Tuesday, May 08, 2007

ArmA: Combat Operations Review

ArmA: Combat Operations, developed by Bohemia Interactive and published by Atari.
The Good: An authentic representation of military combat, outstanding mission editor and easy-to-use quick mission builders, side missions in campaign, the ability to switch soldiers during battles alleviates some difficulty, a very large island nation to play with, support for large online games, visual effects that affect gameplay, Armory mini-games
The Not So Good: Most solo missions are ridiculously difficult, AI has problems moving, only one save per mission, formations cause troops to spread out too far, irregular speech
What say you? Almost the pinnacle of realistic military shooters, but the AI is woeful and it’s too hard for mass acceptance: 6/8

PC games are full of niche titles meant to cater to a very specific audience, and that’s one reason why I feel it’s the best platform. You just will never see true simulations on the consoles because they are driven by money instead of creating good games that just might not appeal to everyone. While most of these games are in the strategy or simulation genres, there are a few first person shooters that haven’t caved into the brainless, mass produced combat of Ghost Recon or Battlefield. I am specifically referring to Operation Flashpoint, a fantastic game released in 2001 that strived to be the most accurate military available. Real militaries thought so much of the game that an altered version of the engine was sold to numerous nations around the world. The true sequel to Operation Flashpoint is now here in America, called ArmA: Combat Operations (the publisher of Operation Flashpoint still owns the rights to the name). Bohemia Interactive’s new title features improved graphics and more refined gameplay to continue the proud tradition laid by Operation Flashpoint. Will ArmA: Combat Operations satisfy the genre’s rabid fans?

ArmA: Combat Operations is a graphical improvement over Operation Flashpoint, which is a good thing considering the developers have had six years to improve them. The game features a huge island on which the game takes place, and the location feels like a real place and there are no areas of the map that are devoid of detail. This is one of the more impressive aspects of the game, as the variety of buildings, towns, and landscapes makes for a realistic setting. Each of the game’s units are detailed as you would expect; even the inside of armored units seem to be realistically rendered. There are also some nice minor touches made to the game, such as dynamic bugs, wind, and cloud cover changes. Also, ArmA has a number of visual effects that aren't just there to look pretty: they impact the gameplay. First, there is a lot of 3-D grass in the game that makes going prone less of a viable options: you'll need to crouch in order to see the enemy, which obviously has its accuracy disadvantages. Also, ArmA incorporates a lot of HDR into the game, which makes starting into the sun or switching on (and off) night vision affect your vision. Playing the game at night adds a whole new dimension to the game. There are reports that these improved graphics come at a price, but I’ve been able to run the game at high (1280 by 1024) resolution and high settings with no problems (my computer is a year old, but it has a new (GeForce 8800) video card). Overall, the graphics present a realistic and compelling environment in which to play. The audio in the game ranges from fantastic to absolutely horrible. The combat sounds, such as bullets passing overhead (which sound like a small firecracker) and the general chaos of killing is very well done. The environmental sounds, consisting of birds, wind, waves, and the like, also fit the atmosphere of the game well and create a believable environment. However, the soldier’s non-scripted speech is still as irregular as it was six years ago. Hearing your commanding officer say, “ALL…move to that…TREE at…12 O’CLOCK,” takes you out of the realistic environment. Since there aren’t very many phrases to say, you’d think they could make it sound a little bit better, but the robotic voices remain. The background music is also terrible; I would much rather have no background music at all than the selection of metal/techno tunes in ArmA (the high squeal during the first sniper side mission in the campaign was enough to make me shut the music off entirely). While the sound detracts from the realism of the game, the graphics offset these shortcomings and ArmA ends up being a better than average game in terms of presentation.

