I’ve been walking for twenty minutes since the mission started, my MX assault rifle swaying in front of me, the Mediterranean sunset over my shoulder, when I spot the enemy about 800 meters away on a hilltop outpost. I crouch next to a bush and command a couple of my NATO squaddies to flank left behind some rocks so they can get a better angle on the enemy. We have to take this point so the area around Camp Rogaine will be secured. One… Two… Pop! Pop! Pop! The sound of small arms fire stutters out from a group of nearby trees. I can hear excited Farsi chatter from the enemy soldiers. We’ve been spotted by a patrol! A firefight breaks out between the Iranians and my team pinned behind the rocks. I slide into a prone position and take careful aim on a target while they’re shooting at my flanking fire team. If I can just pick off a few of these guys, my men can move up to that abandoned shack for some cover so we can call in some support from the Israeli Merkava tanks. That’s when a Greek transport helicopter crashes into the hillside killing everyone. Welcome to Arma III.
After the jump, can a combat toolbox be fun?
Arma III is the latest combined arms combat sandbox from Bohemia Interactive. Unlike a Call of Duty or a Battlefield, Arma is less about action and traditional game concepts than a portrayal of what it’s like to be an infantryman in a combat zone. It’s unpredictable, sometimes boring, sometimes tense, and always prone to SNAFU. It doesn’t mind making you walk cross-country for thirty minutes before an enemy sniper pops your noggin from a kilometer away. Arma laughs at your ideas of balanced encounters and lets a ground attack jet hammer your squad of infantry. Bohemia has been doing this kind of thing since Operation Flashpoint and the experience — when it works correctly — is like nothing else on the market.
It’s the “when it works correctly” part that gets in the way. Arma III tries to model combined arms warfare on about 300 square kilometers of we-promise-it’s-not-Greek-islands while giving players the freedom to use any of the tools at their disposal. That’s combat with small arms, trucks, tracks, weapon emplacements, a jet (more on that later), helicopters, drones, and even scuba simulated between the forces of NATO, the we-promise-it’s-not-Greek AAF, and the enemy CSAT, which is sort of like G.I. Joe’s COBRA except less believable. Things are bound to break, and they often do in Arma III. Soldiers can get locked into place and refuse to move. Tanks can get stuck on scenery. Sometimes a mission will completely glitch out and you’ll be left wondering what to do next. The fortunes of war!
Bohemia Interactive focused on improving the basic experience from previous Arma games and it shows. The running and gunning is smoother. It’s not snap aiming like Call of Duty, but the infantry experience is much better. Shooting your weapon won’t feel like you’re pulling a trigger in Tresspasser, arms waving lazily. The infantry animations are better. Soldiers move more like people and less like reject animatronics from Tomorrowland. You’ll still see prone soldiers pivoting on their bellies like they have greased belt buckles, but walking and running no longer look ridiculous. Bohemia added a bunch of stances to the infantry, so you can go prone, roll, sit up, lean forward, left or right, crouch, etc. They each have their uses, and switching between them looks almost natural. I’m still finding new stances to adopt while in a firefight.
Which brings me to the interface. It’s still awful. In Arma games instead of having a context-sensitive use key that changes dynamically, you have an action menu that you can pop up with the middle mouse button to give a number of options depending on what you’re near. While facing a building, the action menu could let you open the door, or change from your rifle to your sidearm, or reload, or whatever else the scenario maker intended. Guess how often you’ll accidentally choose the wrong thing in the heat of combat? Always. You’ll need to get into that infantry fighting vehicle right now, but you’ll instead slowly swap your rifle out with your pistol because fuck you. Bohemia seems unduly proud of the action menu and refuses to change it. The user interface in Arma has always been a daunting jumble of key combinations even without the action menu shenanigans. Want to look through your rifle scope? Click the right mouse button. No. Click it. Don’t hold it. That makes your view zoom in and you’ll hold your breath. Oh, damn. Did you control-click earlier? Yup. That swapped your scope to the little red dot sight on top. Right click to get back to the regular view. Now you can control-click to move the view you’ll bring up from the dot sight to the scope. Yes, I know there’s no way for you to know what view you’ll bring up before you right click. The fortunes of war! Got it? Whew! Now right click. Oops…
Speaking of fumbles, the game does not come with a campaign. Bohemia promises to release three campaign episodes as free DLC, but for now the game only has 15 separate scenario missions. These showcase missions focus on one aspect of the Arma experience like infantry or support and task the players with using the given equipment to complete the assigned task. Each can be played in about an hour unless things go wrong. The armor mission broke spectacularly for me. My tank platoon just decided to stop fighting and I wound up sweeping through the enemy held town with my one tank until the mission success screen popped up. The showcase missions break easily and just aren’t that good anyway. One mission has the player acting as a lone saboteur at night to distract enemy forces. It’s meant to show off the nifty new lighting engine, but Bohemia neglected to notice that the mission is boring and dumb. Three of the showcase scenarios aren’t even what I’d call missions since they consist of the player walking around a firing range and looking at equipment.
