If there was a draft, being selected for Arma 3: Apex wouldn’t be so bad

, | Game reviews

The lumberyard sits steaming in the jungle and my unit, a special operations task force consisting of me and two guys, has orders to destroy bandit supplies hidden within. I open with some rifle shots, taking out a couple of sentries, before the bandits catch on and start laying down a withering blanket of fire into random terrain features. My buddies shoot at an idling cargo truck. I don’t think they’re following the plan any more. An enemy runs down the road, goes prone, spins on his belt buckle, then runs back only to get flattened by another truck going the other way. I die thanks to a lucky shot, but I kill everyone by respawning as a grenadier and lobbing explosives into the encampment. I run between stacks of logs and shoot the last enemy as he stands arms-outstretched in a Christ-like pose while slowly sinking into the concrete floor of a garage. My partners split up so one guy can kneel and stand up, kneel and stand up, kneel and stand up, while the other moron watches a rock. Thanks for the help guys. We leave, me on foot, my team by teleporting. I’m dumped to a mission end screen showing that I killed 23 bad guys by myself. This is Arma 3: Apex.

100 square kilometers of South Pacific Generation Kill, after the break.

Apex is the expansion for Arma 3 that adds a whole new jungle terrain type, a number of new units, vehicles, and weapons, along with a cooperative campaign. It’s almost impossible to judge the content of the expansion without discussing the extensive changes to the game since its 2013 launch. It can be done (three stars for largely being a pack of editor assets), but it’s not fair. Apex is really the result of Bohemia Interactive’s hard work and dogged insistence on improving their platform. In many ways, this work has paid off by making the game markedly better.

When it launched, Arma 3 was an incomplete package. “An editor bundled with dedicated modders.” There was no campaign. Scenarios were buggy and frustrating. Vehicles and weapons were either based on poor mixes of future-tech and fictional stuff, or cut and paste jobs from previous games in the series. The user interface was clunky. While the game depended on players to make content, the editor was hard to use. Multiplayer performance was often atrocious. It was a mess that asked players to wait for more content and technical support from the developers, while leaning on modders in the interim.

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It’s almost three years later and the base game is much better. Patches revamped how infantry stamina and aiming while supported work. Sling-loading of vehicles and supplies is now a possibility. Infantry can fire their small arms from vehicles if the passenger seats allow it. Environmental lighting and sound propagation was adjusted. The helicopter flight model now includes options to bring it closer to a dedicated sim.

A full single-player story campaign was added for free, depicting a NATO retreat from the Mediterranean islands of Stratis and Altis, a regroup, and the subsequent assault on enemy-held areas within those islands. You have to accept that China and Iran would field an invasion force in the Mediterranean, but the combined-arms scenarios are worth the need to whistle past the setup. When your tank rumbles past infantry popping at each other while choppers spot for artillery as a jet dumps munitions over the enemy lines, you’ll forgive a lot of clumsy world-building. The missions are prone to break in odd ways, but they’re more sources of mild amusement – “Oh, you!” – than exercises in frustration.

Included with the free story campaign is a boot camp module that bundles a prologue story scenario with VR-style training environments. These run the gamut from a virtual testing area allowing players to experiment with weapons and loadouts to tutorial instruction covering most of the game’s mechanics. They’re not always helpful, and sometimes spend too much time on tactics and concepts that don’t actually get used in the campaign, but as a primer for the myriad of ways Arma 3 can be played, they’re instructive enough.

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Finally, since so much of the game is built around community creations, the editor has been given a complete and much welcome overhaul. Now, players can use the editor in 3D mode and place items and waypoints with accuracy. Gone are the days of fumbling in a 2D map, guessing where soldiers were being placed, and playing the scenario to see exact locations. It was a long-requested change, and implementing it took a fair amount of effort from the developers. Anything more than a simple bad guys versus good guys combat engagement is going to be beyond the casual creator, as scripting knowledge will be needed for even mediocre mission tasks, but it’s a long way from where it was at launch.

