“War is Hell”

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Game Info
Publisher: Bohemia Interactive
Developer: Bohemia Interactive
Genre: First Person Shooter/Simulation
Release Date: : 09/17/2013

 

The Arma series (born out of the critically acclaimed Operation Flashpoint series) has always been a challenging simulation of real war. It’s unforgiving as a simulator, and can be frustrating to a fault for the uninitiated or casual shooter fans, but it has always maintained a strong following and with the changes and improvements to a notoriously clumsy engine, it might be able to step a bit out of the shadows now. Make no mistake, Arma doesn’t cater to making you feel like a walking arsenal or badass like a Call of Duty or Medal of Honor. It wants you to think and suffer and appreciate the intricacies of infantry combat in the near-future. Battles where “close combat” means within 500 yards. Battles where; if you can distinguish the silhouette of an enemy’s rifle, then you’re way too close, and more often than not, you won’t even see the bastards in the forests and hills when they put a hot lead bullet through you. Arma 3 is your invitation to experience infantry combat in as real as setting as anyone would be comfortable with.

Despite the game’s release almost 3 months ago, it wasn’t a complete experience. Only recently has the first episode of the three-episode campaign been released, and with it, one of the primary ways newcomers to the series will acquaint themselves with the hardcore sim-action. Considering the timing of this and the lack of narrative-driven single-player options (sans mod support and custom-missions), it seemed appropriate to release the inFocus now, walking you through the features and ups-and-downs, and letting you jump in (if you so desire) and have a campaign there to help you get used to the Arma style of doing things.

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STORY: As of this writing, the campaign section of Arma 3 just became available with the first episode, “Survive” going live recently. The game’s plethora of scenarios and custom-missions will provide ample entertainment and conflict beyond the main scripted story, for players who want some instant variety while waiting for the other two campaign episodes to release. There’s not much to say about an Arma campaign, they’re usually chock-full of terrible dialogue and little reason as to why you’re doing anything you’re doing other than the headquarters guys need some boots on the ground in [insert map grid markers here]. This is usually lazy writing, but in the case of Arma, the hyper-realism and focus on the small-guys in a massive combined arms assault makes this a more central to the actual experience of an infantryman or other low-level combat expert.

Unlike AAA titles, the general of the entire theater WON’T personally deliver your orders or say your skills are paramount to overthrowing your adversaries. On the contrary, you’re more often than not a regular guy in desert camouflage just trying to do the mission and not get killed (something that’s incredibly difficult in this game). This campaign is no different. Except the voice-acting has been improved dramatically. Instead of your comrades calling out each map grid number like a demented robot, or channeling cardboard acting from your middle-school drama classes, your allies and the various characters in your warzone react far more naturally, and call out enemy locations with a breath of easiness that seems almost unexpected in a series hounded by years of sacrificial creativity in the name of realism.

The campaign (focusing on a budding cold-war-gone-wrong scenario on the islands of Altis and Stratis) is still filled with its helping of under served acting and emotional outbursts, but the generic in-game dialogue (which carries over to scenarios, custom missions, multiplayer, etc) comes across as far more palatable and the game is all the better for it. It’s one of the many signs that Bohemia Interactive is ready to start making the whole Arma experience a little more digestible to newcomers and those who are considering a more realistic/hardcore approach to the first-person shooter market.

Arma 3′s mod community is already up and running with some impressive improvements and custom missions, and the game’s integration into Steam Workshop makes it incredibly easy to find, learn up on, and download whole new missions. You’ll get the best legs out of this game by constantly trying your strategies and skills in the variety of available missions types ranging from simple shootouts to complex recreations of Operation Flashpoint or Arma Gold, to rally races requiring you to do nothing more than drive the fastest across the massive expanse of Altis and Stratis’s roadways.

The scenarios provide a range of gameplay experiences. The official ones are mostly showcases of various groups, vehicles, weapons,  and character models, all kind of thrown into a tiny little mission. For example, the NATO showcase has you assault a small village, take out some mortar artillerymen and then retreat. It can take about 30 minutes total depending on the nature of your assault (no two Arma experiences play out exactly the same) and there’s just about no substance to it other than showcasing various weapons and new features.

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The SCUBA scenarios are certainly more interesting as they tout Arma’s newest feature, the underwater combat elements. In the SCUBA showcase, you must defuse a series of mines and then sabotage a beachfront base. Again, other than drawing attention to new mechanics and new weapons and animations, these are just little one-off missions that can be fun to repeat for the sake of the challenge, but offer no substantive motivation for any of the activities you’re performing.