Thankfully, Arma III features full Steam Workshop support and a robust in-game editor. There are over 2,000 user-made missions in the Steam Workshop. You can find everything from full recreations of Operation Flashpoint missions to mods that let you rally race around the island of Altis in sports cars. Previous Arma games have enjoyed a long and fruitful relationship with modders. The famous DayZ zombie survival mod came from Arma 2. It was so successful that Bohemia is spinning it off into its own standalone title. Currently, one of the most popular multiplayer mods for Arma III is Wasteland which pits wandering soldier nomads against one another. Using the editor can be as easy as plopping a few units down on the map, hitting preview, and fighting it out. If you want to create scenarios with actual objectives and sequences beyond a simple meeting engagement, be prepared to read and watch a lot of tutorials. Despite what Bohemia has done to make the editor more newbie-friendly, you’ll still need to learn scripting to do the most basic things like set up a task with success and failure conditions.
Unfortunately, the popularity of mods makes multiplayer a dicey affair. Jumping into random public games means you’ll never know what mods the server has running until you get in. You’ll rarely ever find any servers hosting the official multiplayer scenarios, which is a shame because they’re the strongest missions that ship with the game. That’s if you can even join the server and get a stable game going. Many people are having FPS issues in multiplayer that makes Arma III turn into PowerPoint.
Bohemia obviously loves and trusts their core fans because they’re letting them supply most of the content for Arma III. They’re even going to release assets from Arma II to modders so they can port them into Arma III in response to complaints that the game didn’t launch with enough content. This is good because the mostly made-up arms and armor in Arma III are unsatisfying. Bohemia started with a futuristic setting (at one point even releasing the above preview image of a railgun tank) but according to them, development shifted to a more conventional infantry experience. The game is still supposedly set in a future that has Iran invading Greece but you’d never know it unless you read the forums. Unfortunately, the change in direction and some legal troubles with Greece left Bohemia scrambling for development time, and it’s obvious. While it may be cheap to complain about Arma III shipping with fewer vehicles than Arma II, there’s a lot of cut and paste between the forces. Vehicle armament (and sometimes whole vehicles) are shared across the factions. Why does every vehicle with a grenade launcher have the same turret? Why does the anti-air emplacement look just like the man-portable AA launcher stuck on a tripod? Why does NATO and CSAT have the same old M109 artillery turret mounted on their self-propelled artillery platforms? Why is there only one jet model for everyone? What happened to the F-35 Lightning they showed off in early images?
When it clicks, the game is second-to-none which is why I’ll continue to play despite its many issues. With no campaign, spotty multiplayer, and poor canned scenarios, Arma III just isn’t a complete product at this time. If you got into previous Arma games for the military equipment porn then Arma III’s mish-mash of make-believe and cut & paste equipment make it easier to stick with Arma II’s dizzying list of modern real-world equipment. Only die-hard Arma fans who want to get in and mess with editing their own scenarios are going to get the most out of this software. Bohemia claims that they will add more content in future updates, but they seem content to let the community do the hard work of filling in gameplay for them. Think of Arma III more as an editor bundled with dedicated modders instead of an actual game.