Sunday 12 September 2010

Review: A.R.M.A. II

It turns out, ten hours into Arma II, that everything great about the single player campaign I've experienced so far can be found in the demo, as well as most of the terrible parts. The terrible parts almost entirely consist of attempts to script parts of the game engine - hilarious scenes where you are liberated from capture, but your guards don't react to the flash bang attack and silenced bullets to the head until their walking animations finish playing some ten seconds later; or you encountered villagers on the road arguing about the invasion and then drive through them like a ten pin strike on your return.

And this attachment to your fellow stalkers forms early in the game, possibly at the first encampment, where other loners gather on the edge of the Zone, unsure of whether they'll move inside or stay here as outsiders. The black marketeer you start out getting missions from seems less enamoured of humanity: he points out the in-game stalker rankings and suggests you can work yourself the way up the list, perhaps by shortening it a little. He gives you assassination missions - I accepted the first, and then didn't have the guts to go through with what seemed the pointless murder of one man among many.

The great parts involve pointing your sighting reticule at a ten pixel high man a kilometer away and clicking the mouse button to make the clump of pixels fall over. It is impossible to describe how rewarding this experience this is without including the Herculean effort required to get to this point: the monotony, the battle with the overburdened control scheme (which makes perfect sense and is easy to use once you master it), the graphical and AI glitches, the lack of foreshadowing which allows you to blunder into the enemy and spend the entire firefight writhing on the ground in a pool of blood, the poor check pointing and game design which makes you wonder if you're doing the sensible thing at all. Arma II highlights the importance of authorial intent in games: not in the sense of a scripted roller coaster providing a guaranteed quotient of fun, but in the sense of 'am I doing the right thing traveling 15 real world minutes in this direction or am I just wasting my time?'. Ironically, for a game which needs this direction more than most, there is an incredible paucity of walkthroughs and FAQs on the Internet.

What keeps you attached is the relentless and inhospitable nature of the zone. The mutated beasts that roam it, and the anomalies that sparkle in the twilight. Existence is fragile here. And the world is alive and continuously changing. If you confront the pack of blind dogs, they're as likely to surround and savage you - no matter how powerful the punch your automatic weapons pack. But if you leave them alone, you'll come back to find them chewing on the body of a fellow traveller. And when you find a scoped rifle, you can watch the pack sit and play in the distance, animals to the end. Guilt grows until every encounter becomes a mess of indecision.

The first five seconds of any time you move is also great: the incredible fidelity with which your interaction with the environment around you, crawling through grass, peering around a corner, running to cover, the squeak of your rubber boots as you start a forced march, the way the grit and dust accumulates on your wind shield. The problem is the 15 minutes following those first five seconds during which you continue to crawl forward, run in a straight line, drive while staring out the tiny view port of a LAV-25, the blur of Eastern European villages and fields and meadows and forests. Especially if it's the indeterminate wait while you lie bleeding out, while the bodies of those colleagues trying to heal you accumulate around you. If this is an accurate simulation of war, then it must be even more terrifying than I suspected.

I avoided the bandits who shot at me unprovoked and bypassed the military under the bridge while they engaged in a fire fight elsewhere - but murdered my way through a checkpoint into the second zone area. I had to progress; and there seemed no other way. Then a distress call: some of my fellow stalkers were in trouble in a junkyard. A bloody and messy close encounter in which, submachine gun ammo depleted, I had to engaged point blank with a sawn off shot gun and pistol. The grass became strewn with bodies between the wreckage of old cars. I was angry that I'd been forced to this pointless existence.

Arma II has one innovation that makes it stand head and shoulders above any other open world game: you can get someone else to do the driving. Bring up the map, press space bar and click, and (provided you've marshaled everyone into the vehicle correctly) your driver will execute a ten point turn and then smoothly drive you to your destination.

One of the bandits lay dying, groaning, cursing. I aimed down the pistol at him. Damn you for this. And shot him, unblinking.

(Based on others experiences of the game, I wouldn't trust a pilot to do the same).

It wasn't until later, presented with this option again, I reconsidered. Did everyone have to die? Everyone has a name here. A roll-call of stalkers, bandits, people, some suggestive of a history, a physical defect. It shows you the name when you loot the body, to remind you, under the gun sight when you aim. I looked down the barrell of my much improved rifle at the mercenary clutching at his guts.

Arma II is a awe inspiring accomplishment of a game; but one which needs the camaraderie of multiplayer, the tyranny of others to share your miserable, muddying experience on the battlefield. Find yourself a real person to walk you through the learning curve, in the same way that you could shyly sneak down to the local game hobby shop to learn how to push around miniature armies on hexagonal paper. Read Tactical Gaming Done Right to get excited about it, then reach out to some military simulation grognards.

The enemies: When you find an injured enemy, you are not given a choice. You cannot talk to him, heal him, help him in any way. If you walk away, he'll die. You can't loot the body while he's alive. It becomes a trade-off. Guilt, as the blood spatters and the body twitches and rolls. No one carries much here: vodka, some sausage, anti-radiation drugs. The price of a life. But if you walk away, his cries follow you, pleading, angry, alone.



Ryan said...

This sounds remarkably similar to S.T.A.L.K.E.R., even down to the situations that you described. Blind dogs, military checkpoint under the bridge, junkyard battle... I had to Google "Arma 2" to make sure you hadn't mixed up the title.

Andrew Doull said...

Hmmm... something must be going on with that. Perhaps if you read the follow up review...