Wot I Think: Arma 3′s Campaign

By Craig Pearson on March 28th, 2014 at 9:00 pm.

It's not too baaaaaad

I’ve played Arma 3 for about 70 hours. At least 20 of those hours involved me loading up the editor, planting a helicopter and pilot on the map, and just flying all over the island. Altis is a breathtaking creation. I can’t get over the fact that it exists. Bohemia’s main duty since October has been to create a single-player campaign that uses their remarkable creation and engine, and the final part of The East Wind series of episodes was released a short while ago. I’ve played it and completed, and here’s Wot I Think.

I wonder if the developers at Bohemia ever take a break and just explore what they’ve made? For a company willing to put in the effort of recreating a duo of real-world islands to the smallest detail they can manage, Bohemia is a surprisingly cagey game developer. Arma 3′s episodic campaign, delivered in three chunks since October last year, deals with an ever-escalating multi-force conflict tearing this quiet Greek paradise apart. There are small fights, and there are big fights, but it only rarely acknowledges the scope of the islands. It’s never as open as it could be, and though there’s a lot of good and one or two great moments, I still get the feeling that Bohemia likes to play it safe.

Each episode has a theme: the opener, Survive, starts off towards the end of a large-scale withdrawal of peacekeeping forces from Stratis, the smaller of the two islands. Just as the forces are thinned down, a massive assault is launched by a suspiciously powerful local aggressor. You survive and start consolidating the remaining troops, trying to figure out what’s going on. Apart from the brutal opening trudge across a swathe enemy-patrolled land, most of the missions are launched from a small camp hidden in the forest. You are nothing more than a grunt in this segment, taking orders and then enacting them from this hub.

To be honest, this was a bit too much for me to handle.

It’s a necessarily instructive opening, but it’s instructive in the Arma way of things. You’re not learning to duck and jump, but instead figuring out how to set-up a string of mines so a ridgeline is well protected and a medic has the time to work on a downed soldier. Though these missions are tight and controlled, they’re still hugely entertaining bursts of action and can feel more expansive than they are. One insertion takes you through a valley, aiming to rescue a team pinned down in a village. The forested valley is rammed with enemy combatants. It takes an age to assume the patience required to survive these encounters, and you learn that everything in Arma 3 needs to be deliberate and controlled at all times, even in moments of high stress, like when you’re angling yourself behind a small rock to protect your butt from the constant ding of an enemy machine gunner.

It’s a great example of something Arma 3 does well, with multiple objectives branching through most of the missions. Here, the changing parameters shift focus from the awful valley to a covering position above the village. You start firing grenades down onto the village, and from there you sneak into the village to collect a quadcopter and use it to scout for an enemy mortar encampment. Not every mission is as packed as that, but most spin something interesting, if scripted, out from the central idea.

And it’s all played out against a backdrop that you can stop and admire: columns of smoke rise over the hills as helis cautiously scan around in the distance. More than once I clicked my binoculars and spotted a trail of soldiers in the distance, walking away from the fight. They were just there. Though it’s an expressive game, it’s not a smart one: I’ve stumbled out of a forest, bleeding, the lone survivor (something that happened more than once), and the waiting team leader responded with: “Glad to see you made it in one piece.”

The truth is nothing holds together. Every mission will have moments where the AI undermines a remarkable moment of dexterity by overperforming the simple task of getting into a truck. When the second chunk of DLC, Adapt, begins, it starts with a brilliant premise: you’ve crashed when fleeing from Stratis to Altis, and you have a gun, a radio, and and nothing else. You navigate by description, crawling through a village wrecked by mortar fire and picking through the dead bodies for loot. It is the game that I’ve most wanted Arma to be: an open-world and a suggestion of where you need to be, and then being left to choose the route. I crawled through the ragged smile that used to be a pristine sea village’s beaming grin, keeping so low that not even a bee’s shadow could sneak between my body and the ground. I’d just crossed a small path when I spotted a patrol walking towards me. If I stood up, I’d be seen. If I backed away, I’d be seen. All I could do was crawl into bush and wait. They slowly approached, the leader missing my body but the trailing soldier discovered me. It was a great moment of tension, and I was almost relieved when it broke. Then the soldier fired a full-clip at me from about four feet away and managed to miss each shot.

It seems like you’ll always have those moments with the series, and though Adapt is the best episode, it does saddle you with the role of squad leader. That means you have more AI worries because you’re ordering a small squad around as you fight. In some instances, like a mission to ambush a supply truck, they’re a liability simply because of the game’s unwieldy interface. You’re asked to keep quiet and set-off bombs to stop a convoy, then follow it up with the squad. In practice, it’s a number of awkward button presses through nested menus that’s more about quickly stabbing the correct controls than it is about setting off a perfectly planned moment of attack. Things have been simplified, but not enough for it to be smooth.

