The control configuration screen is, in my opinion, nearly useless for the task of setting flight controls with a joystick. Sadly, my inability to configure the controls to allow for realistic flight completely negated the inclusion of the multitudinous vehicles provided. I cannot (will not) fly a helicopter with a mouse and/or keyboard. As a pilot myself, that was a major disappointment.

Having discussed the high degree of realistic behavior in ArmA II, it should come as no surprise to learn that the Real Virtuality 3 engine used to power the game is used to provide the same levels of realistic behavior to training simulators used by various military units around the world. Beyond the tactical challenges, though, the engine provides for a rich graphical environment that comes as close to photo-realistic as I expect to see with the current performance level of consumer-grade hardware. Vehicles in particular are quite detailed and well textured. Open fields are gorgeous at a distance, but macro views of foliage will remind you that you're looking at a rendering vice the real thing. There's still room for a Real Virtuality 4 engine, but improvements in graphics will likely be incremental.

There's also quite a bit of room for improvement on the aspect known as the Dynamic Conversation System. This is a speech engine that creates on-the-fly communications from your squad mates and leadership. It is a feature that sent me on a desperate search for a way to turn it off. The resulting speech is highly robotic and quickly becomes as irritating as a Wal-Mart self-checkout machine with a speech impediment. “Move. Fifty. Feet. Forward.” “Engage. That. Man. In. Front.”

Me: “Please. Shut. Up!”

I also alluded previously to my preference for using the mission editor to create battle scenarios. I developed this preference due to the periodic frustrations that come from the campaign mode. Now admittedly, it is not the fault of the campaign mode if I can't figure out who I'm supposed to be following or what I'm supposed to be doing, but some degree of angst is attributable to the engine if it fails to recognize that a mission has been completed. I also found the scope of activities going on around me to cause some confusion when a task assigned to me by high command switched to 'Failed' or 'Completed' before I actually go there. It seemed more common that not to have simultaneous tasks that were widely geographically separated. When creating my own missions, I found it much easier to fully understand the fixed goals that I put in place and concentrate on the tactics of completing them.

In summary, I'd say that it is important to understand exactly what ArmA II is and what it is not. It is a very realistic simulation of a modern battlefield, including the complexity and difficulty that is incumbent with a large, open, and very active arena. It is not a run & gun, fast-paced, easily learned shooter. Those looking for the latter will be disappointed by the challenging learning curve and relatively slow action. Those looking for the former might be frustrated by some of the areas that could use a little polish, but will be pleased with the depth and breadth of the offering.

Bohemia Interactive's ArmA II provides an ultra-realistic military shooter for those that are up to the challenge. There are some rough spots, but those are adequately compensated for by the complex and realistic battle environment.