ARMA2 – Operation Arrowhead Review

TWO, ATTACK, THAT, TANK, 100 METERS. OH NO! TWO! IS DOWN!

Yeah I know that DisCONNECT’s update schedule ranks somewhere between “casual” and “VG Cats updates more often than this” but… I don’t have an excuse, plus it’s Engineer Update time and… so on. Anyway, enjoy yet another incoherent review!

Once upon a time, a developer called Bohemia Interactive Studios made a game. They called it Operation Flashpoint. It was a military simulation, and it was good. Then Codemasters, the publisher, and BIS had a fight, and BIS and Codemasters parted ways. BIS released Armed Assault, and it was not so good. Codemasters released Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising, and it was shit. BIS released ARMA2, and it was good. And I can’t remember where I’m going with this, can we start over?

BIS are probably best known for the ARMA/OpFlash series, and as a massive fan of the series, I have to own every single game and play them and tear them to pieces like any good fanboy should. For those who are late to the party, this series is part sim, part fun; it’s designed to somewhat simulate an actual battlefield with combined arms. Think a bit of those cool scripted sequences in CoD4 where you’re flying into that place which gets nuked, and all those choppers are flying around and killing stuff. It’s a bit like that, except not scripted and nowhere near as cinematic. Alternatively, think Battlefield but with lots more realism. It’s not 100% realistic but it goes much further than other games. It’s less of an FPS and more of a sim, allowing you to play as infantry, drive tanks and other vehicles, or fly helicopters or other aircraft. You can command units from the strategic level right down to the squad level, or just play as a grunt. Just about the only thing it doesn’t do is simulate naval operations.

ARMA2 was pretty good; it got back to the old OpFlash feel. Armed Assault before it was less good; it was too generic and it was a bug riddled mess on release. To be honest that describes practically every release in the series; they don’t start to become fully playable until about 4 patches down the line. Even Resistance, the expansion pack for OpFlash, took a few patches until it matured enough to be fully playable. Then again these games are monsters in complexity behind the scenes, so the community can forgive a few problems.

OA is one of those weird “stand alone expansion packs” in that you don’t need to own ARMA2 to play it, but if you do own ARMA2, you can integrate all of the ARMA2 content with the slightly newer OA engine, getting the best of both worlds through a new mode called “ARMA2: Combined Operations.” OA itself though focuses on a conflict in a nation called “Takistan”, but for the purposes of this review you might as well read that as “Afghanistan”, “Iraq”, or if you’re Sarah Palin, “Iranistan”. The country’s stability has turned to shit, blah blah blah, allied forces are deployed which consists almost entirely of the US army, plus a handful of guys who are German. There’s also an independent UN force. On the enemy side are the Takistani regulars, and insurgents. There are also independent guerrilla forces and civilians, so that you can fulfill all your friendly fire/collateral damage fantasies. There’s a host of new units to play with across all categories, as well as a few new toys for you to play with. Thermal imaging is probably the best feature added to some of the US vehicles, as well as a flashlight for infantry. There’s also a new ULB, a remote controlled Littlebird that can be used to guide Hellfire missiles from an AH-64 to their target. Before playing with anything, if you’re new to ARMA2 you’ll have to play through the tutorials to get used to how everything works; the game is pretty unforgiving at times, so you don’t have much opportunity to “learn on the fly”.

The campaign is fairly interesting, if pretty standard. BIS haven’t come out with a good campaign since OpFlash, and the offering here is pretty short to be honest. You basically play as US forces in various roles trying to bring stability to the country. There aren’t many missions and the campaign alone doesn’t last very long. Past that there are a few additional separate missions you can play for a bit more entertainment, but they’re also very short. This isn’t really a problem though because as any fan knows, the real draw of games like OA are in the community content and the editor. There are countless addons for the series made by the community which simulate almost every modern army in the world, as well as other conflicts like World War 2 and Vietnam. The engine additions in OA will make things much more interesting. There are always missions and new content being created for the game. There’s also a very active multiplayer community, but breaking in is hard to do; the community range from “over enthusiastic gamers” to “outright elitist arseholes”, and people can be either helpful to the point where they offer you a full 28 day training course on how to be a virtual rifleman to raging lunatics insisting you call them “sir” and spouting all this military jargon. To be fair some of the community are soldiers in real life, but there’s also a lot of armchair troopers who haven’t so much as played paintball who insist on being experts.

If you get bored with all of that though the editor makes up for all of this, acting as a big sandbox where you can put all sorts of objects in and create your own little conflicts. The basics of the editor are very easy to understand, and because the editor exists in the game itself you’re not quitting, loading the editor, and then booting the game up to give it a try. For complex missions there’s a scripting language you can learn, but if all you want to do is see who would win between 8 main battle tanks and 20 AT teams, or set up an attack on a town by US forces defended by insurgents, there’s no scripting to know, just a bit of clicking. If you’ve got ARMA2 all of the content from ARMA2 can be accessed too.

