Ten years. Ten soul crushingly disappointing years of constant let downs. Things looked so promising at the beginning of it all, back when we could bask in the pure optimism of being in the future. Now what do we have? A world economy on the verge of collapse, an environment on the fast track to a new ice age and a games industry starved of creativity. Admittedly that last one is perhaps a little less serious than the other two, but no less tragic.
One faint glimmer of light – for gaming at least – has been Bohemia Interactive’s ARMA series. Back in 2001 the first entry into the series showcased what looked to be the future of where action games would eventually head. A huge open sandbox world that didn’t limit players to predetermined paths, where your actions only contributed to the grander battles being waged by hundreds more. It was a game taking influence from classics such as the Amiga hit Hunter, but powered with modern technology that could render a huge environment on a far grander scale.
Back in 2001, it was hard to believe that ten years later most action games would continue the trend set by Doom and simply have you wade through yet more linear corridors through short single player campaigns as the same grizzled hard ass space marine. Welcome to the future, it’s like the past only less imaginative.
But not all have taken the easy way out, and although not blessed by a massive following, owing largely to it’s PC exclusivity, ARMA has continued to thrive. Nowhere is that more clearly evident than with Bohemia’s release of ARMA X: Anniversary Edition, the entire back catalogue of ARMA games and expansions in one colossal package. It starts expectedly enough with ARMA: Cold War Assault, or what was once called Operation Flashpoint: Cold War Crisis before two recent Operation Flashpoint games (beyond the control of Bohemia Interactive) came along and ruined the name by being terrible.
Set across three giant fictional islands, Cold War Assault sees you as part of a NATO American force caught in an alternate 1980′s and facing off against a corrupt Russian general and his army. Yes, even a decade ago we where still being asked to accept the Russians as antagonists, though CWA at least had the decency to set itself in the time period where they were still considered the world’s biggest villain. What’s surprising for a game this old, and who’s aged looks makes each of it’s characters resemble a giant camouflaged blob with eerie expressionless faces planted on the front, is how playable it still remains.
Few games age quite as well, but the diversity on offer is something that very few have attempted to mimic. It’s not hard to imagine why. This isn’t a first person shooter, a more accurate description would be a simulation of warfare. A realistic depiction of semi-modern warfare too, it’s not uncommon to get dropped by a single bullet from a soldier hundreds of feet away who you might not have noticed hidden in the undergrowth. Battles are often tense encounters where anyone, friend or foe, can be felled by an enemy weapon at any minute, leading to an unpredictability that can turn simple missions into tense, sometimes even nerve racking experiences.
But there’s plenty of room left for improvisation. Like the previously mentioned Hunter, ARMA never limits your control. Every single vehicle and weapon can be utilised, whether it’s aircraft, tanks, or even an occasional tractor. If it’s got wheels, rotors or can shoot bullets you can use it. Or at least when it’s made available. Cold War Assault doesn’t make such equipment as readily usable to you as it’s two sequels did. The compromise is that the single-player campaign randomly has you jumping between different roles as the fight to force the reds back to their motherland intensifies.
Switching between a grunt, commando, tank commander and pilot, you get to view this war from as many angles as possible, sampling the realistic simulation controls of the vehicles while also getting the opportunity to fight the enemy up close on foot. And you have to give credit to a game which isn’t afraid to shy away from the fact that being the biggest military power in the world doesn’t mean you’re exempt from getting an arse kicking every now and again. Early missions see you in retreat, as the Russian forces pound the American defenders into smithereens and eventually scatter them. Some incredibly tense moments arise from these events, ensuring that the lengthy campaign never feels dull.
Is it worth playing now though? Certainly, but stood alongside it’s two successors, Cold War Assault isn’t a game you’d want to actively seek out before you sample those. The environments might be impressive in their scale but don’t really offer you much of interest should you wander off the beaten track and explore them. It’s a bit of an empty lifeless world, and there’s an annoying tendency for the game to try and force you to see as much of it as possible by having you drive miles across it. It’s not a big thing, and the strength of the missions alone more than make up for the ageing graphics and empty world.
To counter this ARMA: Gold Edition brought with it some much needed improvements, but made an effort to retain the core gameplay experience of the first. The island of Sahrani was the new war zone, with a story that bore more in common with the situation in Korea than that of the cold war. Once again you where an American force stuck in the middle, here to help the forces of South Sahrani against their northern neighbours who attempt to unify their country via a full blown civil war.
Immediately dispensing with the long, drawn out opening missions of the first game, ARMA (which stands for Armed Assault if you where wondering) sticks you in the thick of it from the word go. There’s a feeling that the game sort of assumes you’ll already be familiar with how things worked with Cold War Assault, or at least did a few of the training missions before hand. It isn’t long before you get handed the responsibility of ordering troops around, trying to get to grips with the absurd amount of numerical keys that tie themselves to different orders. It only gets more complicated when you get handed vehicles and have to juggle the whole lot, whilst trying to remember which buttons refer to which instructions; a nightmare in the middle of battle.
