Okay, so you’ve probably gotten the message by now. I’ve written three previews for this game over the past nine months, and with hindsight I realise that they’ve all been making the same three points: a) ArmA II is awfully pretty, b) ArmA II is absolutely massive and c) ArmA II is cruelly realistic.
All these observations remain well and true, but I won’t spend too much time making them for a fourth time. What I will say is that these are likely to be the first three observations that you yourself will make, should you take the plunge and buy this game. “Ooh, isn’t it pretty?” you’ll cry as you explore the island of Chernarus for the first time. “Wow, isn’t it huge!” you exclaim, as you realise the full extent of your virtual playground. “Bloody hell!” you’ll scream, as an unseen enemy fires a bullet into your digital skull, prematurely ending your game.
In simple terms, ArmA II is the world’s greatest set of toy soldiers - an ultra-comprehensive military sim, playable from first or third-person perspectives, that lets you play around with everything from a T-72 tank to a MV-22 Vertical Take-Off and Landing jet. There are sniper rifles, Stinger missiles, laser target designators… there are even bicycles, for pity’s sake (although your soldiers seem to ride them with an incredible sense of balance; you can grind to a halt and they’ll remain bolt upright). The game is packed with literally hundreds of vehicles, tools and weapons – all of them painstakingly modeled on their real-life counterparts. The main question, initially, is how exactly you’ll choose to play with them.
There’s a campaign mode, naturally – we’ll look at this in a moment – but there are also a spread of other options. There’s a boot camp to help you learn the game’s many features and controls; there’s also a ready-made set of seven missions that allow you to jump straight into the action without the distraction of an on-going plot. There’s also something called the Armory – an interactive library that provides a simple way to check out every model in the game. If you’re feeling lazy you can just sit back and watch a video of your chosen weapon/vehicle/character in action, but a more fun option is to take the item in question out for a spin. You’ll be free to mess around to your heart’s content without the fear of someone attacking you, and at short intervals you’ll be offered mini-challenges to try; you might have to reach a certain point on the map, take down a certain number of targets or race against the AI. Completing these mini-tasks will unlock new models, including all the wildlife that roams the 225 square km of Chernarus. So far I’ve evaded poachers as a stealthy hen and helped to guide a photorealistic sheep around a makeshift obstacle course. Fun times!
As enjoyable as the single missions and Armory are, the meat of ArmA II lies with the campaign and with the world of community gaming that follows. Or to put it another way, after completing the main story you’ll be a battle-hardened commander, ready to take on whatever the internet can throw at you. As with the previous ArmA (and, indeed, Operation Flashpoint before it), this is a game that has been built with an online following in mind. Not only can you can play through the whole of the campaign with the help of three friends, but in multiplayer you can have up to 50 participants fighting over the entire map – each of them controlling their own battalions of troops and vehicles. On top of that, there’s an extremely powerful set of editing tools for building your own missions. Considering that people are still making stuff for the original Op Flash some eight years after its initial release, you can expect to see plenty of new user-generated content in both the near and distant future.
Before you start to delve into all that good stuff, you’ll probably spend most of your time with Red Harvest – ArmA II’s main campaign. Bohemia Interactive Studios has admitted that this was one area that was sorely lacking in their last game, and as a result it’s clear that the Czech developer has put a lot of effort into making amends this time around. Red Harvest has around 12 missions for you to work through, and by the time you reach the story’s bloody end you’ll be trained in most – but not all – of the combat arts that the game has to offer (HALO insertions are mysteriously absent from the campaign, despite their presence in the training missions. I guess that’s something for the community coders to play with).
Now, 12 missions may not sound like much, but what you’ve got to bear in mind is that each of these assignments can and will last several hours on one play through. The first two or three outings are relatively straightforward, providing you with a chance to get acquainted with the fiercely harsh realities of infantry combat. You’ll also get to grips with the four controllable members of Razor Team, the gutsy recon unit you follow throughout Red Harvest. Your team consists of one grenadier/translator, one sniper, a heavy weapons expert and a medic, giving you access to a wide range of talents. You can switch any of the four scouts as you wish, though only Cooper the grenadier can issue commands to the others.