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PC Review - 'ArmA: Combat Operations'

by Alan Butterworth on May 17, 2007 @ 2:07 a.m. PDT

Armed Assault features a new engine with a fresh modern setting, and will reacquaint gamers with the ultimate in realistic, combat gaming. Freedom of action and immersive complex environments, blended with a unique touch of total simulation.

Genre: First-Person Shooter
Publisher: Atari
Developer: Bohemia Interactive
Release Date: May 4, 2007

Armed Assault: Combat Operations (ArmA) is the follow-up to Codemaster's 2001 tactical shooter, Operation Flashpoint . It takes place in the kingdom of Sahrani, the fictional equivalent of modern day North and South Korea. South Sahrani is an ally of the western states, and the United States has sent combat units there to train the royal guard. The north, of course, is a brutal military dictatorship with a penchant for invading the south, and it is during one of these incursions that the game's action takes place.

The game features a well-thought-out campaign mode strung together with silhouetted slideshows and a convincing enough voiceover. Each campaign stage allows you to go directly to the main mission or elect to undertake a series of auxiliary missions which are supposed to make the main mission easier to accomplish, although just how much easier is hard to gauge. The main missions tend to be squad-based, full-scale warfare environments, whereas the auxiliary missions tend to be solo assignments demanding more stealth and finesse. In addition, there is a fair degree of variety to these missions, from blowing up bridges, to destroying convoys, to rigging trucks with radio-controlled explosives, seizing towns, military bases, and protecting airfields for air support.

ArmA is not forgiving if you just want to jump in at the deep end and start gunning down the bad guys. Instead, a somewhat steeper-than-normal learning curve means that it pays to spend some time running through the guided tutorials which will ease you into the nuances of modern warfare, from the obstacle course, to weapon familiarization, all the way through commanding squads and piloting vehicles and aircraft. Those of you who appreciate spending a couple of hours on a structured approach to your first-person gaming experience will also appreciate these tutorials.

There are a myriad of ways to maneuver your character through the game world. You can crouch, lay prone and crawl, lean left and right, raise your weapon, salute, sit down, consult your GPS, check the time, or take out your compass. The list goes on, and it can sometimes feel like you're piloting a Boeing 747 instead of running around dodging bullets. This is odd because the flight simulator portions, where you can pilot Cobra attack helicopters, Blackhawks, and A10's (among others), are disarmingly simple by contrast. You have thrust and directional controls, and the rest is just point and shoot. The result is that moving your character around in an efficient manner takes some practice in order to get used to the overly complex, sometimes counter-intuitive control system.

At first glance, the game's crisp lush graphics are a credit to the designers. And it's just as well that it's easy on the eyes because you'll spend the majority of your time running, flying, and cruising around the great outdoors. Hopefully you're a nature lover because the title takes you through a delightful variety of outdoor locations from sleepy fishing villages and urban centers to vast deciduous forests, or expansive dry deserts. The scale of the action area is pretty impressive. From a distance, landscape textures look accurate and greatly augment the sense of realism for which the designers are aiming. The sky is photorealistic, and I'm sure I spent too much time just gazing upward at the clouds gliding past when I should have spent more time admiring the way the light bounced accurately off the barrel of my M4. The military vehicles you can pilot seem to have been drawn with high fidelity. Up close, a nice blur effect works wells to create a sense of depth and distance so when you're lying prone in the grass spying on enemy movements, you can almost feel it tickling your face. The clouds of dust kicked up as a chopper takes to the skies or a Humvee races around the corner are likewise commendable. Explosions and fiery infernos are very satisfying, especially when you're not on the receiving end.

But it's not all eye candy, and some of the objects make you wonder if at some point they resorted to using models from a few years ago. The buildings are blocky and angular, lacking in the sort of sophistication that was invested in the landscape. NPC models have a wooden mannequin look to them that simply jars with the authentic experience the designers are trying to recreate. Character models are likewise inferior and animate in a jerky, stop-start way that makes them seem awkward. It seems the programmers forgot about traction on the ground so characters often look like they're moon walking their way from A to B. When you climb a ladder, your hands magically do not touch the rungs at all. The NPC civilians also were apparently last in line when the A.I. was being handed out; they walk in programmed routes regardless of what is in their way so if you stand in front of them, they'll continue walking into you, and each other, infinitely. You can take out some of your frustrations on these innocent civilians and other military personnel by gunning them down, with no apparent repercussions. It's a shame that so many aspects of the game were recreated in such high detail, and a few critical ones were neglected, which ruins the overall impression.

Ambient sounds are done well. The ample, meaty, dull thumping bass of a helicopter's blades starting up, the earthquake of an APC's treads, or the resonant rumblings of a distant landmine exploding are great, bringing a great deal to the game's brimming atmosphere. Despite the often mediocre scriptwriting, there's some good voice acting from drill sergeants, who sound as bad-ass as you've always suspected they should. On the other hand, the monotone robotic nonsense that passes for radio communication between you and your squad members is unforgivably bad. I've heard '80s voice synthesizers and telephone banking bots that gave more impressive performances of human speech than the recycled, strung-together garbage you hear in this game. The title's music, which fades in and out, features an assortment of heavy metal guitar solos, which are always better than a string quartet for gunning down people.

