Tuesday, June 30, 2009

ArmA II Review

ArmA II, developed by Bohemia Interactive and published by Got Game Entertainment.
The Good: Intense authentic simulation of small to large scale warfare, excellent visuals, command of squads and entire armies, easy-to-use robust editor, campaign with optional objectives, multiple online modes
The Not So Good: Extreme realism means extreme difficulty, bugs of varied severity including better but not completely competent AI, robotic voice commands remain
What say you? A thorough replica of military operations perfect for those wanting a realistic experience: 7/8

One of the great things about gaming on the PC is all the niche titles to fit almost every interest: hardcore strategic wargames, accurate racing titles, realistic flight simulations, and many more. In terms of military simulations, we have console games that pretend to be real, but PC gamers know the truth: Bohemia Interactive creates the go-to titles for true realism. Starting with the venerable Operation Flashpoint and continuing with the ambitious but bug-filled ArmA 1, the developer has created quite a following, and they are back with the sequel to ArmA, appropriately called ArmA II. You would assume that two more years of development would produce a more polished and complete product. Does ArmA II make an ass out of you and me?

The most evident feature of ArmA II is the significant upgrade in visual quality. Simply put, the game world looks fantastic all around, from varied terrain to tons of objects and a great level of detail. Like previous games by the developer, they have developed a very plausible world in which to shoot things. Some games that advertise a large game world are actually filled with a significant amount of empty space, but Chernarus (a stand-in for northwestern Czech Republic) feels like a complete country, with buildings, forests, mountains, brush, fencing, and cars around every corner. Coupled with the copious amounts of objects are high-resolution textures, detailed character and vehicle models, and impressive (if not totally realistic) explosions. There are also bloom and motion blue effects, although I turned these off for improved performance and a reduction in fuzziness. I found performance of the game to be quite acceptable considering my somewhat modest system; the game puts the AI procedures on additional CPU cores, taking advantage of multi-core computers. The engine of ArmA II produces visuals that compete with any first person shooter on the market. The game continues the uneven audio package of previous games. The most noticeable new feature in the sound department is the realistic clanging (for lack of a better word) of equipment as you run: it actually sounds like you are loaded down with gear. We still have the sonic boom “pop” of rounds as they fly by (a feature I am surprised more games haven't stolen) and realistic weapon effects, but the voice acting is where ArmA II still lags behind the curve. The scripted character speech ranges from “tolerable” to “forced,” but dynamically generated speech still suffers from the dreaded robotic effect: ENEMY...MAN...FRONT!! This area of the game always seems to get the lowest priority, as it was a problem when Operation Flashpoint came out eight years ago. In addition, the music is a quite silly arrangement of generic rock tunes and feels completely out of place in an otherwise serious game. Despite the subpar audio, the graphics deliver enough quality to compensate.

The United States Military, because it has nothing better to do, assists anti-Communist forces in a foreign land (yeah, like that would ever happen). You are one of those Marines, and over the course of the eight mission campaign, you will transition from lowly foot soldier to commanding an entire army. Don't let the small number of scenarios fool you: most missions contain a copious amount of objectives that can be completed in any order, giving the player a lot of freedom to decide how to act. ArmA II is a lot more freeform than most (all?) first person shooters: as long as you satisfy the goals, it's doesn't matter how you do it. This large amount of player freedom does get the game into trouble on occasion, with important events that do not trigger and essentially break your progress (frustrating after a multiple-hour mission). The game does a good job slowly growing your power, introducing a new aspect of warfare to command, eventually allowing you to construct forward bases and order squads of infantry and armor around to do the killing for you. You will also commonly have optional secondary objectives that impact future choices, information, and supplies. The game also has a number of different endings, depending on how effective you are in the last couple of missions. ArmA II also has frequent automatic saves, important in a game where one shot can kill you. The difficult and realism settings affect friendly and enemy on-screen tage, the amount of information contained on the HUD, the lethality of the enemy AI (from “very competent” to “insanely accurate”, and whether you automatically report the location of enemy units (despite the fact that you might not actually see them yourself). While I usually do not care much for the single-player campaign in first person shooters, playing through Harvest Red in ArmA II was a fun experience thanks to the amount of freedom granted to the player.

After you are done with the campaign, you can play through the seven stand-alone scenarios, which offer the same intense combat of the campaign with a bit more scripting. The armory mini-games also make a return, giving you the opportunity to use any of the game's weapons and vehicles in a variety of activities, like races and defensive maneuvers. You haven't lived until you have “driven” a goat through an obstacle course. The game's eight tutorials cover the basics of all the components of the game and provide a good introduction. ArmA II has the same editor as before, which is a very good thing. A fully-functional mission is quite literally minutes away, as a couple of clicks can produce a simple but fun scenario. It's a powerful tool that takes advantage of the huge amount of terrain you have to deal with. Multiplayer is improved, with much faster connection times: it took me a couple of minutes to get into a game before, but now the transition takes less than a minute. I have also experience acceptably smooth online performance, even while playing on servers that are located in Europe. There are some fun custom scenarios (both competitive and cooperative) people have edited online, and if you don't have it, it will be downloaded automatically. I was quite satisfied with the online experience. If you do decide to take on human opponents, get ready to hyper-realistic rules and cooperative play. Despite the fact that you can use the wizard to create a functional deathmatch, detector (last man standing), capture the flag, or sector control scenario in a minute, almost every server uses cooperative scenarios. Those wacky Europeans sure like their co-op.