GAMEPLAY: Anyone unfamiliar with Arma will find it’s the incredibly detail-oriented cousin to the popular FPS genre. Your basic similarities pour over; moving, aiming, shooting, so on, all operate exactly how’d you expect. But then you get into some of the  more esoteric aspects of Arma’s gameplay construction.

Do you move normally? Sprint? Move while aiming your weapon? Combat walk with the sights up? Iron sights versus scopes? Night-scopes and day scopes? You have to reload each grenade into the grenade launcher (including the cover-inducing smoke variety). You have to consider gravity and the Coreolis Effect in long-range engagements. It gets very in depth and the breadth of controls one must remember on the keyboard can become overwhelming, especially if you’re just looking for some quick in-and-out military action.

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Those who have logged some hard time with Bohemia Interactive’s other shooters and simulators will find Arma 3 does a great job in improving on the familiar engine. The gameplay feels tighter and more responsive, letting you make quicker decisions and not getting bogged down in any clumsy graphics or handling. Where Arma 2 had a cumbersome weight to its gameplay, Arma 3 feels like its shed those excess pounds and is in fine fighting shape.

Vehicles still retain their heavy mass and are a little difficult to maneuver with ease, but they also are noticeably leaner when compared to older entries. Aerial combat is brutal and fast, and visually amazing. The combined forces approach of most of Arma’s scenarios (and the upcoming campaigns) will really showcase how well the game does when multiple divisions of vehicles and men are coordinated with one another in high-tense situations.

With a moderate to high-end machine, the game runs fine considering its immense graphical elements, though without any heavy engines in your rig, you’re going to be cutting settings down faster than you can blink. The game gives itself a lot of room to run wild and free on super computers, so for the rest of us, it’s a matter of living with the reduced settings we’ll have to settle for.

Despite improvements in graphics and handling of player characters and vehicles, the AI is still a clunky mess. They get lost in tight corners, follow you unflinchingly into any situation (sometimes refusing to take cover when being fired upon). For the most part, though, they do engage the enemy when necessary, and are almost always going to be more accurate than yourself unless you’re really in the groove. This can help keep you alive, and it’s been a staple of the Arma series, that lone wolves and Rambos get dead quick, while those who stick with their team and move and act smart stay alive. You’re not the hero of a movie in Arma, you’re the member of a team, and your teammates (thankfully) are more than willing to help you out when you don’t see that sniper or maybe don’t notice that guy thirty yards off to your right. But not every time.

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The downside to this AI accuracy, even given the inconsistencies in their actions, is that your enemies get it as well. Unlike your typical shooters, cover here is a holy tenant of existence. And not just the heavy stuff that’ll stop the bullets with your name on them. Underbrush and concealment is a huge factor in surviving shootouts. There’s a reason they call it cover AND concealment in military training, one is not better or more required than the other, and using both well will help you survive the enemy AI’s unforgiving skill in putting you down.

GRAPHICS: This is a beautiful game. If you have the guts in your computer to handle it. Luckily, there are certain ineffable elements of Arma 3 that will stun you even if you’re forced to lower everything down to a moderate level. While playing through one particular multiplayer level, my team and I were tasked with defending a small base on a beach against a series of overwhelming assaults by a better-equipped army. It took us from the high noon heat to the depths of the night’s cold and terror and it looked glorious.

APCs exploded in the forest and the orange fingers of light danced across the open spaces. Flames licked and twirled around wrecks and craters, shadows moved silently on the horizon, silhouetted against a crescent moon and the rhythmic passing of a lighthouse’s beam. And all these are unscripted elements of this particular map section, completely indifferent to the actual mission at work or the fact that it was a basic multiplayer “survive” mission.

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This is part of the beauty of this game. It’s a consistent world that looks wonderful and can create very dynamic stories in the midst of hectic battles, all by the attention to detail in the construction of the various sets. There is an obvious void of civilians and furnishings in buildings, which does give the game a kind of wasteland feel. It’s that same kind of thing that made Arma 2 the primordial ooze from which we were given huge open-world zombie titles like Day Z.

