Friday, 9 September 2016

Arma 3

The sun rises on the Mediterranean Island of Altis. The beauty of the hilly terrain surrounded by crystal clear waters is peppered with small whitewashed cottages, a town equally quaint here and there.

But the beauty of our surroundings is of no concern to us on this day. My squad, or what remains of us, are soldiers, and this island is enemy territory. It swarms with Infantry, Land and Air vehicles, each one carrying ammunition, and within that ammunition, somewhere, are six individual bullets with our names on.

A small armoured vehicle barrels into view. The enemy know of our existence, if not our exact location. This one has been looking for us, and got lucky.

But luck is a two way street.

In our entire squad, we have one anti tank weapon, and a single missile. Squad leader Gaz gives the order to fire, while over comms yelling "Get on your belts!" to the rest of us.We'd later find out that means "go prone" in the real-world British Army, but for now we have no idea what that means. I kind of get the idea the best thing might be to hide, and so I stand bolt upright behind a knee high rock.

Mark is already halfway across the valley, off to retrieve a quad bike no one asked him to get. Nick, as our explosives expert, quickly sets about laying mines and anything else in his inventory in front of himself, as he's not sure which button does what yet. Jon, our anti tank missile wielding hero, takes aim as the enemy roars closer and closer. Our AI companion, we'll call him Ivan, there to take the place of engineer because none of us wanted the job, has dutifully followed the command Gaz gave, going prone on the wrong side of a bush, intently staring at us through his rifle sights.

"Try and wing it Jon, we can repair it and use it"

"Will do"

He takes aim as the vehicle is nearly on top of us.


Obviously he forgot to load it.

Panic erupts. the mounted machine gun opens fire on us as Jon, mid reload, is blown away. Ivan gets off a couple of rounds before he bites the dust. Gaz and me start running away, showing true heroism. "It's ok guys I'm on my way back!" Mark crests a hill on his newly found quad bike. Whatever dream he had in his head of some Rambo-one-man-army action is dashed as the mounted gun swings around to fire off a short burst in his direction. The resultant explosion of the quad sends Mark's body flying a good half mile, and I'm laughing so hard I don't notice we've run next to nick. "Guys what do you reckon 'touch off bombs' does?"

We give out the customary rinsings to each other, laugh our heads off, and restart. Rinse and repeat for the next 4 hours.

The anecdotes that I can take away from an evening playing this with my mates are some of the funniest stories that can be generated by a game. The A.I. can be a bit squiffy at times, and the level of realism can make it a daunting experience for newcomers, but those are a couple of very tiny pee dribbles on an otherwise perfectly clean pair of chinos

(As an aside, here's a great little trick to play on your friends. It'll cost you your medkit, but worth it. When the game starts, shoot them in the leg then heal them. They'll be back to full health, but their character with do this "Urgh.............Urgh............." grunt for the remainder of the game. After a while it becomes the most annoying sound in the world, but only they can hear it.)

But is Arma a game or a sim? It's a hard question to answer, and I'm not sure it even matters. I've been playing the Arma games since Operation Flashpoint so I knew what to expect, but when recommending it to my friends I had to constantly reiterate "It's really hard, but really rewarding. You have to think of it as a Sim more than a game."

And I think that's fair, and not so much of a critism of the game but more just informing someone that this is a different experience. Waypointing in singleplayer, for example, doesn't happen automatically. You'll be given an objective, and later in the game a squad to command. The location of your objective is given to you as a map grid reference. How to get there, and how to complete the objective, is totally up to you. 

The fundamentals of the game are the same as previous entries in the series. The game takes place on an open real world landmass, fictionally renamed, in the near future. The game features every weapon, land, air, and sea vehicle you would realisticly expect in a modern conflict, and every one of those is useable by the player. Some time into the game  you are given a squad to command, and while the command system at first is a bit tricky it gets easier and actually quite intuitive once you get the hang of it. 

The singleplayer campaign sees the player take the role of Kerry, a soldier in a NATO peacekeeping force. The military-led government of the country you are in launches a surprise attack on the NATO forces and overcomes them, leaving you and the other survivors working with the indigenous freedom fighters in a guerilla war against the dominant regime.     

I paticularly liked the pacing of the game in comparison to its previous entry in the series. Arma 2 saw you given command of a squad almost immediately, and for me I enjoy being a grunt on the ground, just following orders for a while. It gives you a better insight into the mechanics of the game. This one has so much more polish than its older brothers as well. Not just graphically, although it is beautiful, but most importantly in its audio. 