ArmA plays more like a transportation simulator at times, with some killing thrown in as a reward for actually managing to arrive at your final destination. There are no shortcuts to your target, and often you're thrown into the middle of the wilderness and forced to march your way several kilometers to the rendezvous point. Happily, you can command practically any available vehicle, from small civilian cars to tanks, planes and helicopters. Just jump in and hit the gas. This travel aspect is, of course, a great thing for those of you who prefer your shooter games to be more flight sim authentic than Unreal Tournament hectic. Depending on your preference, it can be a great thing to sit in the back of the APC with your team as you speed your way to the battle zone, feeling the tension thicken as you draw closer to your confrontation. If, on the other hand, you're the kid who's always asking if you're there yet, you can always use the time accelerator function, which speeds things up by a factor of up to four. However, use this too much, and the game starts to feel ridiculous, like watching a black-and-white comedy.

I found combat to be a largely frustrating experience. It's often difficult to pinpoint the enemy when you're on solo missions; naturally, the trick is to proceed as slowly as possible, always scoping your surroundings, and relying on your binoculars to spot them before they fill you with hot lead. This requires a lot of patience and will suit some players more than others. More often though, I would find myself being shot at, without having a clue where it was coming from. The A.I. seems to have a built-in sixth sense hack and can spot the smallest movement from many hundreds of meters away, even in the pitch black of night. This forces you to use the stealth maneuvers programmed into the game, such as going prone and crawling through thick brush. Sometimes, it can be fairly obvious that you stick out like a book burner at a librarian's conference, and are likely to get shot at. Other times, you could swear that you were stealthier than a wild animal, and you still get dropped out of nowhere.

As soon as you drop one of their comrades, it won't take long for the enemy to gauge your position and unleash hell. It's incredibly easy to die in just one or two shots, and the only thing you'll do more often than running through the countryside is reloading your save game. Adding to the difficulty is the fact you only get one save slot, which is overwritten every time you save, and this makes sure you only save when the coast is clear.

On squad-based missions, things get really confusing because your companions will start calling out enemy clock directions in that earache-inducing mechanical manner which is just more disorienting than if they stayed quiet. A nice feature is a pop-up clock which appears when they call out these positions and makes it a lot easier to get your bearings. Unfortunately, squad commands are a tangled mess of number and function keys that will take some time to master to the point of actually being able to order your troops around efficiently.

Overall, I found the gameplay to be teeth-grindingly aggravating – just one step short of physical hardware destruction. I would spend countless minutes navigating my way from A to B, only to get shot at once out of seemingly nowhere and have to reload my save game. The stop-start, save-reload formula makes for a very disruptive gaming experience, instead of one that is immersive, as I think it was intended to be. When I finally accomplished a mission, it's because I'd saved and reloaded so many times that I knew exactly where the enemy would be, and when, instead of through any measure of skill on my part. As such, the missions ended with a sense of relief, instead of a sense of reward or accomplishment.

Part of what contributes to this difficulty is the attention to realism. When you start to get shot at, your instinct is to drop to the ground, but your character acts as if he has arthritis, taking his sweet time to lay prone, by which time you're already dead. The same applies to changing weapons. We all know that in it takes time to switch from your rifle to your hand-held rocket launcher, which is realistic and fine. However you also go immobile when changing weapons or putting away your binoculars, turning you from a harbinger of destruction into a sitting duck. Instead of feeling like you're in the soldier's shoes, you end up feeling more like you're remotely piloting an automaton with control issues.

When all this gets too much, you can try the standalone missions, which are more of the same without a storyline, or else try your luck online. At the time of writing, there were a few well-populated gaming servers with their fair share of dedicated gamers. The game periodically experiences connection problems indicated by a broken chain link in the bottom right corner, which can affect gameplay quite considerably, especially in the heat of combat. Online play revolves around a range of scenarios, including cooperative play versus the computer, or death match-style team battles. Gameplay is noticeably improved when playing with intelligent human players instead of artificially sub-intelligent computer players. In addition, some servers feature a promotion system where you can only pilot aircraft once you've accomplished a few missions.

There are so many things going for Armed Assault: Combat Operations (ArmA) in terms of presentation, concept and effort. Unfortunately, it slips up in so many ways that affect the gameplay to a serious degree that it turns what could have been a great military combat simulator into a test of patience. It seems the developers strived to recreate a realistic military sim in many aspects but completely neglected others, and the result is a curious mix that fails to gel properly. In addition, the game is brutally difficult, not just because the A.I. is so aware of your whereabouts, but also because clunky gameplay mechanics interfere with your ability to perform actions smoothly and efficiently. That said, ArmA is one of the more authentic first-person shooter war games out now, so if you're the kind of gamer who values a more bona fide gaming experience and can forgive a few flaws that a good patch might address one day, ArmA is worth considering.

Score: 6.0/10

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