Night lighting (as highlighted previously) has been radically improved to give a more natural feel compared to older Armas, and it shows considerably. Headlights, flashlights, searchlights, flames, muzzle flashes, etc; all have unique signature appearances and create a whole sensation of being somewhere incredibly dangerous and not being able to see the entire situation. If you’ve never experienced the thrill/fear combination of stalking targets through a forest at night in a game like Arma 3, then you’re in for a treat when you experience it here. The only thing it’s missing is the smell of pine and bugs flitting about your ear. Oh, and the constant threat of death.

Night-vision goggles and field glasses all bend light appropriately and maintain a consistent visual tapestry through all hours of any combat engagement. The natural day/night cycle of the island (which happens in real-time) also gives some breath-taking vistas, be it the ocean from a clifftop, or the sun rising over a church steeple in a small abandoned village. It’s a beautiful backdrop to have to wage too, and it can be a little too comforting when all your attention needs to be focused in on where the next tiny blip of an enemy is on the horizon in front of you.

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SOUND: Like the graphics, the sounds of this game are equally varied and deep. Just based on the noise a bullet makes careening past your head is enough to tell you how close it came to ending your military career. The snaps, cracks, hisses, pops, and other cues are more than just window dressing to make the experience authentic, they are actually little snippets of actionable information you can learn and use to survive your encounter.

This is true with most of the noises, be it identifying a vehicle out of sight or determining if that helicopter is heading towards you or away, nevermind the terrifying moment when you hear a snapping twig somewhere close by while you’re searching for an enemy patrol you know is in the area. All these stimuli serve their real world purpose in helping you make decisions and react to in-game constructs in the proper way.

Not all the effort in the game’s sounds are meant to be purely functional, some of it serves as equally worthy ambiance. Birds and insects, rain and waves, the way they all blend together to create a natural milieu of our world makes the quiet moments between firefights into things to be treasured; a sublime absence of death. Of course, hearing that snap of a bullet inches from your noggin is sure to snap you out of your Disney moment real quick, so don’t get lost sight-seeing and day dreaming in Arma 3′s beautiful expanses.

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In addition to the natural sounds of its setting, Arma 3 also took the necessary steps to improve in-game dialogue. The best news here is that they’ve succeeded. Gone is the laughably cardboard voice-acting that’s plagued a series so notorious for seeking perfection in every other aspect of its simulation. Now, your fellow soldiers speak  more realistically, call out enemy positions far more naturally, and the mixing of their voices over your radio feels much more consistent with what you’d expect from military-grade hardware.

It’s almost unnoticeable if you haven’t played an Arma game before, but for those that have, you’ll be pleased to know that now your AI companions calling out positions and giving orders feels like it belongs in the simulation, and that alone is proof that Bohemia Interactive has been trying actively to improve his aging and rusted engine and they’ve done it in just the right manners that the game required.

REPLAY: Arma’s replay comes in the form of a heavily invested mulitplayer community and the focus on designing  missions for a team of multiple players. The unforgiving realism of the scenarios can have you redoing any number of them to either succeed, or having accomplished that, to succeed well.

The mission editor lets players create their own campaigns and scenarios when they’ve exhausted all the other available options, and anyone with a strong enough presence of online friends or who gets in with a group of players will have a never-ending flood of potential game types and scenarios to try out.

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But if you’re a solo gamer and you prefer experiencing these types of games on your own without having to coordinate large groups, you’ll still find plenty of extended game time in the ever-increasing availability of custom missions. Plenty of levels are designed for small teams of 2 up to 6 that can be experienced without much loss by yourself, letting the AI handle your compatriots.

To be fair, however, this kind of game gets exponentially more interesting the bigger group you have, as its designed to showcase massive landscapes, huge collections of equipment and vehicles, and can support above and beyond a hundred people at any given moment on a server.

In the future, much like Arma 2, it’s expected that we’ll see a variety of expansions introducing new tech and gear and scenarios and campaigns. If Bohemia Interactive sticks with this tried and true method, you’ll see Arma 3 grow into one of the most loved and played games in the hardcore simulator market.

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Arma 3 stays true to its hardcore roots while making dramatic improvements to its gameplay mechanics and engine, changing it from a clunky shooter that only the true sim-heads could enjoy into a streamlined experience that allows newcomers a little more leeway in jumping in. It’s as close as anyone would want to get to war, real war, without strapping on some boots and heading overseas. It’s a simulator that has finally found out how to step aside and make a game that is both true-to-life and entertaining without one compromising the other.

Written By: R. Burke Kearney

This review was based off a press copy of Arma 3. The game was played on PC for 20 hours.