Reviews

ArmA III – Review

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Platforms: PC
Reviewed On: PC
Developer: Bohemia Interactive
Publisher: Bohemia Interactive
Singleplayer: Yes
Multiplayer: Yes
PEGI: 16+

This game was tested using an AMD Radeon HD 7790 graphics card kindly supplied by AMD. Click here for details on that, the Radeon HD 7790 and the test system used for all PC games.

You’ve spent 15-minutes carefully scouting around the out edges of an enemy encampment, and now you’re crawling up a hill to take up a solid firing position. You rest a minute or two in order to get your breath back so that your aim will be steadier. As you drag your sorry carcass slowly to the top of the hill you bring your eye level to the sight, and then wham, a single round from an enemy soldier who unfortunately happened to be looking in your general direction ends your miserable life before you’ve even had the chance to take down a single foe.

This is ArmA III in a nuthsell, a frustrating, glorious military simulator where a single bullet can be your demise, and where careful play is rewarded with an immense sense of satisfaction. If you’ve ever made mistake of describing Battlefield as a realistic shooter then ArmA III will be an eye-opener, a game that requires patience, brain-power and steady aim to succeed. This isn’t a stream of bullet-ridden violence, it’s a game where you spend far more time planning and moving than you do shooting, where the tension of waiting for combat is just exhilarating as the combat itself.

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I’m a self-confessed ArmA noob, having had very little past experience with the series, so it’s important from the start to convey the idea that this review will be entirely from the viewpoint of a newbie. The closest I’ve gotten to the ArmA series, aside from spending a few hours on ArmA II, is the Operation Flashpoint games, which I have a deep love for. Still, an obsession with military history and many, many hours studying modern military combat helped me understand what ArmA III was about. I knew what mental gear I had to be in before I ever stepped foot inside the game, perhaps giving me a slight edge over other new players donning the fatigues.

If you’ve thus far lived your life on a steady diet of Call of Duty and Battlefield then your first couple of hours, or possibly even days, in ArmA III will likely be torturous as you attempt to unpick the complex weave of gameplay mechanics that dictate the games uber-realistic approach to combat, and the game’s seeming lack of interest in teaching you its many subtleties will be equally frustrating. The singleplayer Showcase missions are designed to introduce different elements of the game, but ArmA III has a lackluster and haphazard approach to teaching you its intricacies. While it explains the basic controls via pop-up tool tips , it doesn’t do a very good job of teaching players the ropes when it comes to the style of game that it is, which is a shame as it misses an opportunity to guide arcade FPS players away from their comfort zones and into something new. Indeed, much of the ArmA III community also seem to be rather hostile to anyone coming from a Call of Duty or Battlefield background wanting to enter the terrifying realms of simulation, although obviously that’s a community problem and not a game problem.

Scuba diving is in!

Scuba diving is in!

Likewise ArmA’s controls aren’t exactly intuitive or smooth. Given the complexity of the game it’s unsurprising that the controls aren’t anywhere near as streamlined as other titles on the market, and nor would I expect them to be, but even taking this into account the  scheme and interface Bohemia has chosen to go with often feels like it’s making basic tasks far more awkward than they should be. Some fans of the series argue that this is to create a more realistic feeling and to make you think about your actions, but the last time I checked rummaging around in my backpack for gear wasn’t this clumsy. Still, give it some time and you’ll adjust to the controls, and while it may never feel natural or smooth you’ll soon by commanding the battlefield, calling in support and assaulting towns with relative ease.

There’s no proper singleplayer campaign included in ArmA III thanks to the developers deciding that it had too many problems, even though the game has now been in development for four years. Bohemia are planning releasing the campaign as three downloadable, and completely free, chunks of content over the course of the next three months.  And indeed the game feels half-finished without it. The Showcase missions area a series of short demos essentially, and while some of them are rather enjoyable the majority felt poorly designed and are a lackluster substitute for a proper camp. I’m genuinely unsure as how to approach this odd situation in a review, but ultimately the game is reviewed as it stands, and as it stands it feels incomplete and lacking in developer created content.

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A vast editor, apparently the very same one the developers used, is included in the package which allows you to create endless scenarios to play and share with the rest of the world, and indeed there’s already thousands of missions to download from the Steam Workshop. Like the rest of the game the editor suffers from a lack of explanation – there’s absolutely zero tutorials or hints as to how the editor works, again potentially shutting the doors on many players, although there’s always that handy Internet thing to help guide you. Still, persevere and it’s a beautiful thing to work with, and the missions you can create are limited only by your skill and the time you’re willing to sink into creating them.

At the moment ArmA III isn’t so much a game as it a platform, something to be built on and expanded upon as the months and years go by,  designed by both Bohemia and fans together. As such reviewing it feels tricky: it feels like an unfinished package, and truth be told the more traditional side of me wishes that the game had not been released until the singleplayer campaign was ready to go.  I feel that a well-designed singleplayer campaign would have helped this game immensely and provided a much better springboard for new players to be introduced to the compelling but tough gameplay.