The voice over artists, while still occasionally delivering the cheesy bro-line, have by and large done an excellent and believeable job. Most importantly the lines are delivered with context. In Arma 2 you could be standing in an empty, silent forest next to your squad leader, Miles, after the fighting was over, and hear a new objective. Your character would reply "NO WORRIES MILES HEADING TO 037-862" Shouted with the same urgency and volume as if you were under an artillery barrage.

Here's another great example, taken from the Arma 2 addon "Private Military Company" -


I mentioned waypointing before, and that's worth explaining a bit more in depth as to why its an issue. Especially as I've yet to find any mods that fix it. Your opinion may differ here depending on where you fall on the Game/Sim argument though.

An early-ish mission sees you and your squad get to a tiny fishing village that a friendy force was occupying. On getting to the village, you find that they were very recently wiped out, just as you start getting mortar shelled. A voice over the radio tells you that one of the dead friendlies had a drone with him, and that you should grab it, and use it to find and mark the mortar team so that support can throw some artillery on top of them.

Firstly, there's dead bodies all over the shop, and it's hard to tell which were friendlies and which were enemies. Secondly, the drone backpack the soldier was wearing is no visibly different to the other backpacks on the other soldiers. I don't want a skyrim style "Its this guy HERE" arrow placed on top of him, but it'd fit in the game if the radio dude had just added "Last I know he was setting up on the top of X building" and just place his body there. 
The quadcopter/drone, otherwise known as the "howdoesthisFUCKINGthingwork" machine o'death

Checking each inventory takes time as well, as does working out that the thing pilots just like a chopper, except it's necessary to go into the settings and turn off freelook just for this drone, because reasons. This is an issue because if your squad is wiped out, it's game over and restart. I had to save spam just to get past this bit, checking a different nondescript body on every reload. 

So you get past all that, and the artillery takes out the mortar team. By this point just me and the squad leader remained, when we were "Buzzed by a fast mover" (A jet had seen us and was going to circle around and start firing). The order comes through to get running, as an enemy artillery barrage begins. This was actually really cool, you're running across open ground hearing the whistle of shells and genuinely cringing as they go silent, wondering where they'll land. The ground will explode near you, and you know if you stop the enemy will zero in and you're toast.

This bit was great, your squad leader is out in front and you know your job is to follow where he goes. You're running across hilly terrain with the sea on your left, when you crest a hill and enter a lightly wooded area. A chopper moves in from the direction of the sea, and out jumps a bunch of enemy paratroops. The game was pretty obviously designed to wipe out everyone but you at this point, as the leader gets shot almost instantly.

So I can't stay still, because the artillery is still falling on top of me. I've got a squad of paratroops advancing from the direction of the sea, what would you do in that situation? 

If your answer was run over into the next valley and board the friendly waiting boat that the helicopter full of baddies somehow didn't see, Congratulations! If however like me you reasoned that the best course of action, having never once heard or read the word "Boat" in any briefing, radio transmission, or conversation, was to run in the opposite direction repeatedly getting pounded into bolognese by artillery on every reload before googling the solution out of frustration, you're in good company. 

I need to be clear though, that mission was the exception, not the rule, and it was a combination of poor mission design compared to the others, and the urgency with which brand new actions had to be performed. While most other missions would have been more enjoyable for me personally with automatic waypointing, they were nonetheless doable as you are given the time to study the map and plan.

I've got one more gripe to get out of the way before I try and finish on a high note, In the entire time I've played the single and multiplayer, in a game featuring forces from multiple different nations including guerilla forces from the local area, I've not met a single female soldier. I get that the target market for this game is going to be men, and men wanna bro-down, but it's just unrealistic. Women have made awesome soldiers throughout history, just go read German accounts of Russian female soldiers in WW2, and continue to do so. Not having ANY in a near-modern military setting is just jarring once you notice it. 

One poorly made mission and some iffy genderpolitics does not a bad game make, however. It seems odd to recommend a game after spending a massive part of this post going in depth on my critisms, but that's because the majority of it is of such a high quality that the few niggles really stand out.

This is a great experience and it's only being made better by ongoing support from the developers and a thriving mod scene which is probably deserving of it's own post at some point. Play with headphones on for a really immersive experience, and once you have a good grasp of its controls and have tweaked the gameplay settings to your liking, it'll be a while before you want to play anything else. 

As usual, feel free to come hurl abuse, praise, and your comments about the article on twitter @themightyodog or in the box below. 

Thanks for reading!