It’s both a blessing and a curse, a game that dispenses with all the tedious foot dragging that occasionally bogged down the campaign of the first game, but at the same time pretty much destroying the easy to grasp learning curve as well. Being a bit hard isn’t a criticism though, this is ARMA, being difficult is what it’s all about. You’re not a virtually indestructible war machine but a vulnerable soldier as susceptible to injury and death as those you inflict it on. As an experience of war, ARMA comes closer to the real thing than any other game pretending similar, what spoils that image are those occasions where you’re reminded full well that this is a game.
Bugs have always been a problem for this series, and ARMA perhaps suffered the most, having being released in a broken state. They ranged in intensity and annoyance with failed mission triggers forcing games to halt midway through, or AI routines that had friendly soldiers crash their vehicles in a cloud of smoke. So severe where the problems that the accomplishments of the small 40 man development team and their impeccable work at creating such a huge game where overshadowed.
Enough time has passed now that the myriad of problems once plaguing the game have been ironed out. The Gold Edition remains a far more playable version, it’s single player campaign continuing the varied mission structure of the original while also increasing the epic scope of some of the battles. While often overlooked – caught under the shadow of it’s ground breaking older sibling, while failing to attract attention away from it’s younger brother – ARMA is no less deserving of some praise and recognition.
But neither of the two original ARMA games could compare to the scope of 2009′s ARMA 2, which represented the culmination of all of the ideas and concepts that where used up until that point and was bolstered by an environment that replaced the quiet barren islands of the previous outings with the vibrant, constantly changing country of Chernarus. Again you are an American soldier sent in to help quell unrest with the local militias, and again you eventually find yourself up against the might of the Russian military. Here, however, the freedom to explore and approach objectives goes much further than what had previously been allowed.
ARMA 2 is closer to what could be described as a Role Playing Military Simulator. After the initial single player missions the game gives you control of a small recon squad and simply lets you go off to do your own thing. Obviously, within the limits of the mission objectives, you still have a job to do, only you get to choose how and when you do it. Unlike the previous games, you do get to command an assortment of vehicles at will, armoured APC’s and Jeeps litter military bases and can be taken when desired. You get your own personal helicopter to fly to your location and pick you up and on some occasions even get to call down artillery fire whenever a target of opportunity rears it’s head.
Keeping things interesting is a genuinely unpredictable environment. ARMA 2 often throws up completely random encounters with other non-playable characters in the game. Sometimes as innocent as a friendly patrol scouring the land for pockets of resistance, while others an enemy ambush that turns a simple drive down a peaceful country lane into a battle for survival. Unpredictability and freedom of movement are what sets Chernarus apart from the cavalcade of other sandbox worlds that have to rely on collectables and stunt jumps to maintain interest.
If there’s one glaring problem, it’s that the aforementioned freedom does have a tendency to be yanked from your hands should you steer too far off course. On more than a couple of occasions I’ve had random unseen rockets ploughed into my Jeep simply because I dared to explore beyond the (admittedly quite huge) mission areas. The game never gives you any prior warning to entering these instant kill dead spots, meaning when such instances occur, back to the last save point you go.
It’s an annoyance, if only because Bohemia are so good at creating these huge involving worlds, and you sort of want to explore them. While never displaying the kind of fanciful graphic affects of some of the big sci-fi action games, it’s a beautiful game to look at, rich in incidental detail and full of life even down to the rabbits hopping about in the midst of a violent battle. This re-release also comes with the stand alone expansion ARMA 2: Operation Arrowhead, worthy of mention if only because it introduces yet another middle-eastern flavoured country to wage war in, complete with an entire new set of weapons and vehicles to get accustomed to.
What’s interesting about Arrowhead is that it goes a step further to connect you to the world by factoring in the local population. Civilians need to be looked after, and there’s a drive for you to win their hearts and minds, the benefits of which can mean they’ll help mark out mine fields in future missions or have their militia join in assaults. It’s a hint that, for the amount of things Bohemia have practised with and perfected over the years, they’ve still alot of room for improvements and new additions, and it’ll be interesting to see how the series on the whole evolves over the coming years.
And as long as they continue to strive to perfect what they know rather than jump on the latest bandwagon for a quick buck, perhaps the future isn’t so bleak after all. While it’s easy to pick holes in the ARMA series for it’s unforgiving difficulty and occasional lapses into unfinished buggy hell, it seems unfair considering it’s one of the few game actively trying to evolve into something different. In an age drowned out by samey predictable military shooters, it’s refreshing to see that this series still packs enough of it’s own punch to stand out and rise above the crowd, even if it is to a select audience.
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