But if things are kept simple, it can work well. A later mission is a brilliant return to Stratis to help a defector come over to your side. You’re there as a support act, tasked to create chaos across almost half the island so the enemy will be distracted while he’s extracted. I led the team on raids of fogged-over outpost in the gaze of a lighthouse. The valley beneath throbbed to the light spilling out from the lighthouse, and I climbed up one side and sent the team to the other, using my vantage to snipe as they slid into the camp. I could see each tiny man lit up as their muzzle flashes burst balloons of light with every bullet, and the strobing at the camp grew less and less intense as each guard died.

That mission has story consequences, but a lot your actions don’t have any effect on the story, supplies, or enemy capabilities. It’s strange to return to a camp having stolen a truck packed with gear only to have it all reset by a cut-scene, particularly when the guns and equipment you’re presented with aren’t nearly as capable as the stolen goods. I know it’s role-playing the part of a plucky guerrilla force trying to make ends meet, but it completely blocks any personal progress. You’re a syllable in a badly manspoken (“We’re going to drop a metric fuck-ton of shit on them.”) and terribly acted story that will move from beat-to-beat whether you like it or not. It’s worryingly CoD-like.

The final sequence of missions, Win, returns you to a more aggressive stance. As the fight escalates, so does the size of the individual battles. You start to feel like a cog in a machine while the larger story wheels around you. I know the Arma series long had a reputation for spectacular fights, and being stood next to artillery as it sends missiles looping into the sky is stunning, but as brash and large as the final set of missions are, they wrap the story up in an overly complicated and really unsatisfying fashion.

Not that it’s a good story, but the ending is split in two, and you only get to see both if you play a large mission through twice and make a different decision in each one. Oddly, one of those choices leads to a mission that’s almost everything I wanted from Arma, where it suggests you are alone and have the whole island to survive and escape from. But it’s also been set-up for you to completely fail, and removes the ability to save. You either escape or you die. It’s awful, and neither ending satisfactorily explains what’s going on.

Taken together with the other final mission (it manages to be even worse, because it’s just awkward and not particularly edifying), I managed to piece together a view of what’s going on, but it’s a bad story about a ridiculous thing, and Bohemia’s attempt to coyly parcel the information just grates by the end. It’s fun to play, but there’s never an attempt to fully escalate, or to even use all the assets. At no point was I in the cockpit of a tank nor a chopper.

Which is Arma through and through, really. I had fun, and this is probably the best example of standalone missions Bohemia has released for years, but they’ve yet to fulfill the promise of the engine and of their tools. They’ve come closer than ever in some missions, and the first steps on Altis and the return to Stratis show they know there’s potential in a more open and live campaign, but it seems like they’re more comfortable reining themselves in.

Arma 3 is out now.

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26 Comments »

  1. WinTurkey says:

    So is the original Operation Flashpoint (aka ARMA: Cold War Crisis) still the best for singleplayer? I picked it up at GoG, might give it a whirl.

    • CookPassBabtridge says:

      I would imagine that by this time, the community will have put together a number of singleplayer mods for ARMA II that surpass Bohemia’s SP efforts. I expect some helpful RPS chaps will be along in a Humvee any moment now to drop off some crates of MOD101 info rounds. Oo rah. Metric pig ton fuck on the .. drop.. thing, er, soldier.

    • Chiron says:

      Operation Flashpoint: Resistance was the best for Single Player, somewhat tense and while its got squad management nowhere near as much as the other games

    • DThor says:

      Personally I think Arma 3 is best single player, just not the campaign – the community missions. Yes, you need to dig through the chaff but assuming you’re on steam the workshop with comments helps immensely with that task. The primary point of this article, that the devs never take their own creation as far as it can go, is so true and the immersion value of the game is IMHO the best of the series. The older games just annoyed me, frankly, with bits of goodness sprinkled in there, 3 really puts you in that world.

  2. sinister agent says:

    Sounds pretty much like Arma 2. Great world, loads of stuff and potential, sunk by unreliable AI and dreadful interface. Arma 2 has some great user missions, but nearly all of them are basically solo (or better when you immediately ditch your dumbass teammates) for that reason.

    • Walsh says:

      Eh sort of, Arma 2′s campaign shipped badly broken with scripting bugs. Since they took their time with Arma3′s campaign, the missions work pretty well. I can’t recall running into any crazy bugs.

      One thing that wasn’t pointed out is there’s downtime in game between missions where you wander the base. You can leave the base by yourself and there are hidden side missions out in the world. Like one case I saw an enemy UAV and was tasked with hunting down the drone operators. It was pretty cool.

    • Gap Gen says:

      ArmA 2′s campaign grated quite a bit as it had a bunch of running around huge sprawling terrain coupled with quite large bugs (such as assaulting an armoured column with no AT capability, since the armoured reinforcements bugged out).

      • sinister agent says:

        I still remember how disheartened I was by the end of the first mission. Twenty minutes of “Go over to x”, then as you’re going over to x, “ONE. RETURN TO. FORMATION!” “ONE. WHERE. ARE YOU?”. Ridiculous.

