Have you survived the glut of FPS games that have inundated this generation? Generic shooters have jaded some to a point that they only passively pay attention to a once revolutionary genre. Bohemia Interactive stands its ground, though, and delightfully denies the norm with their ArmA series. Gamers have a chance to revisit the ArmA universe with the recent release of the stand-alone expansion called ArmA II: Operation Arrowhead. The realistic military simulation fills a niche, but the final experience feels rushed and incomplete.
A short campaign mode provides a back-story for the action. Three years after ArmA II, some bad stuff is going down in the Green Sea region. Enemy forces have taken over a desert area in the fictional Takistan and it’s the US Army’s job to restore peace by eliminating enemy forces and freeing any possible POWs. Takistan is designed after parts of Afghanistan so expect a lot of dirt with minimal cover; instead, you’ll be presented with wide-open areas involving vehicle combat and long-ranged warfare.
Who knew that such a barren landscape could create scenes so visually appealing? The environment itself is a believably harsh enemy tempered slightly by the occasional wildlife that hops or glides past. Operation Arrowhead provides many “wow moments” both man-made and natural. Hanging onto a helicopter as you approach a drop zone gives you time to gaze out at the setting sun. The serenity is abruptly destroyed as an enemy tank explodes in the distance and bullet tracers graze the “little bird” helicopter you’re riding.
Each MK 17 assault rifle, Styker combat vehicle or CH-47F Chinook helicopter are painstakingly recreated in-game. Both air and ground vehicles “feel” right and carry a sense of weight that conveys a sense of momentum. If you drive that Stryker vehicle erratically, you’ll knock down signposts and weak walls. Destructible terrain and items are a wonderful feature, but they don't always make sense. Why can I destroy a stone wall with a Humvee but get stopped dead in my tracks while driving a tank when I clip a wooden pole tent?
If you have a screaming fast computer then turn up the graphics and enjoy the ride. However, the frame rate was so terribly inconsistent that at times it became nearly unplayable especially in areas populated by buildings. I’m a “computer guy” and squeeze every ounce of performance out of my PC but I struggled to get a smooth-playing experience. This is worth mentioning because Bohemia Interactive touted the “optimized engine” prior to release but I fail to see that reflected in the final product.
Problems also arise with character models and animation. It feels like I’m still playing a pre-release build when I hop out of a vehicle and see through my character’s head until his helmet loads. Or I’ll start a descent down a ladder and see my hands holding onto thin air in front of my face. I also found it nearly impossible to strafe (walk sideways) through a doorway. These are all forgivable but only serve to remind you it's just a game and detract from the realistic experience Operation Arrowhead is trying to create.The in-game sounds do make up for a lot, though. Audio cues abound to alert you to nearby action. I hear an explosion nearby and hit the ground. As I do, my gun and equipment clink together and the gravel makes a sound below me. Vehicles, weapons and nature all add a spice to the pot to draw you into the game world. Soldiers (including the one you control) will constantly describe enemy locations which is helpful to pick them out from what little cover they’ve found.
At one point, though, I rescued three hostages who wouldn’t stop talking. One would be thanking me for saving their lives while the other two would be updating me on enemy locations. Since when did civilians afraid for their lives start giving updates using military terms? It felt out of place and actually made me laugh at their lack of focus.
Overall, the campaign was enjoyable and offered diverse missions even if it was very brief. Rescuing hostages, leading an armored vehicle convoy through multiple hot zones, and piloting an attack helicopter are all woven into the story. The realism added tension because I knew that one mistake could quickly kill me. Additionally, each mission gives enough leeway to choose which objective to tackle first which adds replay value. Since this isn’t a heavily scripted affair, missions rarely play out the same.
This lack of scripting also causes issues when you don’t meet the exact criteria the game expects. If you have to clear a town, a lone soldier lying on a rooftop can keep you from completing your objective. This leads to “hide and seek” moments that aren’t enjoyable in a game even if they are realistic. Plus, the AI in Operation Arrowhead is atrocious. It’s apparent for two reasons: enemies and teammates.
The enemy AI is almost non-existent. Turning up the difficulty will make them more deadly, but that’s only glossing over the issue. I could walk into a room and shoot one of three enemies. The other two would remain at their post, unaware of both their dead comrade and my loud assault rifle. Occasionally I would walk right past an enemy thinking they were a neutral unit only to have them shoot me in the back when they realized who I was.
My team acted a little better. Other squads would tackle objectives and even complete side missions for me. However, that is where their brain power stops. It even felt like my squad had road rage; if I drove to slowly, I would get rear-ended and literally pushed along. In other instances I was rammed by a friendly tank. That’s when I decided to order my squad to waypoints, both to stay out of my way and not to hurt themselves. Unfortunately, the path finding of AI-controlled vehicles results in spectacles similar to that from a drunk driver. I ordered a tank to move forward half a click directly uphill. What was the result? It was a comical attempt at maneuvering that looked like the operator was trying to tack a sailboat against the wind. In most instances I was able to take the wheel myself and transport us to the next location. Frustration resulted when I had to wait on a convoy to catch up; failure to stay within a close proximity of the convoy would end the mission.
Operation Arrowhead’s horrible AI made me wish I was playing with real people so I jumped online. It’s easy to find a multiplayer match since there are many active servers currently available. A few missions or objectives would become “bugged” and be impossible to complete, but these were only occasional hiccups to the fun. In stark contrast to playing online in other “modern war” games, the ArmA players I encountered proved to be overwhelmingly helpful, mature, and dedicated to adding to the realistic experience. It actually made me want to get a headset to take part in the voice communication.
As with its successors, the true staying power for Operation Arrowhead will undoubtedly come from player created content and post-release support. It is a beautiful platform for possibility especially looking at what players have created for the original title. Ultimately, though, my opinion must be based on the retail game as it currently stands and not based on potential.
Operation Arrowhead follows the “realistic military game” footsteps of its predecessors but is marred by numerous glaring issues. The AI seemed programmed to be awful. Frame rates were so inconstant that I was pulled out of the action to mess with video options. There is no sense speculating about the developmental time constraints but much of Operation Arrowhead feels rushed and incomplete. With that being said, I still had a lot of fun with this stand-alone expansion. It provides enough new content, opportunity for multiple replays, and online action to keep things fresh. There are plenty of reasons to love the experience but be prepared for a bumpy ride.