ArmA: Combat Operations is a realistic tactical military shooter that takes place on the fictitious island of Sahrani, where the capitalists and the communists are at it yet again. People familiar with Operation Flashpoint will easily drop into ArmA, as the two games share a lot of similarities. ArmA: Combat Operations features a number of training missions to get to acquainted with the game; since ArmA is a realistic game, those gamers accustomed to arcade shooters like Battlefield 2142 or Call of Duty will have to adjust to how real soldiers perform in the field. The tutorials are comprehensive, but they tend to drag along too long. ArmA: Combat Operations features a single player campaign where you defend the island against the communist aggressors. The main missions in the campaign do a good job of mixing up the action, featuring large scale battles, small skirmishes, and different objectives like destroying convoys and blowing bridges. Unfortunately, side missions that are also solo missions are almost completely impossible. Sniper missions are difficult, as you’re always greatly outnumbered and the enemy AI instantly spots you after you fire. Another mission has you single-handedly destroying three tanks by yourself: why is this task in a supposedly realistic military simulation? Wouldn’t real military forces send at least a small squad for the job? The fact that you can only save once per mission (and each mission usually has multiple objectives) makes the difficulty hard to bare. The community-driven content will make up for this deficiency somewhat, but it’s still inexcusable to make you play Rambo in a “realistic” simulation. The U.S. version of ArmA comes with the armory, a set of mini-games surrounding all of the game's weapons and vehicles. For each piece of military hardware, you need to successfully complete a series of missions in order to unlock additional arms. These missions consist of a driving range, a shooting range, transporting people, and races, along with a series of smaller, secondary missions that involve attaining a high speed or driving a specified distance. The armory is a nice addition to the game and it would take quite a while to unlock each of the game's over 100 objects, as it takes 20-30 minutes to accumulate enough points to unlock an additional firearm. ArmA incorporates user made weapons and vehicles into the armory and automatically develops missions for them as well. There is some variety in the missions, but they become repetitive quickly and some of the secondary missions (namely getting a high speed) are impossible. In addition, it takes about twice as long as it should to unlock the next weapon. Still, the armory is a nice idea and a good change of pace from the basic game.

After you are done throwing your keyboard in frustration after losing yet another mission, you can try your hand at multiplayer. This is one of the best aspects of the game, as there are a large number of game possibilities. ArmA: Combat Operations ships with seven competitive multiplayer game types: capture the flag, dog fight (with aircraft), flag fight, sector control, seize the area, survivor, and deathmatch. In addition, you can play cooperative play in custom missions. Making a custom mission is so easy, and the tools for creating cooperative and competitive multiplayer campaigns are useful and should result in a ton of user content that will extend the life of the title immensely. People are still playing Operation Flashpoint (and making new scenarios for it), and that game was released six years ago, so you can imagine the dedicated following that ArmA will have. Since the game has been out in Europe for months, there are missions already made to download. The game even includes templates for mission types, which means you can create a functioning custom mission anywhere on the island in a matter of minutes. As Operation Flashpoint clearly indicates, there is quite a large community that backs this series, and the replay value in multiplayer games is enormous. If you can’t find anyone to play with, you can set up a server with AI bots that perform decently. The multiplayer isn’t without some problems: it’s too easy to camp since each side is only given one spawn point in team-based games. In the Battlefield-like sector control game, you have to start over from the solitary spawn point after each respawn instead of choosing a control point. Still, there is a lot to like in multiplayer, and the large number of cooperative games on the Internet shows that there is a good following for this game already.

As I stated before, ArmA: Combat Operations is as realistic as it gets for a first person shooter, so a lot of the stupid tactics that can fly in other games, like “bunny hopping” or shooting while running won’t fly. This takes a lot of the reaction-time skills out of the equation and favors more tactical decisions over running and gunning. I like this a lot, as I’m tired of people shooting from the hip or jumping like idiots while playing online. Sniping is very difficult as you need to adjust your aim for bullet drop, but shooting someone in the face from 300 yards away should be difficult. The main rule of ArmA is to get cover or keep moving. If you are stationary and out in the open, you are dead meat. And you’ll be dead meat a lot, from random explosions and other unlucky events. Luckily, you can switch people during a match, which makes completing the team missions much more palatable. ArmA features the weapons and vehicles that were available at the end of the 20th century for the U.S. and Russian forces. Assault rifles, machine guns, sniper rifles, rocket launchers, jeeps, tanks, helicopters, artillery, and boats all make their appearances. These weapons seem to behave realistically, and driving a jeep or tank now seems more true-to-life as well, since you’re no longer able to turn without slowing down like in other games. If you are given command of troops, you can issue orders to them by selecting them and going through a menu system. It’s a cumbersome procedure, but there’s not really any better way of doing it. The choices are comprehensive: giving different formations, engagement rules, and the like. The formations are generally too spread out and there’s no way to adjust this.

