"Don't knock it until you've tried it."
It's a cliché, I know, but it perfectly describes my experience with ARMA II: Operation Arrowhead. ARMA is the consumer counterpart of VBS, a real training tool used by armed forces around the world. Bohemia Interactive doesn’t want their product compared to other modern shooters on the market. This is a military simulation game with shooting, driving, strategy and tactics. All of these facets combined to create a reputation in my mind that scared me away from trying the game. I was concerned that it would be too hard or that there is no way it could actually be fun. I was wrong.
After installing the stand alone expansion pack, I took my time at working through boot camp. Since there are functions assigned to most of the keys on the keyboard, it was a little overwhelming at first. However, I was happy to find out that just about every movement I could make in the real world can be made in ARMA II. There’s the ability to sprint, crouch, go prone, hold your breath (for long-distance shots) as well as hopping over low walls or checking your compass and watch. It took some time to remember them all but it quickly blended into part of the experience.
Boot camp also teaches you to pilot a helicopter and UAV. While I didn’t need this education for the campaign level I played, I used these training exercises as mini-games. A helicopter can be tricky to manage; it’s made easier with the option to have the game “auto hover” for you while you take off and land. It was liberating to gain control of the skies and made me anxious to see how I could fly while under fire. After all of the time I spent in boot camp, it was time to put it into practice.
As a stand-alone expansion pack, Operation Arrowhead is set three years after the conflict in ARMA II. A flashpoint in the fictional Green Sea region sends the US Armed Forces to Takistan to restore peace and prevent further civilian casualties. The environment will look quite different to veteran players. Takistan is modeled after Central Asia, which means wide open areas with sparse vegetation. Also, Operation Arrowhead features the US Army, unlike ARMA II’s use of the US Marine Corps. Players will have the opportunity to fill various roles during the campaign in the US Army such as infantry, special operative, pilots and tank crew.
The mission available for the preview build I played was called Coltan Blues. Several civilians are being held captive in a mine and it’s my job to infiltrate, locate, and extract them safely. I took the role of Sgt. Terry Graves (aka “Gambler 1”) a Delta Force trooper leading three men into the mouth of the lion. I’ve got a medic in the group if things get messy, but hopefully the marksman and my skilled leadership will avoid problems. The communications officer will radio for extraction as soon as we’ve accomplished our mission.
I load in and am controlling Gambler 1 as the mission starts. I’m hanging out of the side of a helicopter giving a final briefing to my team. The pilot is hugging the hills to avoid detection because the Middle Eastern setting doesn’t provide a lot of trees or vegetation for cover. We are dropped off just north of the mine; we’re far enough away to plan our approach and (hopefully) scout enemy patrols. The draw distance is amazing. While I descend on the mine from a large hill, a town in the distance is getting attacked. Enemies are scrambling, tanks are exploding, and I’m nearly a mile away watching through the scope on my rifle. My first four attempts at Coltan Blues ended in a complete wipe of my team. We all died. It certainly wasn’t for lack of trying; rather, enemies responded and acted differently in each attempt. The first try was a frontal assault, but I missed a patrol that started picking us off from a hill to our left. The second time I thought I would approach from the left (to catch the patrol) and I died without even seeing my killer. The environment provides very little cover so I had to get used to a long-range assault. We are able to take out a handful of enemies before the entire base is in chaos. It gives us an opportunity to sprint down to the outer fence to take a moment and regroup.
I won’t spoil what happens at the mine but it quickly builds tension and helps me see how I work under pressure. The experience was stressful but I loved every minute of it. After I finally achieved success, I kept playing through the level to see how differently I could tackle it. It’s not just the enemy reactions that cause such a disparity in the mission; it’s the underlying programming that handles bullets. The computer is busy crunching details for every bullet fired. They all react realistically to gravity, ricochets and penetration, all of which vary based on the caliber of bullet and material it hits.
That must be part of the appeal of ARMA II: Operation Arrowhead (and the series). The fact that each time you play it could result in unscripted and truly unexpected “water cooler moments” that make you wish you were recording what just happened. It’s the realism and dynamic chaos that provides the draw and keep players returning for more.
Such attention to detail is obvious when it comes to the equipment, weapons, and vehicles you’ll use. They are meticulously modeled to look and feel like their real-life counterpart. Shooting an MK17 Sniper rifle is a completely different experience from handling an M7 silenced pistol. The best way to experience it all is in Armory Mode. This mode loads a geographical area and then presents the player with a list of all items, weapons and vehicles in the game. It’s as simple as making a selection to have it spawn in the game world so that you can go crazy.
Bohemia Interactive found a way to focus your attention even in the Armory Mode. Various challenges will be thrown at you depending on the item you select. If you’ve selected a CH-47F Chinook helicopter, you’re challenge might be transporting a certain number of troops to a specific location. If instead you chose an RPG-18 anti-tank weapon, you’ll need to destroy a set number of targets. You could even choose to control a rabbit (yes, a furry little rodent) and be challenged to stay alive and avoid capture for a finite amount of time. Not only was I learning how each item handled, I was having a blast and losing literally hours of time.
There is also an in-game scenario for both the US Army and the Army of Takistan that loads the player into a base. All of the vehicles for that nation are placed around the living base. It’s living because there are soldiers on patrol that will fire on you if you do something unpatriotic. The scenario is yet another sandbox mode that I’ll be using to practice my flying or driving skills before hopping online.It’s a very graphics intensive game. There are massive draw distances and detailed models of everything from villages to my character’s weapon. Helicopters cause the grass to move because of the wind the blades generate. However, Bohemia Interactive keeps the system requirements reasonable when compared to other recent games. I played on a mid-range system with an ATI 5700 series card and had an amazing visual experience.
It wasn’t perfect, though. Clipping issues abound when you take a closer look. NPC characters will look ugly while textures load to make them look more human. The preview build froze on me multiple times until I knew what caused the issue. Even the audio suffered because the radio chatter sometimes wouldn’t stop and provided too much information. It was a pre-release build so it deserves some leeway, but it definitely needs some refinement before its launch later this month.
As it stands, though, I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Operation Arrowhead. ARMA was every bit as realistic as I previously imagined, but it makes the atmosphere and action that much more threatening. It also makes the sense of accomplishment that much more triumphant. I recommend every person that owns a PC to give it a try. You just might love it.
Finally, be sure to read the interview Chuck had
with a lead designer at Bohemia Interactive. Please feel free to leave any questions you might have in the comments because I received a lot
more information than I could work into this preview.