  3. edna says:

    Well I agree with all of that. My 70 hours has mainly been spent enjoying the view and either following orders (which usually involves trying to work out who everyone else is shooting at) or pressing all of the number keys until I find that all-important command for my child-like AI friends.

    It is hard to understand why Bohemia didn’t open up the map a bit. A longer campaign working your way across the island would surely be both rewarding and fun. Why spend so much time setting up long, dull setpieces when all we really need is a series of objectives that we can approach in whatever way we see fit?

    Put like that it sounds awful. But I can’t get enough of it. Waited many years for such a convincing environment to muck about in.

    • Shooop says:

      MIght I suggest VAC?

      http://www.dwvac.com/
      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cmc4cgsxYu0&gl=CA

      Takes away nearly all the pain of dealing with the orders interface and helps with immersion!

    • Eggman says:

      “when all we really need is a series of objectives that we can approach in whatever way we see fit?”
      Check out multiplayer servers running coop Domination or Annex&Invade. Much more fun playing with people than the AI!

      Next step is joining a community running custom coop or pvp missions on event days (there are some open communities for this), that’s really when Arma shines.

  4. Philopoemen says:

    I got spoilt with the milspec version of VBS1 back in the day, and I’m saddened, if not overly surprised, Bohemia didn’t finangle some of the truly awesome scenarios that were put together on that for Arma3.

    As has been said, community stuff for Arma2 outshines the BI SP stuff, but Arma has always been hamstrung by the fact it wants to be a “realistic” military game without having the structure of the military in place.

  5. pepperfez says:

    That first screenshot is pretty Videogames.jpg.

  6. SuicideKing says:

    Well, i haven’t finished the campaign, because the frame rate i get in the first mission of Adapt is simply to poor for me to play properly, and since you can only save once and die frequently, i’m pretty much stuck.

    The AI also tends to have a global awareness of some sort, so if you’re seen once you’re seen by everyone everywhere, or so it seems to me sometimes.

    The other side of the equation is the sandbox and engine, i’m still at a loss why the terrain warps when i’m crawling on it, why objects keep popping in and out of view so much at a distance of 3 feet, and yeah, the nested menus. The AI has almost perfect aim at medium to long range, but tends to crap out at short range, you may or may not be able to select an enemy vehicle by pressing “TAB”, depending on your luck, damage models tend to vary considerably…

    Reflections aren’t implemented at all (there’s just this standard scene that’s made to “reflect” on glass, irrespective of where you are), picture-in-picture kills performance, bullets may or may not go through rocks (or get , etc.

    On top of that, Bohemia’s completely ignored the overwhelming requests it got to add female characters to the game (sandbox, not the campaign) for the longest of time, then decided to reply like this. (RPS has been surprisingly quiet on this, though).

    So out of my 100 hours of playing the game over the past year (since the late Alpha), I spent a good 40-50 hours testing, finding bugs and reporting them…so yeah i feel a bit…betrayed, almost, by BIS not fixing the core game before adding new stuff like Zeus mode.

    • T-wester says:

      You can change the save option to unlimited in custom difficulty settings.
      It took me several hours to optimize arma iii on my computer, but now i have 50+ frames in the campaign and depending on the server/mod, have similar results in multiplayer. The game is very CPU heavy so maybe look in to that.

    • soldant says:

      I’m not really defending ARMA3 because BIS have effectively lost me as a player with their successive inability to fix their idiot AI, but if you’re seeing graphical abnormalities it’s probably because the draw distance for them is too low. The game is quite GPU and CPU intensive.

  7. Tom Mack says:

    You say you were disappointed that you were not able to play in helicopters and tanks, but in terms of a story, you wouldn’t be able to. If i were a Corporal Rifleman, who has a core job of being an infantryman, I wouldn’t be able to fly a helicopter or drive a tanks.

    • SoupDuJour says:

      What if it’s possible to play as multiple different characters? COD 1/2/4 did this. I think this works fine. Also allows you to jump in time and place. Kind of like TV series that have multiple characters.

    • Walsh says:

      They did this in the other games. IIRC Arma 1 or OpFor, you switched between a tanker, infantryman, and some other stuff.

  8. Spakkenkhrist says:

    I just played the first mission from the adapt part of the campaign, fantastically tense and a really feeling of accomplishment finishing it, then followed by a mission which is driving from point to point.

  9. DXN says:

    Everyone should come play multiplayer with the FolkARPS crew, if you aren’t already. Not that we’re much less idiotic than the AI, of course!

  10. Erithtotl says:

    I can’t remember, was it Arma 1 or Arma 2 where enemies seemed to have infinite line of sight? Like you could be in tall grass 200 yards away and they’d never fail to pop you.

    Anyways, I’ve been toying with the idea of picking this up. I loved the original Operation Flashpoint but Arma has always seemed more trouble than fun (possibly because I don’t have as much patience anymore). I think I’ll grab this once it goes on sale again now that the full campaign is out, but I’m not paying $59.99 for it.

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