If all you want is new stuff to use in that fancy editor, then Bohemia has you covered. They released some free assets like fixed-wing aircraft for each faction as well as dozens of structures and props to fill scenarios with. Everything from construction site clutter to office cubicle junk is there for modders to use. On the paid DLC side, they added more helicopters, small arms, and a (baffling) selection of go-karts.

It’s all good stuff, and the new assets that come with Apex are high-quality and fills a conspicuous hole in the Arma arsenal.

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The main feature of Apex is the fictional South Pacific island archipelago of Tanoa. 100 square kilometers of dense vegetation, foot trails, beach tourism, and bustling ports. It’s a setting that players have never officially seen before in Arma and the jungles completely change the nature of engagement. Instead of the long-range straightforward approaches over mostly open fields or deserts, movement and combat in Tanoa require players to adapt to the terrain. The density of trees and ground cover result in more close-combat battles, and shortened sight-lines turn simple firefights into panicky cat-and-mouse affairs. Even thermal sights are less helpful in Tanoa due to the abundance of concealment. You are not Predator. You are Jesse Ventura unloading a minigun into the trees.

New VTOL aircraft, small arms, light strike wheeled vehicles, jungle camouflage uniforms, and a new faction of insurgent forces round out the goodies Apex brings to Arma. While the VTOL aircraft and some of the special forces equipment suffer from looking like something out of Halo, or maybe the newest modern Call of Duty, the other offerings fit the jungle setting quite well. Even the bad guy coalition works better in Apex because the largely Chinese origin of the expansion’s enemies don’t seem as comically out of place in the South Pacific as the Iranians did in Greece while fighting NATO.

The cooperative campaign in Apex is a puzzling misstep. It starts out with a decently engaging cinematic presentation. There are story bits, narration, explosive set-pieces, interesting combat spaces, and even a mid-story reveal that puts the player on the back foot. It’s all really well made, but it’s completely undone by the decision to make the campaign missions work like regular multiplayer matches. Each of the seven missions are short one-and-done affairs with unlimited respawns. That’s right. Death holds no threat. Kill one bad guy, die, come back and kill more. Repeat as needed. Dying is a cheap and easy way to restock ammo. Spawn points are generous and you can even change classes between deaths, so why not do it as needed? Why be careful? Just run and gun and if you die, it’s just an opportunity to load up on more grenades. It’s a maddeningly dumb way to disregard scenario balance.

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Hordes of enemies are present, and mission tasks hew to scorched earth tactics for the most part. There’s just no getting away from respawning to succeed.

The campaign missions are also buggy. So very buggy. That Vitruvian Man pose popped up countless times. One mission segment featured a temple path lined with what looked like crucified mannequins. Were they supposed to be active enemies or corpses that glitched out? It’s Arma, so welcome to Tanoa!

Once again, Bohemia Interactive proves to be their own worst enemy. The desire to have the campaign playable in co-op in bite-sized chunks directly clashes with the hardcore combined arms military focus of the rest of the game. There are few vehicles in use in these scenarios and no coordination between infantry and air or armor units. The campaign is the least Arma it can be. It must be difficult for the studio to want to work on an infantry equivalent of a rivet-counting sim, but have your most popular multiplayer game modes be silly Grand Theft Auto style mods and a zombie apocalypse survival shooter.

Thankfully, the rest of Apex is a terrific addition to the game. If you make your peace with Arma 3 being a big box of tools, then Apex is a shiny new set of gear with some odd niggles. The campaign suffers from that one crucial mistake that undermines the whole experience, but the new island terrain is a revelation. Ignore the new campaign. The developers have done a ton of work on the game, adding content and catering to fans for the past three years, and the expansion really does build on that. Like the tipping point it’s named after, Apex pushes Arma 3 into good territory.

Update: The “T-pose” bug was fixed in a later build of the game. Although the update does address one of the technical issues cited in the review, the overall assessment of Arma 3: Apex remains the same.

  • Arma 3: Apex

  • Rating:

  • PC
  • Enlist for active duty with Arma 3 Apex and be deployed to a brand new warzone. With its distinct geographical features, the South Pacific island archipelago of Tanoa introduces fresh opportunities for all types of combat operations.
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