Wednesday, July 07, 2010

ArmA II: Operation Arrowhead Review

ArmA II: Operation Arrowhead, developed by Bohemia Interactive and published by Meridian4.
The Good: Tactically interesting setting, lots of new weapons and vehicles, modern technology like thermal imaging and UAVs, better performance, enhanced cooperative campaign play, improved tutorials, behaves well with existing ArmA II installation
The Not So Good: AI curiosities continue, bland short campaign, difficult interface remains , terrible voice acting and music
What say you? This standalone expansion to the unflinchingly realistic military simulation is hard to justify for $40, despite some notable features: 5/8
What say you? However, ArmA II: Combined Operations offers excellent value for a large amount of content if you are new to the series: 7/8

For my money (thought not technically, since I got it free for review), you can’t get a more authentic military simulation than ArmA II. Other people can have their lame rip-offs and console garbage, but if you want a truly authentic experience of what it’s like to use a keyboard and mouse to control a soldier in a warzone, this is the place to turn. Of course, ArmA II is notorious for its bugs that ruin an otherwise great experience; a series of patches have improved things, and now we have Operation Arrowhead to satisfy our desires, for a price. This standalone expansion provides a new campaign with new toys with which to shoot other people in the face. Is it worth it for owners of the original game, and what about for newcomers to the series?

ArmA II: Operation Arrowhead features little changes in the graphics department, apart from the new setting (basically Afghanistan), which is both diverse and interesting. The new vehicles and soldiers have a fantastic attention to detail and look awesome up close. There is still too much “pop-in” with texture and object detail when moving your view quickly, and the lighting has a large emphasis on soft focus due to the arid setting. There is also clipping when going prone near buildings and other oddities that will probably never get sorted out by the developers. The game does appear to perform better than regular ArmA II, although this may be due to the fact that the new maps simply have less objects. The sound engine is “new” with “reworked” radio chatter, but I sure couldn’t tell. While there is more canned dialogue during the campaign, the stunted communication between people remains a laughable limitation. The voice acting is bad and the music is completely inappropriate for a supposedly realistic military simulation. I wasn’t expecting dramatic improvements in presentation, so the minor changes of ArmA II: Operation Arrowhead are not surprising.

ArmA II: Operation Arrowhead has the U.S. Army head off to Afghanistan…I mean Takistan, to deal with some insurgents that are insurging. The standalone expansion incorporates well with an existing ArmA II installation: it installs to the same directory, instead of creating a whole new place for files to eat up hard drive space (one of my pet peeves). It’s sad that’s a notable feature, but so it is. It’s important to incorporate both titles to get the maximum amount of weapons and area to play with and in. The campaign features the same old mission types and features nothing innovative in overall design, giving you a taste of infantry, armored, and airborne operations and command roles. The original campaign shows the high limits of ArmA II’s engine, so Operation Arrowhead rarely surprises, only offering the occasional side mission that grants added support later on. The large distances between objectives usually means multiple viable strategies, always more interesting than linear corridor shooters, and ArmA II: Operation Arrowhead puts you in command of more vehicles than relegating you to infantry jobs (though I prefer infantry myself). Sadly, the campaign is quite short and features forgettable characters that inject nothing into the game beyond the mission structure. The seven separate scenarios are all short (fifteen minutes maximum); together with the campaign, ArmA II: Operation Arrowhead represents disappointing value in terms of missions.

The action takes place in three medium-sized destructible areas: a 160 square kilometer rendition of Central Asia, a 70 square kilometer urban area, and an infinite desert. I do like the mix of mountains, desert, and Middle Eastern-style buildings, and the fact that you can actually walk inside structures is a nice new feature. The setting provides less cover, which promotes more long-range encounters. Bohemia Interactive has always done a great job replicating a realistic setting, and the trend continues here. The tutorials are much better this time around, giving more explicit instructions and introducing more of the game’s features. Unfortunately, the improvements in information do not extend to the interface, which remains as unique and difficult to learn as ever. Multiplayer remains the same, which is good if you like cooperative play, since that’s what all the servers are hosting. The campaign does promote more cooperative play, since multiple squads are typically part of the missions, but the remainder of the package is nothing new. The developers have included more capture the island and deathmatch templates, but everyone ends up playing Domination! anyway. You can’t play against people without the expansion (even though the original game is largely a separate installation), however. The editor remains excellent, and ArmA II: Operation Arrowhead adds a random town module to the mix.

We need guns. And thankfully ArmA II: Operation Arrowhead provides. The game features some new factions fighting over control of the central Asian countryside: the US Army, the United Nations, Germany, and even the Czech Republic (I wonder why). These new forces need some new toys, and ArmA II: Operation Arrowhead features an impressive roster of new weapons across all types: the G17 handgun, MK16 and FN FAL assault rifles, MG36 machine gun, M110 sniper rifle, MAAWS Carl Gustav rocket launcher (bane of Bad Company 2), and many more. New vehicles include the M2A3 Bradley and Stryker infantry support vehicles, T-55 tank, 9P117 SCUD missile launcher, and CH-47 Chinook and UH-60M Blackhawk helicopters. If you incorporate the content from ArmA II (and you should), it’s around 300 different things to use: impressive. None of the new equipment, however, really adds depth to your strategies, since they are typically Army variations of existing Marine Corps items.

Completely new items include unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in both plane and helicopter format, nice for dealing with heavily protected enemies. The other major addition is night vision, in the form of personal goggles and vehicle-based FLIR; since the enemies don’t have it, you are almost invincible if you stick to the shadows and stay down. Some other extras include infrared targeting lasers, countermeasures for aircraft, more realistic optics (range settings and view modes), and deployable backpacks for additional ammunition, equipment, and weapons. As with the weapons, the actual impact on the gameplay for these items is minimum: they are nice but certainly not necessary. While the AI is getting better, it still isn’t good enough. While they do an adequate job moving in formation and engaging units on the ground, they still do some outrageously silly things. Example: I instructed my gunner to target a tank. So what did he do? Rammed into him going full speed, flipping him over. Well, whatever it takes! Heck, the benchmark has bouncy tanks in it, for goodness sakes! You never feel like you can trust the AI in ArmA II: Operation Arrowhead, which is a problem since all of your assaults involve other troops. The game’s realistic pace won’t appeal to everyone, and the realism doesn’t extend to tanks where simple damage modeling remains. At least I didn’t notice any bugs, other than the AI behavior, of course.

ArmA II: Operation Arrowhead would make me feel a lot better if it were priced as a $20 (or even $30) expansion instead of a $40 product. Combined Operations is a much better deal for players who haven't played ArmA II yet, and I do recommend that option over getting this standalone exclusively. What do you get for $40? A new campaign that’s a lot like the old campaign (except for the optional civilian missions that give added support) in three new areas with a greater focus on long-range and urban combat. The campaign, like the single missions, is significantly short. The tutorials provide better information, although the rest of the interface remains nearly impenetrable for new players. The editor has gotten a random town module, and cooperative multiplayer is better using the campaign. The new units are nice, although casual players will fail to see a huge difference between an Apache and an AH-1Z. More significant is the addition of UAVs, night vision, countermeasures, and more realistic optics: these do have a positive effect on gameplay and result in more realistic vehicle and nighttime encounters. The AI remains the same: moments of brilliants separated by idiocy and limitation. Fans of the ArmA series will have no doubt already bought this expansion, but I simply did not see $40 worth of content.