ArmA: Combat Operations invites gamers to enter a single-player campaign to complete missions or connect to an online world of combat with room for more than 50 players. Gamers enter 150 square mile battlefields with their choice of weaponry and must complete the objectives discussed in the briefing before the game. Players may walk to their next destination or commandeer helicopters, tanks, and fighter planes. Gamers can also customize and create new missions using a built-in editor.
In 2001 a game titled Operation Flashpoint: Cold War Crisis was created by Bohemia Interactive. It was easily the most realistic first-person shooter of its time. In fact, Operation Flashpoint was so realistic that a more advanced version of the game called Virtual Battlespace ("VBS") was adopted for use as a training tool by Australian and New Zealand armed forces as well as the United States Marine Corps. Now, six years later, Bohemia is back with ArmA: Combat Operations, the spiritual successor to OFP.
This time the action takes place on a fictional island nation called Sahrani. You're part of a US military detachment responsible for training the locals in modern warfare. As expected, all hell breaks loose and you and your buddies will find yourselves caught up in a violent coup. Now you'll have to hold out against superior numbers until the cavalry arrives.
Anyone who has played OFP will feel right at home when they load up ArmA. In fact, at first glance very little has changed between OFP and ArmA. The controls are virtually identical, as is the interface and the command system. Even the music will sound familiar to OFP players.
This might appeal to OFP die-hards, but to us it was a little disconcerting. Six years have passed since the release of OFP and a lot of advances have been made in first-person shooters since. The result is that the already-clunky controls feel even worse now. To make ArmA as realistic as possible, your mouse movement is tied to your avatar's arms, so as you move your mouse your arms will move your weapon. This means that if you aim at something on the extreme upper-left-hand corner of your screen your own arms will obstruct your view, which quickly gets frustrating.
Not only that, but rather than having the mouselook feature move the camera like in a conventional shooter, there is a small invisible window of movement in the center of your screen where you can move your weapon without actually affecting where the camera is pointed. If you actually want to look in another direction direction you'll have to move your mouse beyond that small window and only then will the view change. This felt clunky in OFP, and it still feels clunky now.
Not all of the traits retained from OFP are bad. Just like the first game, ArmA is unrelenting in its pursuit of realism. For example, the game accurately recreates the supersonic crack of bullets whizzing past your head (hint: when you hear that distinctive snap, it's time to move). An entire arsenal of NATO and Warsaw Pact weaponry is lovingly recreated here with detailed models and gorgeous textures. If you look carefully you'll be able to read the markings on various weapons and even see instructions on some of the more complicated instruments of destruction.
This same attention to detail also extends to the vehicles. 30 different vehicles are depicted, both civilian and military. Helicopters, tanks, airplanes, cars, and boats are all at your disposal. Each vehicle will behave realistically as well, so don't expect a civie pick-up truck to last long under enemy fire; there's a reason those things are considered "soft targets."
Ideally, you'll want a joystick to fly the choppers and planes, which you'll eventually have to do in the single-player campaign. A-10s and Cobras as well as Blackhawks are all prominently featured. Flying these aircraft takes some getting used to, but when compared to the rest of the game, these portions feature the most relaxed realism. Sections where you take to the skies are a nice change of pace, but ArmA is best when it focuses on infantry combat.
On the ground it's just you, your squadmates, and your rifle. Most combat takes place at ranges between 100 and 300 yards; any closer and things start to get really hairy. ArmA factors in everything from fatigue to bullet deflection, the sound barrier, and other ballistic characteristics for every shot fired. Hitting a stationary target at 100 yards or less is cake, but that's rarely the case in a firefight.
Anyone who knows anything about shooting will tell you that shooting a moving target is one of the hardest things in the world to do, which is a sentiment ArmA takes to heart. Your enemies will move from cover to cover and can spot you from hundreds of yards away if you're not careful; if you stay out in the open too long they'll zero in on you and put a bullet in your noggin. Next to your squadmates and your weapon, cover and concealment will be your two closest friends. You'll quickly learn that there is no possible way to play ArmA like any other first-person shooter. It doesn't matter if you're a Ghost Recon pro or can beat Rainbow Six: Vegas on "realistic"; ArmA is a completely unforgiving beast, and most of the time you'll die without knowing who or what killed you.
Thankfully there's a save-game system in place. OFP featured a checkpoint system, which is still in place here, but you also have one save-game slot which you can use anytime, and it is a lifesaver. By limiting it to just one slot, the tension of combat remains in place, but makes the game much more approachable. There's also a time compression feature, which is handy considering that some of the missions will have you traveling very long distances. (ArmA features 250 square miles of land to explore.)
Graphically, ArmA in some ways could be compared to the city of Los Angeles. It's pretty when you're far away, but once you get closer you realize that everything has a synthetic, fake look to it. Once we were on top of a mountain overlooking a valley that leads to the ocean and a fellow editor glanced over and said, "Wow! What game is that?" Another time we were crawling through the grass while under fire and a passerby said, "Dang, that is one ugly game."
The engine that powers ArmA can be cranked up to show incredible draw distances and extremely high-resolution textures, but doing so will bring just about any system to its knees. Even on the "recommended" detail settings we were never really satisfied with the framerate; if you're serious about playing ArmA, you'll need a fair amount of horsepower.
Where ArmA really hits its stride is in its mission design. There are some spectacular scenarios here. Sure, there are the usual defend or search-and-destroy missions, but they're threaded together to feel like a real battle. In one mission you'll lay demo charges on a bridge and blow it after an armored column crosses it. You'll then use anti-tank weapons to harrass the column, fall back to a more secure location, and fight off a counter-attack.
These are sweeping actions that make you feel like you're in a real military campaign with real military objectives, as opposed to a Jerry Bruckheimer movie. The fact that there's nothing "Hollywood" about ArmA is its greatest strength; the controls are clunky, the realism is challenging, and the game is unforgiving, but if you're into this kind of stuff you'll find yourself loving every moment of it.
For the hardcore military buff, ArmA's attention to real-world detail is unmatched; comparing it to something like Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter is like comparing IL-2 Sturmovik to Combat. If this concept scares you, then run away: ArmA will eat you up and spit you out before you can figure out how to aim your M-16. But if you're currently waiting to see if your application to the U.S. Army Ranger School went through and have the patience to deal with clunky controls and sudden deaths, you might do well to check it out.
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