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Visually ArmA III is gorgeuous, the vast, sprawling land a sight to behold with varied terrain to tackle, although you won’t see much of it during the singleplayer expeditions – it’s not until you get into the multiplayer where having a gigantic, open map such as this makes sense.  Naturally since the map is so huge there are sacrifices made: assets are reused heavily and interiors are almost entirely barren, houses sporting not even a single chair or table, somewhat spoiling the idea that this is a place people actually live. The level of detail on character models, guns and the very ground is impressive, though, and some of the vistas are stunning. Because realism is the name of the game some of ArmA III’s land does look boring at times from a purely visual standpoint, but it creates a convincing world for you to do your soldiering.

Since there’s a lot of terrain to cover vehicles also features. Land-based stuff has a satisfying degree of weight and are easy enough to drive, but park your ass in a helicopter and that terrifying complexity and lack of explanation returns. Flying in ArmA is an art, and again without decent instruction one that is veiled in dark secrecy, making skilled pilots a valuable asset online. This challenge makes seemingly mundane tasks like landing a helicopter to pick up troops far more interesting and rewarding, assuming you eventually manage to fly the thing for more than five seconds without crashing. Master flying and you’ll feel awesome.

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ArmA III has many, many wonderous things about it, such as the lovely sound design, but the AI isn’t one of them. In fact, both friends and foes alike suffer from an artificial intelligence that I do not hesitate to describe as bloody awful, manically changing from blind, deaf, dumb and retarded to fully fledged super-soldier with God-like aim and back again, all within the space of about 3-minutes. I encountered enemy and friendly troops that fired in completely the wrong direction, got stuck in buildings, couldn’t navigate a street, failed to register my existence and would routinely run out into the open so that they could very slowly go prone before waiting about a minute and getting back up again, assuming I hadn’t gotten bored and just shot them. But then, suddenly, you might encounter an enemy that is perfectly aware of your exactly location even though they’ve not seen you, or that can spot you through thick foliage and that can deliver incredibly accurate shots the second you raise your head. As a direct result I found it nearly impossible to trust my own squad, and that battles were sometimes won purely because the enemy AI had the intellect of a small rubber duck called Bill, while other times me and my squad stood almost no chance because we had encountered a singular foe with such good aim that I became convinced he had figured out he was an artificial construct and had hacked the coding, Matrix style.

To combat this troublesome AI you could always gather up a few trusted comrades and fire up a some co-op missions, although obviously enemy AI will still remain a blemish in what is otherwise a truly awesome co-operative experience. ArmA III is a game that benefits greatly from constant communication, and having a trustworthy team of thoughtful human players allows you to implement more precise assaults, as well as making it easier to slip into the measured, tactical gameplay style that ArmA II is all about.

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Speaking of which, I really do need to delve further into the actual core gameplay behind ArmA III before you end up with the impression that I really hate the game. This is the kind of game where you move a short distance and stop to scan the surrounding area, where gunfire should be careful and controlled, where examining the map for the best approach is advisable and where a single bullet can prove to be fatal. In short, then, realism is king, and attempting a more run and gun attitude will get you killed as soon as you come in range of a foe. Firefights in open country are usually done at long-range and so bullet travel time, range and lead distance to target must all be considered. A battle against just a few foes can take several minutes as you trade shots, and if you’ve sprinted too much you’ll find it much harder to aim, though crouching or going prone can help negate that. As bullets whizz by the tension mounts, because the knowledge that just one stray bullet can can cause irreperable damage or kill you outright is seared into your brain. Meanwhile street fights are dangerous and often over much quicker thanks to the short ranges involved – they’re short and sweet bursts of intensity, though a prolonged fight where you attempt to outmaneuver the enemy by cutting through buildings provides yet another kind of joy. You spend more time planning attacks and navigating the world than you do in actual combat, yet that’s the beauty of the game: there’s a palpable sense of tension that arises from carefully closing in on your target. Firefights are tense, but so it the lead-up to them. As such ArmA III obviously appeals to a niche audience. The vast majority of people just want gratifying action on demand, something which a realistic approach doesn’t really offer. But if you are one of those people who enjoys realism, then ArmA III, despite its flaws, is life-consuming, and even now I find myself thinking about it.

It’s really a shame that the singleplayer simply isn’t there to truly get you into these mechanics, but with the massive amount of user content out there you should be able to hunt down some great missions, even if it does mean trawling through a lot of lower quality material first.