The engine itself seems to be slightly updated from ARMA2 but then again this is simply an expansion, not a full rewrite, so I’m not expecting miracles. Probably the best change can be seen in the parachute training mission; the soldier actually stands on the floor of the aircraft and can walk along it while it’s moving. Fans of the series will know that something as simple as this has been a nightmare for the game; walking on a moving object, or even standing on one, has long been difficult (or flat out impossible) for the engine, so to see it implemented is fantastic news and I can’t wait to start walking the decks of a moving aircraft carrier. Performance is so-so; you need a powerful machine because there’s an awful lot of processing going on here (this is a sim, and each unit has AI behind it on top of a lot of other calculations) but even powerful machines will suffer performance problems. This will probably improve with patches, but still don’t expect silky-smooth performance. The AI still need work, particularly the driving AI. Fans know how terrible the AI are at driving, but in OA it seems to be worse. They have a lot of trouble staying in formation and sometimes take stupid routes to get to their locations. The AI for soldiers tends to bounce between “good” and “braindead”. Most of the time the AI work reasonably well, but sometimes they act completely oblivious to their environment. I have noticed the AI are much better at taking cover and navigating, but at other times they sit there without a clue on what’s going on around them. At times it’s possible to mow down an entire squad without any of them pinpointing your position. The series have typically had AI that are either far too aware of their surroundings, or completely oblivious; there doesn’t seem to be a middle ground. That said things like bushes, smokescreens, tall grass and so on actually do affect AI LOS, so maybe their awareness is actually more realistic than we think.

Probably the best change is in the interface for more casual players; the interface is much better than in the previous games. The radar is now a full 360 degree radar view as opposed to only marking target at the top of the screen that are within your view, and it also indicates the direction you and the turret (if equipped) are looking compared to the front of the vehicle, handy for tanks or helicopters. The fuel gauge is much more obvious and prominent, and the damage indicator is no longer an arbitrary armour value but instead shows the status of the individual systems, indicating that your instruments for example have been shot to pieces, or the left track of your tank has been blown off. The command interface is the same as ARMA2, which was an improvement on Armed Assault (which was an improvement on OpFlash) but I still think it’s overly complex and is designed to compensate for a lack of AI, but then again with practice it’s still easy to work with. The physics for vehicles seem about the same but helicopters seem to be easier to control and more forgiving. I still can’t forget the initial Armed Assault helicopter physics, which felt like the entire thing was slung underneath a rail or something.

So, to summarise…

GRAPHICS: Good
OA is a pretty good looking game, with a massive viewdistance (which you can actually make use of) and some good visual effects. That said you need a hell of a box to play it well; I have an i7 920, HD5850, 4GB RAM running Win7 x64, and mine lagged a bit in some places.

SOUND: Good
The sound simulation is pretty good in OA, but the infamous AI voices are back with a vengeance. The other sounds are fairly good but remember it’s not very cinematic, it’s more realistic.

GAMEPLAY: Excellent
This is probably the best combined arms military sim that strikes a balance between playability and simulation available. You can do so much, and there’s so many addons (or there will be as time goes by) that the lifetime of this product is measured in years. OpFlash was released back in 2001, and it’s still alive today with addons (though much of the community now focuses on ARMA2, and by extension OA).

LIFESPAN: Excellent
See above.

OVERALL: Good
If you didn’t like the previous games, or you aren’t looking for a sim, don’t bother applying. OA is an improvement of ARMA2 with new content in a new setting, it is not radically different and therefore for people who want something different. The additional content, the engine changes, and the price make it pretty damn attractive, and the community will step in and pick up the slack to make it an absolutely outstanding product. There’s just so much to do in this game, even if the campaign and single missions are pretty short. The improved interface for vehicles makes them more accessible, or you can go veteran style and ignore them. There are a few features, like countermeasures, which I haven’t even mentioned, but you can read up on them elsewhere. If you’re interested in military sims, I’d pick up OA and then if you like it, get ARMA2 as well. If you’re a fan of the series I know you’re going to buy it anyway, and you know that too, so let’s just join hands around a goddamn campfire and sing songs or something. OA has a few flaws and there are a few bugs, but every game in the series starts off on the same road, and the patches will improve it. ARMA2’s initial release wasn’t smooth and had quite a few bugs, but they ironed them out. Armed Assault’s first release was terrible to the point where it was practically unplayable. OpFlash was barely playable too. If you’ve got the patience, there’s a massively rewarding game here with a huge lifespan.

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