Two! Target that! Man! Five hundred! Meters! To the! South west!
The ARMA series and myself have somewhat of a love-hate relationship. I’ve been playing the series since Operation Flashpoint: Cold War Crisis (back when it was owned by Bohemia), and while it gets better with each release, I’m also left slightly disappointed. To be fair, there’s nothing like the ARMA series. For a combined arms military simulation it’s the best in show because nobody else even attempts it. But over the years a number of endemic issues have never been properly dealt with. ARMA3, the latest instalment currently in public alpha (provided you preorder, and their asking price is relatively fair), is supposed to fix a number of these problems. It’s early days, but does it look promising?
I have a few major issues with the series. Firstly, infantry combat is terrible, and yet it’s an integral part of the game. Infantry have traditionally been treated as little vehicles, which increases immersion since you have an actual body in the game, but it also led to ridiculous collision detection issues, particularly around houses. Also the aiming system was terrible unless you played with the deadzone. The AI can’t drive, frequently couldn’t take cover, and would sometimes fail to execute orders for absolutely no apparent reason. Performance has always been abysmal, particularly on release. Vehicle physics have always been strange. All of these issues date back to the very first game.
The good news is that there’s improvement, even this early in! The bad news is that some things show no signs of changing at all.
Aiming has been fixed. You don’t need to play around with the deadzone setting anymore, it handles much more like a traditional FPS. Some will cry that they’ve “dumbed down” the game with this, but the previous aiming mechanic was a joke. It doesn’t matter how much you try, swinging the mouse will never be as real as aiming an actual rifle, so BIS finally figured that it was time to stop screwing around and let people actually aim properly for a change. The crosshair has also changed – there’s no pinpoint aiming pipper, it’s just a cross that changes in size to illustrate shot grouping accuracy. The crosshair also properly follows the barrel of the rifle, so if there’s an obstruction in the way you’ll know. Red dot scopes and reflex sights are properly implemented too.
Movement is still a bit dodgy with collision detection, but BIS sure did make it a lot more flexible! It’s now easier to walk and sprint with new key bindings, and there’s also a new tactical move speed which is in between running and walking in speed, but still allows you to keep your weapon raised. In addition each stance has a number of substances. For example when crouching you can go into a high crouch, a low crouch, or sit down on your butt. Often in ARMA2 you’d come across cover that was just too high to shoot from or just too low to actually protect you. These problems are a thing of the past! A lot of keys have been rebound from their ARMA2 defaults (which was mostly the same as ARMA, which was similar to OFP), most notably that “G” does not open up the Gear but does throw a grenade.
Speaking of gear, BIS are opening up a load of new options for customisation. You can equip all sorts of weapons and various attachments, as well as totally customise your uniform. I don’t quite know where they’re going with this, but it’ll be interesting to watch. Uniform choices aren’t totally cosmetic either – they come with various gameplay features, like added protection. The SCUBA uniform allows you to swim underwater with a rebreather. Yes, the empty space under the water layer is now useful. Does this mean we’ll see submarines? I hope so. There are also lots of rendering improvements for the vehicles, including working mirrors and reversing cameras, and even in-vehicle aiming systems. The viewscreen in the car actually works like a proper viewscreen – the image below is actually showing the turret aiming camera controlled by the mouse.
The AI do have some improvements, but not many. The voice commands are way faster and less robotic than before, but it’s still early days so some commands may be missing. Units are a lot more chatty too – they shout out “Cover me!” and “Moving!” and “Reloading!” more frequently than they did in ARMA2, but they don’t seem to count as radio broadcasts. The AI also seem to move a lot more than they used to – in ARMA2 they’d either run headlong into danger, or crawl around at a snail’s pace. They seem a bit more dynamic and fluid in the alpha, so they’re not quite as frustrating to work with.
Although there are some AI improvements, there are still major problems. They still sometimes fail to find cover properly and still have weird reaction issues where they have a stroke or something and ignore you. This may improve with time but it’s been around since OFP so I don’t have high hope for it. Also the driving behaviour is identical to ARMA2… which was identical to ARMA… which was identical to OFP… and incidentally was identical to their latest Carrier Command mission. In other words, they can’t drive for shit. Yes, yes, it’s an alpha, but BIS have never managed to fix it, so I highly doubt that they’ll fix it this time.
Performance wasn’t good out of the box. It was highly inconsistent – some areas worked absolutely fine, others would tank for no discernable reason. I added in a command line value to change the maximum video memory and to manually define the number of available CPU cores, and this vastly improved performance. I’m getting about the same performance out of ARMA3’s alpha as I did out of ARMA2, but with a 3.2km view distance versus 2.2km in ARMA2 with roughly the same level of visual fidelity. That’s somewhat impressive but there are still endemic issues with the engine which BIS need to focus on fixing well before they mess with anything else.
The command system isn’t much better. The only big improvement is that SPACEBAR now issues orders instead of LMB, which lets you defend yourself with units still selected. But really the entire thing should have been totally scraped and sent back to the drawing board. Ordering movement and targeting commands still feels like a mess. Yes, it’s an alpha, but just scrap it. We don’t need so many commands.
If you like ARMA, then yes, you absolutely should buy into the alpha. Not necessarily because the alpha is good, but because the price will go up during beta, and the final will probably be about double the current price, so if it’s your bag of rice you’d be better off getting it now even if you don’t play it. If you remain unconvinced by the previous titles in the series then it’s not worth it – nothing much has changed just yet, and to be blunt I don’t think BIS will manage the revolution that they’ve been promising. Some steps have been made, and the change from ARMA2 to ARMA3 is noticeable, but they’ve got such a long way to go and the issues have been around for so long that I doubt they’ll ever manage to get there. There’s not a lot of content to play with, so unless you like playing with your sandbox of toy soldiers in the editor, you’ll tire of it pretty quickly.
Honestly though, even if ARMA3 was released in full right now, I wouldn’t pay much more than the $34 AUD asking price. I’ve supported BIS for many, many years now (well over a decade) and the endemic issues with the series never go away. If BIS manage to fix these problems (or at least make them somewhat better) then it’ll be worth the price of admission, but I sure wouldn’t pay full price for an ARMA game anymore. There are just too many broken promises.
That said, the alpha is quite positive and does take steps towards recovery. But whether or not the main issues will ever be fixed remains to be seen.