For over 10 years, developer Bohemia Interactive has dabbled in many game genres but specialized in making first-person shooters. These are serious military simulations that would rival what the military uses to train troops. That reputation stemmed from the PC original Operation: Flashpoint - Cold War Crisis, which had vehicles, large multiplayer limits, and realistic ballistics and physics. It was an unforgiving game, but those who stuck with it found something that other developers haven't been able to match after all this time. After breaking away from Codemasters, the team created ArmA, a spiritual sequel to its beloved original, and that game merited a sequel. Now that ArmA II and its expansion pack, ArmA II: Operation Arrowhead, have been released, the team packaged them together as Arma II: Combined Operations to help new players catch up.
While there are two different games in the package, both are similar enough so that the locales are the only difference between the two. ArmA II has you playing the role of Sgt. Cooper, a member of the Marine recon team known as Team Razor. The fictional country of Chernarus, a former member of the Soviet Union, is experiencing political unrest. While the democratic body is trying to hold things together, several rebel groups lead by the Chedaki, the most influential group in the territory, are trying to overthrow the government and put a dictatorship in its place. Your mission is to stop the rebels and capture their leader, Gregori Lopotev. The expansion pack, Operation Arrowhead, moves things to the fictional Middle Eastern nation of Takistan, where a dictatorship is in place. Using a different team, your job is to overthrow the government to help establish a more democratic one.
From a gameplay perspective, there are a few more pronounced differences between the two discs and the campaigns they highlight. The original campaign in ArmA II takes place exclusively under gray skies, with rural decay all around. There's plenty of cover from buildings and the trees in the nearby forests, and the foliage does a decent job of disguising prone soldiers. Even though you can ride around vehicles, most of the game has you on foot and in control of a specific platoon of troops. Meanwhile, Operation Arrowhead brings you to the arid desert, where there's less of a rural presence, and cover and foliage have been lessened. You also aren't restricted to one squad, as each mission has you jumping around to get different perspectives on the battle, and a few of the missions have you controlling vehicles most of the time.
The defining feature of the game is its realism. The guns have unique rates of fire as well as their own ballistics physics. Bullets experience gravity drops over distances, and vehicles won't blow up just because you put a few shots in the door. Cover becomes very important, as soldiers standing out in the open are easy targets. Since one or two bullets can take you down, you're continually worried about getting shot, even more so due to the lack of a regenerating health system. Getting injured drops you to the ground, but you'll be writhing in pain, and it'll be next to impossible to get in some last shots. If teammates bandage you up, you'll stop bleeding, but don't expect to be as spry as you were before getting shot. You may experience the rest of the mission hanging on to a partner as you hobble around the battlefield. Little things like this add up to an experience that's more realistic than most shooters, and those who were raised on twitch gameplay will be dead almost immediately.
The sense of realism extends beyond military ballistics and vehicles. The presence of wild animals and civilians gives the battlefield some life compared to the more sterile environments in some other modern combat shooters. The presence of extra participants isn't just for show, as they can help or hinder your mission depending on your actions. Protect the citizens of the town, and the local militia may help you. Shoot those same civilians or start making a mess of the town, and your path to your mission suddenly takes a different turn. In some cases, the local militia may side with its former enemies to eliminate you. Their presence and relative consequences provide even more realism as opposed to making glorified shooting galleries out of the locales.
The attention to realism is so good that it's painful to see the game's flaws. The AI has been a sore spot for a while, and even though the expansion packs and various patches have fixed a few of the problems, there are still some issues in this category. Enemies have some great accuracy in their shots, but they're sometimes oblivious to your presence. Whether you're right next to them or they see one of their comrades fall, there are times when they'll only attack several moments later. Most civilians will run and hide when the fighting begins, but a few mill around waiting to be shot. Your fellow troops also fall into this rut where they'll be great at taking down the enemy — sometimes so well that there isn't anyone left for you to shoot — but they'll be horrible behind the wheel of a vehicle, often bumping into objects and other cars.
Even if you can get past the AI problems, the load screens still aggravate players. The loading isn't terribly long, but there are numerous screens to go through, breaking up the flow of the campaign since you'll pause often to load up a new area. Auto-saves also do the same thing, since they often occur during walks and last long enough to break up the tension created by the situation.
