ArmA: Combat Operations Review
Pentium M 2GHz CPU
2GB DDR2 RAM
GeForce 7800GTX Go
GeForce FX or
ATI Radeon 9500 Video
128MB Video RAM
If I said there's a new military simulation out that you should try, you'd probably think I was talking about some slow, plodding turn-based strategy game. Or maybe a naval simulator. But here's one called ArmA: Combat Operations, a first person shooter that could be the most realistic one you've ever played. This is no arcade action game - this one is definitely only for the hardcore players. It's from Bohemia Interactive and it's a spiritual successor to their smash hit Operation Flashpoint.
And ArmA shares a lot of qualities with Bohemia's last game. From the large, open battlefields to a vast range of weaponry, gadgets and vehicles, you'll find that there's plenty to do here. There are multiple game modes that can be played online and offline, but the main story comes through a single player campaign. You play as an American soldier on the fictional island of Sahrani in the Atlantic. The Americans are buddies with the south half of the island, the Kingdom of South Sahrani. The NDRS in the north are the Kingdom's enemies and they're backed by Eastern European and Asian forces. When the north decides to invade and take over Sahrani once and for all, your vacation-like deployment in Sahrani turns into a vicious fight for survival.
The ArmA campaign is broken up into many missions which will have you defending southern Sahrani from the attacking forces, and eventually taking the fight to them. The first few missions are brutally difficult but as you get the hang of things and start learning a few of the game's dozens of weapons (and dozens of vehicles), things will hopefully get a little more comfortable.
But that's not to say that this is an easy game to get into. If you played and loved Operation Flashpoint, then buying this game is going to be a no-brainer. But those who are expecting a slightly more realistic version of Battlefield 2 are going to be in for a big surprise. This game is tough as hell compared to the Battlefield series, so if you want to survive either online or offline, you'll have to really master the game's ridiculously large number of controls and gain an understanding of things that Battlefield 2 doesn't even start to burden you with.
The island of Sahrani is mostly pretty plain with a couple of cities and several towns and settlements dotted throughout. Missions in this game do not limit you to only a certain area, and they don't care how you complete your objectives, either. Sure, some of the earlier missions only give you a limited selection of equipment, basically forcing you to complete your goals in a specific way, but it's not long before you start getting a choice. You'll also get a choice to jump into some side missions that, if completed, will make your life easier in the tougher main missions later. From sniping to sabotage, full on assault to defending a hardened position, there are all kinds of missions to complete - some are alone, some will be with your squad. As you gain leadership abilities, you'll be able to order them fairly effectively. The AI is decent but still flawed in many ways, both for your buddies and for your enemies. You'll see them using cover and terrain to their advantage fairly often, but other times they'll charge right at you in a straight line, begging you to take them down.
And that's another important point here. ArmA is totally unforgiving and one solid hit on you, even from hundreds of meters away, is going to kill you. There is no "easy" difficulty, so you'll instead have to learn how to hit your enemy from hundreds of meters - or at least figure out a different way to approach a fight - if you actually want to win. The learning curve here is so steep we might as well call it a learning cliff, but the game is rewarding if you can climb up it. And if you're like me, the first thing you'll do once you start it up the first time is start reconfiguring controls. Honestly, I don't think there are actually enough keys on the keyboard for everything in this game. Yes, it's that complex. You'll be able, at least, to bind functions as a double-tap of a key so you can to share a bit of keyboard space between two very similar functions.
You will likely spend most of your time in this game on foot, but that's not all you can do. There are tons of vehicles to use, from some busted old Ford Taurus-looking box on wheels all the way up to tanks, helicopters, jeeps, and boats. Some missions will require these, while others might give you the option but don't actually require them. This goes for the online play and the single player action. The land and sea vehicles are pretty easy to use, and the aircraft, while not easy, aren't quite as difficult as you might expect after playing the meticulously detailed ground game. The keyboard and mouse can be used for all actions and while joysticks are supported, they're not needed. I'd say the difficulty curve in learning the helicopters is fairly similar to the popular Desert Combat mod for Battlefield 2. Just as with the on-foot portion of the game, the damage here is very realistic; one good hit on a chopper will crash it, killing you and ending the mission.
Beyond the campaign, there are tons of other ways to play as well. You start out with the ability to "test" several weapons and vehicles, which means jumping into the game with them and getting different little missions to use them on, like racing, ferrying troops around, or a quick strafing run. Then there is the mission editor which will let you choose any part of Sahrani and create a custom battle with just about any combination of soldiers, vehicles, and weaponry (within certain limitations).
While the graphics and sounds are nothing to jump for joy over, the game doeskeep that realistic feel going at all levels. If you hear gunfire, that'snot just some ambient sound trying to add atmosphere - there's an actualgunfight going on nearby that you can join. And while the special effectsare barely better than what we saw in OperationFlashpoint, the game does include fairly good textures and an impressivedraw distance if your computer can handle it. The engine is loaded withold technology, but it does get the job done for a game likeArmA.
When you go online, you'll be treated to a full-featured multiplayer mode that lets you create games with cooperative goals between players against the AI as well as competitive matches with all different kinds of rules. There's a ranking system that allows only those with more experience to use the better equipment and vehicles, and the game's built-in communications systems make it fairly easy to work out some intermediate-level tactics, and the built-in voice chat completes it and allows the higher level of communication between teammates. One unintentionally funny part is that the key-based voice commands you give and receive have these hilarious robot-like voices that don't flow together at all. The game pieces together an order from the commanding officer from these little voice-acted fragments, but it sounds really goofy. I can't ever get enough of "3... TAKE OUT... THAT........MAN".
Unfortunately, the worldwide release of ArmA, also known as Armed Assault in Europe and other territories, has not gone too smoothly. Early versions of the game were loaded with bugs, but now the non-US versions are up to v1.05 and a lot of the more aggravating bugs have been squashed. The US version is 1.06, however, and it means Americans can't play on the same servers as Europeans. Considering the huge popularity of Bohemia's games in Europe and their relative obscurity in the US, it'll be nice for American gamers when every copy of the game can update to the same version.
Since Operation Flashpoint was released several years back, we've seen the popularity of the Battlefield games skyrocket. For those who started on the latter, then the move to the slower, more brutal instant-death action in ArmA is going to be a serious shock to the system. An "easy" difficulty in the single player campaign might have helped make the transition towards the realism in this game a little more accessible, but as it is, be prepared to break a couple of keyboards in the process of learning how to succeed in ArmA. Once you do, though, this game is certainly worth the price of admission.