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.
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.