Whereas most single-player games start and end with campaign mode, this one gives the player a separate group of missions once they polish off the main stories. Each of the missions is a standalone sortie that takes place in the regions from the campaign but places you in different story lines. The missions also give you the opportunity to play as different factions, giving you different weapon sets, and while most of the missions are on foot, you have a good number of missions that are purely vehicle based. Should you get through all of the pre-made missions, you have the ability to download user-made missions or make some of your own. Just about every aspect of the mission is customizable, from the start and end points to the land size to enemy placement and vehicle use. The sandbox for this is large enough that you have a near-endless set of scenarios without having to download extra mod tools.
Multiplayer is really the heart of the game, and it is refreshing to see that there's a very healthy community of people playing and plenty of servers running. All of the single-player elements, such as the stand-alone missions and campaign missions, can be played cooperatively online, though you can expect the experience to be harder since human players are no match for the accuracy of the computer companions. You can also use those custom-made missions online, expanding the lifespan of the game even further. If you're looking for something more conventional, you have deathmatch for up to 50 players, but warfare is more engaging since it turns each match into a large territory grab where tactics are just as important as getting off lethal shots. It also proves to be the most daunting of the online modes, so unless you're rolling with a group that communicates often, expect to be slaughtered by other, more organized opponents.
The controls mirror the rest of the game in that they're daunting for anyone but those used to something like a flight sim. The infantry controls still use the standard WASD keys for movement and the mouse for aiming and shooting, but you'll quickly use just about every button on the keyboard to do some basic things. Crouching, standing and going prone, for example, are all done via separate keys, and hitting the same one twice to go to a previous position simply won't work. It's also cumbersome to select actions since getting the menu to appear requires you to move the mouse wheel and then use numbers to select an appropriate action. Squad commands use the number row and function keys and even the space bar in combination with mouse buttons. Then there are the vehicle controls for both land and air units, and those controls are even more daunting, so much so that some players simply man the guns and let the computer take over. This is a lot to take in, but once you master the juggling act, you'll find that there's rarely anything you can't manipulate.
The sound is another area where the developers both hit and missed the mark. The sound effects are near perfect, as each gun sounds unique; the general sounds of footsteps and explosions make for some great ambience in lieu of an orchestral score. When the music kicks in, it is instantly forgettable, as the sound of electric guitars is neither motivational nor inspiring. If anything, it feels forced and out of place in a game that's obsessed with realism. The voices fare a bit worse. The scripted lines from your teammates during the campaign missions and scenarios are fine, though some of the actors don't sound convincing. As bad as this is, the on-the-fly dialogue is worse; the inflections are too strong, making the phrase sound like words haphazardly strung together in a robotic-sounding sentence.
The issue that many gamers run into with sims is that the technical details come at the cost of outdated graphics. This isn't quite the case with this game, as most of the title looks rather good. The environments visit the same places you'll see in other modern war games, but they're well detailed in their expansiveness. Player models look good enough, though you'll see a few things clip here and there, and the details on the uniforms and guns are amazing. That attention to detail also carries over to the vehicles, with accurate modeling right down to sticker placement. The age of the game engine means that players with low-end systems can run the title, but it is surprising to see the game run at a low frame rate, even with several tweaks to the options. Even high-end systems need some tweaking to get this game to run at its absolute best, and while it may be a hassle, the final result is well worth it.
ArmA II: Combined Operations is made for the type of gamer who enjoys military simulations or is willing to learn. The vehicle types and the amount of detail given to guns and ballistics will drive military fans wild. The sense of scale is excellent due to the online matches being able to accommodate a large number of people. It also looks great, though you'll need a powerful machine to make it look its best, and the mission creator gives the game some powerful legs if you somehow aren't into putting time into multiplayer matches. The sound could be better in some areas, and the controls feel complicated enough that those who don't reads manuals or forget to have the control card with them at all times will experience death swiftly and often. Casual shooting fans and those who appreciate more twitch-based shooting will be mauled. For those who love military sims, expect this to occupy a good chunk of your time until ArmA III hits.
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