The theme of the day is “realism,” and that starts with the infantry. You'll notice the lack of a “jump” button (the developer argues that real military folk can't jump when weighed down with equipment), but you do get to “step over” low fencing, of which there is a large amount (I think to make you use the step over command). You certainly can't shoot while running, and accuracy is drastically improved when going prone. Unfortunately, you usually can't see anything while prone (somebody serious needs to mow Chernarus), so finding a proper position is important. The game features realistic ballistics for each weapon, creating some intense encounters with the enemy. You'll have to move in a smart manner, as concealment is not cover (a bush will not stop bullets) and fatigue (caused by running for a while) makes you less accurate and run slower. In addition, you suffer from blurred vision while being supressed, and since death is quick, you must play smart. New for ArmA II is the ability to heal wounded troops and drag or carry them to safety. It's a little gimmicky, but fun. ArmA II features an impressive collection of real-world weapons, from pistols and assault rifles to machine guns and sniper rifles. And don't forget the animals: who needs to tip over cows when you can shoot them with a high-powered rifle? ArmA II also gives you a complete assortment of hardware to drive or fly: jeeps, APCs, tanks, helicopters, and jets. Controls are much the same as before: iffy. While the infantry controls are spot-on, vehicle control has always been less impressive: vehicles turn too drastically at low speeds, resulting in a lot of collisions. Although jets and helicopters are simplified for a keyboard control scheme, using a joystick is highly recommended for better precision. You can always let someone else pilot the choppers and call in air support to eliminate pesky enemy units.

You will quickly ascend up the command ladder during the campaign and be responsible for ordering around subordinate units. ArmA II includes the complex command interface from before: select a unit and go through a menu system to give move, target, engage, mount, action, formation, or team orders. In addition, you can hold spacebar to give orders based on what you are aiming at (like mounting a vehicle or engaging an enemy unit). Having both methods is nice, as you give quick instructions on the fly and more detailed orders if you desire. ArmA II eventually lets you play like a real time strategy game, ordering squads around and building base structures. While this aspect of the game is obviously not as fleshed out as a “real” RTS, it's a nice enough diversion and gives you (again) more freedom to approach a mission in different ways.

The much maligned AI has gotten generally better in ArmA II. Given the open nature of the game, I am willing to give a little leeway regarding how smart the AI is. We still get the occasional bad driver (tanks getting stuck, helicopters running into things), but, in general, it's not the idiot fest that ArmA I was. The AI will actively seek cover (the advertised “micro-AI”), and this goes both ways, as you can sneak up to AI units if you are quiet and smart. Since the AI will use supressive fire, it's important to be behind solid objects during combat. The AI is getting progressively better with each patch, but since deaths by AI allies can fail a mission, it can still be quite frustrating dealing with less than competent squad members. Adding to the overall difficulty of ArmA II is the fact that it can be difficult to differentiate between enemy and friendly troops, especially on higher realism settings. This game is really intended for veteran FPS players, although I suspect anyone looking for an unflinchingly realistic experience will find a grand, gritty time in ArmA II.

ArmA II is more engaging and polished than its predecessors (although you could argue that being more polished than ArmA I doesn't require much of an improvement). The graphics are quite fantastic all around: Chernarus is a great setting filled with lots of subtle touches to create plausible surroundings. The open-ended campaign gives the user enough freedom to tackle large missions with multiple objectives in varied fashions as a member of an infantry squad all the way up to the commander of an entire army. The gameplay is brutally realistic: there is no “bunny hopping” or health packs here (although being healed by allies sort-of counts). The auxiliary scenarios and sandbox armory missions involving every unit in the game round out a nice package. Multiplayer is more streamlined with faster connection times, and the editor is simple to use and can create some impressive results. Vehicle control is not as solid as the infantry portion of ArmA II and can't compete with more dedicated flight or tank simulations. ArmA II gives you the tools to command squads and entire armies, using the robust (but potentially confusing) complete interface or quick, point-and-click context-sensitive orders. The AI is improved but not perfect: for every exhilarating battle that involves computer-controller soldiers successfully using cover, you have a tank getting stuck on a house or a helicopter pilot that lands sideways. These kinds of bugs are annoying and they are plentiful enough to definitely be noticeable, but I think fans of this series of games are willing to forgive some inconsistencies because the game as a whole is so stirring. Plus, recent patches are making improvements, and hopefully the developers will continue to improve the problems with the game. ArmA II is better off when released than ArmA I was, so the large contingent of gamers looking for a realistic military simulation should not be disappointed.