We’re alone in the woods. The enemy are almost upon us. There’s only one way out, and it’s through the that door… yes that one over there on our incredible seasonal advent calendar. Remain steadfast, because we never leave a man behind, not least when we’re following the finger of the one true leader of the Autobots to discover…
Jim: The other day I was watching X-Men: The Last Stand, and I commented to my girlfriend that I’d like to have the super-power of a minor character who can copy himself countless times (he’s called Multiple Man) while still essentially being the same person. My girlfriend, annoyed, said that I’d use this power to become a ninja bigamist. I laughed and said that I would, but the sad truth is that I was actually thinking about all the different me I could set to work sinking lifetimes into playing various games, or perhaps reading through the heap of books on my desk that I carefully ignore.
One game that I could sink a literal lifetime into is Arma II. I’ve reviewed a whole bunch of time-sink experiences this year, but Arma II was the game that really knocked me on my arse and had me putting in serious hours. Entire days collapsed into a fortnight, and I got little else done. Partly it was because the campaign is difficult, if not too difficult, but it was mostly because the scope of it – especially when things open up – is breath-taking.
By them time everything Arma II has to offer is in motion you are fighting a full-scale war across a huge sandbox world, with AI working against you on a number of fronts, and multiple units under your control. Despite all this, or rather because of it, Arma II has a kind of surreal edge to it. It’s brimming with that uncanny shit where you know it’s meant to be a simulation, but it’s nothing actually like real life. A lot of people find that off-putting, but I find that kind of rough outline charming in games. After all, they are only ever a model of something, and sometimes the model is rough, quirky, and may go haywire, not least if it is more ambitious than 90% of the games ever released. Arma II’s comedy bugs – tanks scared of chickens, planes running away from men with rifles – were only really possible because of the complexity of the model of soldierdom that Bohemia were trying to offer.
At a personal level I am not all that interested in the fiction of modern warfare. I’d much rather be exploring a fantasy world, or spelunking an apocalypse, but I couldn’t help getting sucked into what Arma II’s campaign was trying to do, which was to put you at the head of a huge insurgent war-machine. The scale of the world, and the fact that you were just as likely to be crawling around on your belly in the woods, as commanding a sprawling assault on a town, hooked me completely. This is one of those games where just seeing what is possible made it fascinating to experiment with. It was like being hands on with the experiences I put RTS units through every day, while still having some say at that higher level of the game.
The multiplayer aspects of the game take this further still: playing co-op was a challenging, but brilliant experience. I’d already played through a great chunk of the campaign that I then replayed co-op, but everything went down differently. Every firefight was executed in an entirely unexpected way, every objective unfolded in a different sequence of events. This is like the antidote, the antithesis, to the scripted linear sequences that we’ve been expecting from shooter from so long.
Slightly less engaging for me, but equally rewarding in a “I’m glad that shit is in my head now” kind of way, were playing group scenarios designed for players to fight AI. This amplified co-op means an entire squad of you working together, getting a chopper in to take an objective, and being shoulder-to-shoulder in nightmarish firefights. It was interesting to see an inexperienced commander leading a group, compared to an experienced one. Things that you wouldn’t even consider in less detailed shooters – such as attacking away from the sun, so you’re not blinded, suddenly become an issue. More fascinating still was the sheer scale of the vehicular simulation, that I barely touched on. People becoming dedicated chopper pilots or air support: gamers who were specialising in this specialist niche at the simulatory end of gaming.
It’s a bit of a shame that I’m alone on this one within the hivemind (no one else had much time with it) because I feel like Arma II is one of the most interesting games of the decade, even considering its difficulty and wobbly build quality. I feel as if the experience needs to be spread and shared. At least then I wouldn’t feel as bad about not having a clone Jim to sit and play it for months on end.
Almost nothing else I can think of encompasses this kind of ambition, and the single player campaign and multiplayer experiences are the kinds of experiences that could only happen on PC. This is undoubtedly one of my games of the year, perhaps of all time.