The main issue I have with ArmA is the AI: it’s just not smart enough in the game. They will not actively look for cover and they stand up and sit down and move for no apparent reason. They will engage the enemy, though, at least most of the time. I had to play the same mission (the 2nd one in the campaign) over and over for about four hours because the anti-tank units wouldn't fire on the last remaining enemy armored unit. Of course, I couldn't order them so since I wasn't the commanding officer, and I was given a machine gun and not a rocket launcher; I looked around for one and as soon as I picked one up from a fallen soldier, the enemy BMP noticed me (apparently, if I'm not an anti-tank unit I am no threat) and killed me. The enemy AI seems to be better than the friendly AI for some reason; of course, this may be due to the fact that I'm not depending on the enemy AI to shoot people in order to complete a mission. Another mission had me set up a trap using satchel charges to destroy a convoy of enemy vehicles. So, my scout said they were coming, and I waited, and waited, and waited. Twenty minutes later I was wondering what the heck was going on. So, I jumped in a vehicle and went down the road, and saw the convoy parked for no reason at all. I played a mission I can’t win and wasted all of that time because the enemy AI wouldn’t drive down a road. Awesome. So I reloaded the mission and tried it again, and this time the tanks kept coming and I beat the mission. The next mission, I had to restart because one of the enemy AI tanks flipped over. That’s right: it flipped over while driving across a bridge. This is some of the most questionable pathfinding I’ve seen in any game. While the AI in Company of Heroes actively searches for cover when under attack, the AI in ArmA: Combat Operations is too busy running into things, getting out of formation, crouching with no cover near them, and constantly speeding up and slowing down or changing stances to be of any help. It’s quite comical in a sad way. I can’t remember the last time I’ve played a game where I had to restart a mission because the enemy AI crashed into something. And I certainly can’t remember a game where it happened in two separate missions. While the AI might not move intelligently unless specifically scripted to, they do shoot well, and you'll die quite frequently while playing the game. The enemy AI seems to instantly find you if you peek out in the open; this is exacerbated because of the unbalanced missions, where you are typically a lone soldier against superior numbers (including tanks and mixed forces). The games plays well if you are the commanding officer and you can specifically instruct your soldiers to “seek cover,” as they won’t do this on their own, going prone right in the middle of a street. “Seek cover” needs to be a default command whenever enemy contact is seen and it should be (but isn’t) issued by the AI officer every time. If you are not the commander, the poor friendly AI means you’ll need to kill a majority of the enemy units yourself in large battles, which makes the unbalanced scenarios even worse. ArmA: Combat Operations works best when you are part of a team and you can order that team around.

ArmA: Combat Operations is the definition of a niche game: some people will absolutely love the title, while others will completely hate the dedication to realism. Personally, I enjoy tactical shooters like this so ArmA is a very promising title, much like Operation Flashpoint was years ago. There are some basic issues that definitely need to be addressed: the AI pathfinding needs some work (especially with stances and following leader units in urban terrain) and the missions are too difficult (an “easy” mode with decreased damage would solve a lot of the problems, combined with better allied AI). I think where ArmA will shine is in the community-made scenarios and modifications. ArmA features realism with a capital “R” in everything it does: weather, time of day, bullet physics, the lack of jumping, vehicle turning, firing a weapon, and more. The multiplayer options are great as well and the editors will make the title stand out for quite a long time. When this game is fun, it’s really fun, but when it’s frustrating, you just want to quit playing for a while. If you’re going to have a realistic military shooter, that’s fine; if you’re going to feature one on twelve battles, then you might need to relax the difficulty a bit. The more I played ArmA, the more I enjoyed it, but then my AI helicopter pilot would bail out of the chopper causing me to fail the mission, or the group I was trying to transport would either go prone or get run over by an AI truck, and I'd be screaming at the stupid AI again. Much like Distant Guns, ArmA: Combat Operations is aimed at a specific audience, and those who are adept at realistic shooters and can look past the AI problems will find a lot to enjoy.