If you’ve played previous BIS games then you’ll be immediately at home with ArmA II’s action, but if you’re new to this style game then you’ll probably feel a bit intimidated by how complex and unforgiving it can be. One minute you’re making decent progress through an occupied village; the next you’re on your belly screaming as the screen warps and distorts in pain. Thankfully your mates may be able to save you if your enemies fail to kill you outright with an attack, and you’ll certainly find yourself returning the favour – dragging your buddies into cover so that you can administer some life-saving first aid. Even on the easiest setting, you may be surprised by the speed with which things can fall apart, although the game helpfully gives you the option of highlighting allied and enemy troops – a useful setting, since you’ll rarely have time to spot your enemy if you come under unexpected fire. On the flip-side, you can also turn off almost all the guides and help systems in the game, making for a truly hardcore experience.
After you’ve progressed a few missions into the game, things start to open up. It’s at this point that the game gets really interesting, since you’re essentially given free reign to do what you want. As a general rule, the game tends to give you a very broad goal or set of objectives before abandoning you to your own devices. This freedom is quite breath-taking when it first arises, but it’s also rather scary. One early mission, for example, tasks you with finding a pair of communist warlords who’ve gone on the run. You’re given a few places to start looking, but in a nutshell they could be anywhere on the map – all 225 square clicks of it. You can call in a helicopter to ferry you around the map, and you can commandeer pretty much any vehicle you find, but it’s a bit of a head-spinner all the same – particularly as the game is fairly reticent about giving you concrete pointers. If you interrogate the locals you might get a decent tip-off, but there’s no definitive answer as to where your target might be. It’s the antithesis of a linear experience like CoD 4, and as a result you’ll need a hell of a lot of patience and dedication to beat the level.
Things get even more complicated later on, and before long you’ll find yourself roaming the map with a list of 10 objectives to meet as you see fit. Later still you’ll find yourself dealing with RTS-style elements, commissioning new units and building an entire base from scratch. It’s a wet dream for armchair generals, especially when you factor in how amazing all the vehicles and the landscape looks. Unfortunately, however, all this complexity comes at a price: the last ArmA was widely criticized for the number of bugs it contained, and while this sequel isn’t as bad it still has quite a few problems. The game’s initial release in Germany (via publisher Morphicon) was met with a raft of complaints from users, ranging from complete crashes to mission triggers that failed to, well, trigger. This 505 release seems far more stable, but I still suffered a few bugs – particularly when one of my guys got injured and someone else had to take command. At one point Cooper was left bleeding and screaming in a jeep; no-one would come to help him, and I was somehow unable to switch to O‘Hara (my medic) to do the healing myself.
Normally these issues wouldn’t be too bad, but unfortunately BIS has elected to give the player only as single save slot. While this undoubtedly creates a certain degree of tension, since in-mission choices have a greater degree of consequence, it also means that a bad bug could screw an entire level, forcing you to restart from scratch and losing several hours work. My other main complaint concerns the behaviour of AI controlled characters. While your team-mates and adversaries are amazingly competent when moving about on foot – flanking, taking cover and generally looking after their digital selves – they tend to be less effective in vehicles. I found my personal chopper-chauffeur to be a particularly bad offender in this regard. Sometimes he’d “pick me up” by hovering some 20 feet above my head, forcing me to run away to another spot before re-requesting the lift. At other times he’d insist on landing on the roofs of houses, forcing my squad to break their legs as they disembarked. On one occasion, I foolishly saved the game moments before he was due to land – only to find that he insisted on lowering the ‘copter onto a lethal set of power lines. If we hadn’t all died in the crash, I’d have killed the bugger myself.
For what it's worth, Red Harvest boasts a fairly decent plot that approaches war in an intelligent manner while still finding room for plenty of explosive hijinx. The game certainly doesn’t shirk away from the darkness or moral ambiguity of armed conflict, and while the plot branches in a few key areas there isn’t really a good or bad path to take – you make your decisions based on your instincts, and then later on you deal with the consequences. The subtitled Russian dialogue is an excellent touch but the English voice acting is somewhat patchy, and this along with the rather wooden “acting” of the human characters unfortunately detracts from the impact of certain scenes. Elsewhere the game serves up a decent array of thumping rock tunes and sombre orchestral pieces that nicely complement the mood of the game, while the sound effects for weapons and vehicles are largely very impressive. You can actually hear when someone’s taking potshots at you, and trust me when I say that it’s damned scary.
Make no mistake, ArmA II is most certainly a hardcore title. Aside from the technical issues I’ve mentioned, its biggest problem is simply its own nature: it’s massively in-depth, and that will always be off-putting to some people. Could BIS have made it more accessible? Perhaps, but at the same time I’d much rather have an ambitious game like this, even with its obvious flaws, than a simpler experience that dumbs down to its audience. Later this year we’ll be inspecting Codemasters’ own Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising, and while I have little doubt that it will be a more user-friendly product, I highly doubt that it’ll offer the same degree of heart-stopping scale. This is the kind of experience that makes PC gamers proud of their machines, and I simply don’t think it could work on another platform – although obviously I’d love someone to prove me wrong.
In an age where most developers are reaching out to embrace casual gamers, ArmA II is something of a refreshing exception. It is unashamedly ambitious in its design and execution, embracing rich complexity at the expense of accessibility. It is a game that makes you work for your fun, and that asks you to overlook a good deal of awkwardness, as well as a fair few technical hiccups – though I am sure that these will be sorted with future patches. If, however, you have the perseverance to stick with the game through thick and thin, to learn its ropes and to immerse yourself in all it has to offer, then ArmA II will last you for years.