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So without much developer made singleplayer content to sink your teeth into that leaves the multiplayer side of the game. Again, there are some fairly serious frustrations to be had: finding a game can take a while as without a clan to play with you’ll often find yourself raking through loads of half-filled servers, and much of the time those servers have players largely unwilling to communicate, which as we’ve covered is one of the things that brings the game to life. Once you do find a game you’ll be dumped into the game where you’re free to roam the entirety of ArmA III’s world. While there are navigation points shown on the map in certain modes, it’s incredibly disorienting at first, and the distances to travel can be vast. Vehicles are often limited, so just one or two idiots that refuse to give you a ride can make the entire experience miserable. But once you’ve got your bearings and found a nice server the open warfare is brutal and brilliant, requiring all of the patience of playing on your own and a healthy dose of fear to boot. Playing with real people who communicate and work together is probably the closest you can come to feeling like a real soldier without actually joining the forces, although I suppose in some ways a game of paintball gives a similar effect to that of ArmA. A chopper pilot might come by and pick up your squad, and while on the way to objective a cry for help comes across the chat so the pilot makes a detour to pick up a few soldiers pinned down by heavy gunfire. The chopper lands while taking small arms fire and you and your buddies rush out, working together to rescue the stranded soldiers before boarding the chopper once again and continuing on to your original objective, where you find a town caught up in an epic firefight. Its warfare on a massive scale, and god damn does it feel good.

The bad news is that multiplayer is plagued with serious optimization issues. You might be able to run the singleplayer side of the game at a steady 60-FPS, but venture online and savage performance drops can bring that frame rate crashing down to well under 20 FPS. At first I wondered if this was an isolated issue, but after talking to dozens of people and reading numerous posts and articles it seems this is a widespread problem.

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I’ve seen fans of the series criticising other reviewers for classing many of the things I’ve touched upon as flaws, and then they often went on to tell reviewers that they shouldn’t write about the glitches and things because the developers will fix those in the coming months, so I feel it’s important to clarify a few things about this review and my attitude in general toward games. The first thing is that I’m revieiwing the game that’s available right now, I’m not reviewing what the game may nor may not be in a months time. Sure, the AI might be brilliant in a month, but on the other hand it could be worse, I simply don’t know and thus I  only talk about the game as it is currently. It doesn’t matter if there’s a free singleplayer campaign in a month, because it isn’t a part of the package that’s currently on sale, and it’s that package I’m reviewing.

Second let’s touch upon my biggest criticisms, aside from the AI. Fans often argue that the complex controls and lack of proper tutorial isn’t a bad thing, that it maintains ArmA as something for hardcore players only. My main gripe is not that the game is complex, let’s be clear about this: It’s good that ArmA III is complex because if it wasn’t then it would not be a compelling simulator, but that doesn’t mean that the control system needs to be equally complex, nor that Bohemia can’t take the time to introduce new players properly into the game, players that want to learn but struggle to get past the first few hours of frustrating deaths. No, my problem isn’t that the game is complex, it’s that the game fails miserably to communicate its  complexity.

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Naturally, with so much on offer the interface and controls are never going to be as slick as other titles on the market. Calling in support, for example, is always going to require a string of inputs in order to select the appropriate one for the situation, but there’s still so many areas where the developers could have made controlling the game much smoother. Complexity for the sake of complexity is stupid and pointless, and right now that’s how ArmA III’s interface and control scheme feels: needlessly complex, and poorly designed. Not everything needs to be explained because that would take away from discovering so many of the wonderful intricacies of the game, but the fundamental’s of the game, and the style of play, would benefit greatly from being better communicated to new players looking to shift into the simulator realms. Missing the chance to introduce Call of Duty and Battlefield players to an entirely new way of playing is, in my view, a bad thing, not something to cheerful about. Detailed explanations and thoughtful tutorials could be included for new players without ever sacrificing any of the games depth, and the option to skip the tutorials could let veterans get straight into the action.

You could, of course, argue that ArmA III is aimed at a very specific audience, and that marketing to anybody else or creating detailed tutorials for them would be a waste of resources. I’d agree with that to a certain extent because I’ve seen far too many games market themselves to gamers who just don’t care, but in the case of ArmA III I can’t help but think there’s plenty of people out there who’d be willing to play it, and fall completely in love with it, if it just wasn’t so damn intent on pushing them away. I persevered, I learned, and thus I came to love, but what about those that didn’t persevere because they grew frustrated with the awkward controls or the poor explanations? What about those who struggle to accept such flaws?

Despite my many complaints about ArmA III, and indeed this review almost comes off as entirely negative,  I do thoroughly recommend it because I’m completely and hopelessly in love with it. Once you understand what ArmA is about, understand its many intricacies, it becomes an engrossing and addictive experience. In truth it almost has more in common with an RPG, the slow pace, constant military jargon and  obsessive attention to detail and realism dragging you in, fooling you into believing you’re really a soldier. When everything comes together the game is spectacular. But it feels unfinished, and with a bit more polish and thoughtful design it could have captured the hearts and minds of so many more people. Flawed genius, is perhaps how I could best describe it.

The Good:
+ Lovely to look at.
+ Vast editor.
+ Satisfying, thoughtful, realistic gameplay.

The Bad:
– No proper singleplayer campaign.
– Could have been made far more accessible without ever sacrificing complexity.
– Serious performance drops in multiplayer games.

The Verdict: 3.5/5 – Good, bordering on great.
ArmA III is heavily flawed but utterly engaging. It’s a work in progress, and if you’re after singleplayer content you might want to wait for the free campaign to launch, but find yourself a group of good people and the multiplayer is brilliant.

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