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Arma 2 Multiplayer: The Ruined Midsummer

As an ambitious, macho, overwhelming soldier sim, you might think Armed Assault 2's multiplayer is perhaps ambitious, macho or overwhelming. Well, you'd be WRONG! Drop and give me 20! Less than 20 is fine if you can't quite manage that! Oh, you just ate? Never mind then. I'd feel dreadful if you got indigestion. Basically, playing Armed Assault 2's official missions co-op might be a bit of an undertaking, but a mass of community missions offer an experience that's a little less Falklands War and more Tropic Thunder. If you're sitting on the fence as to whether Arma2 is for you, the following might just manhandle you off it.

This is a description of the evening I had with my friend, Egg, which can only be described as casual-Arma2-fun-for-casual-friends-who-like-a-good-time-that's-alright. After setting up voice comms and installing the new 1.5 patch (featuring such delicate fine-tuning as "Helicopters now destroyed if on the ground and upside-down"), Egg and I began picking community missions at random. Let the record show that while we plan to become competent Arma2 soldiers and tackle the official missions professionally, we're not there yet. We can't orienteer, know nothing about small unit tactics, and can't fathom the game's awkward ordering system. Currently, all we have going for us is chutzpah and fearlessness.

The first mission of the night informed us that Russians had "ruined our midsummer", and instructed us to get revenge by capturing some explosives and then using them to destroy something on our map that was just labelled as "guns" (it also advised that if we could find a computer we could do the lottery on the way). As the mission began we were given control of a picnic of Eastern European hicks.

Raiding the box of equipment near our spawn, I came up with a hunting rifle while Egg got a shotgun. He then spent a minute trying to figure out how to order our four AI hick buddies to arm themselves from the box while I watched a bugged rabbit a few feet away vibrate wildly up and down the length of a blade of grass. Egg eventually concluded the AI wouldn't touch the box for some reason, and so the six of us went jogging off to war with two guns.

Something worth adoring about Arma2 is how there's a sense of gravity and heroism that's built into the engine itself. No matter how ludicrous or ramshackle the mission, you can't shake that slow pace, those sweeping landscapes, or the simple nature of the game as an immersive sim with no respawns, meaning something as dull as trekking through woodland or waiting for a team-mate to finish scouting ahead can be curiously riveting.

After a few minutes of hot compass action Egg, and I reached the edge of the Russian encampment where the explosives were being stored, the two of us sprinting as close as we dared before flinging ourselves to the ground in an approximation of military stealth. In horror I glanced back to see our oblivious AIs sauntering up behind us, stood bolt upright like hikers. I had to tell Egg to tell them to get down while watching the encampment through my scope, praying I'd be able to take out anyone who spotted us. Cue seven or eight very, very long seconds as our AIs tucked themselves into the undergrowth, yet no Russians materialised. I could see a mobile radar truck, an APC and two tents, but no signs of life.

This is Arma2's party piece; the burning unease and adrenaline that comes from simply not knowing what's going on or what's going to happen. A kind of idiocy blues.

Egg began snaking closer to the clearing to bring his shotgun into range.

"I see one," I heard Egg say through our comms. What? I couldn't see anyone. My view of the base was still a bit obscured by the treeline. Egg snaked closer.

"Alright," I said. "You make a break for some cover inside the base, I'll cover you with the rifle." This ended up being my first learning experience of the evening. I'm not totally sure why I told Egg I'd cover him when I couldn't see a goddamn thing. I think it was just the lure of speaking such a correct and manly bundle of words. Egg made a break for it, and I watched his little woolly-hatted form go heaving across the grass to come to a stop right in my blind spot. The gunshots began immediately.

"TAKE HIM DOWN," cried Egg.

"Take who down? I can't... hang on..." I mumbled, then held down the D key to send my avatar crawling sideways to try and bring the action into sight. The gunshots didn't stop. There was the strong sound of Egg's shotgun, but also a much scarier repeating thudding coming from further away. Swssh, swssh, went the grass as I wormed my worried bulk over it inch by inch.

"OVER BY THE TREES," Egg screamed. I still couldn't see a soul. This was no good. Then there was a slightly different banging sound, followed by a fierce burst of grey smoke roughly where Egg must have been. A rocket?

"Okay!" I told Egg, elated. "I'm starting to see things! I can see smoke! Hang on." Then Egg got shot, which was a shame.

Our second mission of the night was a similar award-winning success. After decoding a briefing screen written entirely in French we found ourselves in a transport plane roaring through a stormy night. Sat opposite each other in the menacing metal cabin, we each hovered nervous fingers over the parachute button until Egg realised the plane was headed for a landing strip in the distance, and even lowering its altitude accordingly. We relaxed, at which point the plane blew up, killing us both. Shot out of the sky by anti-air weaponry? Optimism. The AI had just botched the landing and driven the nose of the plane into the tarmac. NEXT.

The third and final mission was, however, the kind of thing I'd recommend people buy Arma2 for. A daylight raid to blow up a couple of targets on a small island, Egg and I quickly got bogged down in a firefight on the outskirts of a tiny village as the island's defense force zeroed in on us. The AI's use of suppressive fire has been fixed in 1.5, resulting in the harrowing experience of hearing near-constant gunfire, yet having to rely on discreet whistling noises or small puffs of dirt to know if any of it's actually aimed at you.

We were doing okay for a while, which was thrilling. Camped in heavy cover on the western outskirts of the village, we brought down enough advancing soldiers with long-range fire to trigger a retreat. Minutes later came Egg's frenzied transmission that we had "shitloads" of enemy soldiers who'd crept up to the north side of the village while we'd been busying ourselves with self-satisfied pot shots. Abruptly, the calm pace of the game was broken. I'd had no idea there were enemy troops behind us, and now they could be around any corner.

The absolute most dangerous thing in Arma2 is an unknown variable. Helicopters, tanks, whole squads of enemy soldiers can all be dealt with if you know they're coming and where from. Unlike other shooters, where situations generally arrange themselves into "tough" or "easy" and must be dealt with regardless, in Arma2 situations are either "bad" or "good" and there is often /no winning/ the bad situations. As a result Arma2 plays like a tug of war with death, where every time you lose spatial awareness or control of your surroundings death gives a good, firm yank on the rope. Considering this is a game where a single bullet can kill anybody, it's bizarre how slowly you feel the noose tightening around your neck.

Back in our game we fell back to try and evict these new visitors from the village, which was an amazing and horrible time. The one thing worse than rounding a corner and unexpectedly seeing three enemy soldiers forty feet away is rounding a corner /expecting/ to see soldiers and not seeing any. As we crept through the village, guns readied, I learned that better than any game I've played all year Arma2 can fill a silence. It packs that silence with dread and tension and zips it up again like a chicken kiev.

In another minute it all kicked off. Needless to say our blind assault of a now-fortified village didn't go very well, and I ended up the sole survivor of our team, sprinting away from the town as what sounded like a half-dozen enemy troops fired at me in a miserable reversal of roles. Yeah, we'd failed again, but we'd at least tasted success.

What I want you to take away from this is that Arma2 doesn't have to be the ponderous boot-camp learning experience that its majestic, tough campaign might imply, and you don't have to know what you're doing for it to be fascinating. The basic controls can be learned in minutes, allowing you to learn the rest of the game with a friend or three as you murder and muddle your way through some multiplayer. Incompetence might bar the way to heroism in other games, but not here, and from what Jim's said it only gets better. I'll be posting some revised, more experienced impressions of the multiplayer in a couple of weeks. For now, I think I'll have a shot at flying a helicopter. Dismissed!

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