When you first boot up ArmA 2, it's hard to shake the feeling that you've played this game before. It bears more than a passing resemblance to the original ArmA: Armed Assault, as well as 2001's Operation Flashpoint. Not surprising given that Bohemia Interactive developed all three titles. But has ArmA 2 improved on the formula?
The single-player portion of ArmA 2 takes place in Chenarus, a fictional former Soviet nation steeped in civil war. As a member of the US Marine Corps, you are charged with backing up and stabilizing the current democratic-leaning government against communist insurgents.
Missions take you in and around various sections of the war-torn landscape, but it's not the objectives that make the storyline interesting. In ArmA 2, there are a fair number of decisions that you need to make on the fly that can change the course of the operation. Should you call in a tactical strike on a target, or infiltrate the area and plant charges personally? The latter course is clearly safer for you and your men, but bombing a village won't do much to win the hearts and minds of the civilian population.
Failing an objective doesn't necessarily mean you have to restart the mission, but it can have repercussions down the line. In this way, the battles in ArmA 2 play out in the most unexpected of ways. Rarely, if ever, do the chips fall the same way twice.
Aside from the story mode, ArmA 2 is jam-packed with features. Many of them are pulled from Bohemia Interactive's earlier games, but they've been drastically enhanced.
You're not stuck wandering the battlefield on foot, as the game has a range of vehicles, tanks, helicopters, and planes for you to operate. Each of these, as well as your personal weapons, has been designed to be as painstakingly realistic as possible.
Much like in its predecessors, you still have an unprecedented amount of control over your soldier and squad. You can order them to perform complex, multi-step tasks, but if need be, you can also have them operate autonomously. This is a far cry from other wartime shooters. ArmA 2 is billed as a first-person simulation for good reason.
However, the most notable and impressive feature is the AI. Everything from enemy soldiers, friendlies, civilians, and even the local fauna, is controlled through a series of sophisticated artificial intelligence routines.
Because of this, the missions that you play don't really contain any scripted elements. Individual soldiers' behaviors are driven purely by their AI. Squad leaders will give orders, subordinates will attempt to follow them, and civilians will react to the mayhem and may even side with one faction over another.
During the single-player campaign, it's sometimes hard to see how all of this comes together, but if you open up the mission editor, you'll quickly understand the advantages in using AI instead of heavy scripting. Set up a simple mission of two squads against each other and you'll have a different experience each and every time you play it. The mission editor is robust enough to create complex single and multiplayer campaigns with multiple factions, objectives, and hundreds of individual units each doing their own thing.
Take things online and it all comes together in different ways. Missions created by players, as well as officially-supported modes, all make use of the editor, the AI, and the flexibility in controlling the action. Sixty-four players per server constitute enough warm bodies to create tactically fun and interesting scenarios.
In the game's current state, all of this tremendous promise comes crashing down amid numerous problems.
Given the expansive nature of ArmA II's AI, things can go terribly wrong more often than they should. This is perhaps the downside of a game that's so heavily dependent on artificial intelligence. During our review, numerous inconsistencies arose that were impossible to plan for, the results of which wound up causing us to fail missions, typically through no fault of our own. If your experience is anything like ours, expect a few occasions of super-smart, overly-tenacious enemies, or puzzlingly oblivious teammates. ArmA II's AI may be a marvel to behold in action, but at times, it can also be quite brutal.
There are also plenty of bugs to go around, from control issues and missing target indicators, to wacky target detection, which sometimes allows units to spot enemies under complete cover. The list goes on, but the main offender here is the simple lack of feedback for the player.
ArmA 2 is clearly making an attempt at realism, but in a computer game, concessions need to be made. Much of the time, you won't know what hit you--or even that you're being shot at--before it's too late. You could be doing fine on a mission only to fail because one of your squad members gets shot through no fault of your own. This may be realistic, but it's not exactly fun.
ArmA 2 is also has an uncompromisingly difficult interface. Basic FPS controls are easy enough to grasp. However, the interface for controlling your squad spans 10 different menus and requires great leaps of logic to figure out -- a mixture of button presses, mouse wheel spins, and clicks are required to issue simple orders. It's certainly possible to come to grips with the interface, but it's far more difficult than it should be.
ArmA 2's beauty isn't exactly skin deep. On a certain level, it's undeniably impressive-particularly when you're watching large-scale engagements unfold over the vast battlefields, with every unit behaving in a way that feels believable. But as a whole, the game looks rather flat. The characters look odd and often move awkwardly, and many of the textures are drab and lifeless. Despite this, you also need a monster rig to run it in a manner that brings out its best. If you don't, prepare to run into performance issues.
It's a shame that more effort didn't go into the writing and voice work. In a word, it's atrocious. The single-player campaign deals with some pretty grim stuff, but the acting isn't equipped to convey the sense of gravity the story requires. The music also feels like an afterthought. It consists of generic guitar rock that occasionally kicks in when the action heats up.
There's no denying that ArmA 2 is the most ambitious war simulation ever made. Players could mess around with just the mission editor and lose themselves for weeks on end. But with its steep learning curve, the game requires a good deal of commitment.
Even for those willing to invest the time to learn all there is to know about ArmA 2, the glitches and the bugs are currently too much to take. Maybe once they've patched it up, there will be something more playable. We look forward to that day, because there's really something special in ArmA 2, cheesy voice acting and all. In its current state, however, we recommend you try before you buy.
Reviewed on Microsoft Windows Vista.
Source: 505 Games