Alec and Jim have both had the pleasure of some time with Arma II recently, and so we sat down to discuss our impressions of the formidable-looking soldier game. We even allow ourselves to get a bit giddy before the cynicism sets in. Could Bohemia's soldier game really be as incredible as it seems? Four-player co-op in a sandbox world appears impressive enough, but with everything else that's going on... well, what could it mean?
Alec: Arma II, then: a bit like being beaten up by a very large man, but enjoying the challenge of it.
Jim: I think the large man will try to trick you too, it's a big brain game, as well as pure tech muscle.
Alec: So, Arma II then: Einstein on a roidrage. It's the maxi-game - almost the nexus of everything PC. That it escalates from being a guy with a gun, to a guy with a helicopter, to a guy that orders around an entire army and who can build bases, is extraordinary.
Jim: It does seem a bit like GAMING SCIENCE, they're experimenting with what can go into the mixture of a game: and, yes, there's even a touch of RTS in there for the ending open-world stages. The problem for me is that I skipped ArmA entirely, thanks to the complaining, and have no reference for it. OpFlash I played a bit, dabbled in some editing, and did some general running about in mods and missions. But I don't really know what ArmA did, other than it was buggy.
Alec: From what I gather, ArmA 1 was mostly about earning some cash and getting the tech from the xbox port of Flashpoint into the hands of fans. This is the real sequel, the once-mythical Game 2.
Jim: Yeah it does seem to be operating like that, there's clear ambition that they needed to fund: open world, complex AI, loads of vehicles, vast editing options, co-op campaign, dynamic faction stuff. It's full of random details, like only one of your American combat team being able to speak the local language, and have to translate for the others. It's that kind of design that only tends to come from Eastern devs now: where getting loads of stuff in is more important than getting it right.
Alec: I pick up a vague Stalker vibe from it, only without the sci-fi element and, as far as I can tell, without that custard-thick atmosphere. That attracts me to it - yet I'm held back by fear of constant insta-death and crawling around on my belly for four straight hours.
Jim: Well, yes. It's got both the scary "oh this is going to be hardcore and I'll have to sink hours in to get anywhere," and a thrilling element of "what we really want games to be doing" to it, as Stalker had. It's got a huge scope for exploration, freedom etc. I can imagine just wandering off into the woods rather than hitting the campaign missions.
Alec: One of the things I was shown at the briefing the other day was using the editor to fill a forest with boars, then just going off hunting - a quicky version of those 'orrible hunting sims large Texan men love so.
Jim: I think what excites me about it is the idea that we could have a drop-in drop-out game of war going on, and that we could, as you say, have edited fifty cows into the landscape. Just because you can - and we should stress that the editor is largely point and click. If you want to populate a town it's drag and drop. None of that scripty trickiness from previous games. This is the most accessible this kind of game editor has ever been.
Alec: It's almost D&D - someone creating a scenario for their friends to play. Only WAR, not elves.
Jim: Yes. It's got that double pronged attack on PC gaming sensibilities: a complex open-ended game with a story, and the back end controls to work around that and make it your own.
Alec: Do you think we /can/ sensibly play it, though? There is still its clear slant towards a particular type of hardcore?
Jim: Of course, it's all tempered by the fact that we don't really expect it to work out of the box, so to speak. (No boxes for me, thinternet.) From what I've seen, which was a brief hands-on session, it's still about ten times as tricky as the next hardest FPS to get the hang of. It's hugely configurable - and the FPSness is good, you can hop over low walls, lean, and do all the other stuff you should be able to do in an FPS.
Alec: It still seemed a little buggy, but in more of a Stalker way of minor annoyance than the "oh God, you've got to be kidding" way of ArmA 1's initial release.
Jim: There's going to be a steep curve. I was ordering around troops and instantly getting lost in the command menus.
Alec: At the briefing, they had signs showing three separate sets of keyboard controls - each of which involved most of the keyboard. The tutorials didn't seem anywhere near elaborate enough to convey all of this, but it seemed as though the singleplayer campaign was going to cheerfully reiterate the core stuff as you played the first few hours
Jim: I mean, having seen OpFlash2 (preview next week, foreknowledge fans!) and Arma2, it's now clear that they're not really in the same space at all. OpFlash is an open world FPS with loads of realism going on, Arma2 is the ambitious all-things mega-game that will terrify most gamers into blanking it from their mind. Or possibly never even learning of its existence. I mean this is the kind of game that 90% of games journalists won't bother to tackle.
Alec: Yeah, ArmA 2 is off down a path no other dares tread. And it has to, because of that incredibly passionate community. There were community guys at the London briefing quoting the exact maximum altitude of various aircrafts.
Jim: So do you think the midcore gamers - the average Quintin that reads RPS - will be down with Arma 2?
Alec: I think it'll pick up a slowburn of new fans as Stalker did, but I'm not convinced it's going to instantly wow men like us in their legions. Part of me thinks they should have ditched the Arma name, as there's a bit of an unfortunate legacy to it, even if its current state is much more robust.
Jim: Agreed, it should be called "Indistinct Ex-Soviet State Megawar".
Alec: Oddly, they've expunged all tract of "Armed Assault" from it now - it's just Strange Made-Up Word Two.
Jim: Heading off on that game-world angle - that does interest me - the creation of essentially an entire working country. They're talking about people driving to work, going about tasks, etc. It's hugely detailed, too. Entire towns and villages. And there's this big backstory going on, alongside all the faction stuff. I think you can even ask NPCs for intel, and if they've seen enemy units they can describe them?
Alec: Yes, and their reaction to you based on how you'd behaved to them and theirs. Like a ramped up, more meaningful Oblivion.
Alec: What about you - do you think this is a game you would naturally gravitate to if you'd not been shown it in a professional capacity?
Jim: No, I don't think I'd have looked at it if I hadn't been asked to look at it, even with close chums being enthusiasts.
Alec: And it's worth observing that much of this is stuff they've talked about rather than that I've experienced. There are many promises that will require first-hand proof before this can be hailed The New God.
Jim: Yeah, exactly - how far does it really go? And how much will be broken? There's almost no doubt something vital will break as soon as you start playing. I've seen the soldier stuff in operation, and destroyed a village with a helicopter, but will all the open world, living war campaign stuff work? Until we get a few hours alone with it in a dark room, it's all just hot air. There's a sense of excitement among my personal circle of gamers - both journalists and gamers alike. People are planning to play this together, and that feels like a big deal. If co-op doesn't work, or we get some kind of Demigod technical farce, it'll be disastrous. And the Bohemia games have always lived on their multiplayer. It's been the big story of OpFlash onwards: the huge military ops in scenarios constructed by players, played out with trained precision across entire weekends. And that's only going to get bigger and madder in this game.
Alec: Yes, that's crucial: the entire campaign can be played co-op, and I think that's how I'd like to approach it.
Jim: I'm no stranger to large multiplayer - I've run 100-man Eve fleets - but it's still daunting to approach a game that will be rapidly populated by the hardcore.
Alec: A - hopefully - forgiving learning curve, and the joy of learning and messing up together will be key.
Jim: I hear tales of pre-op prep drills, and latecomers being forced to be insurgents because they missed the practice runs.
Alec: I wonder how comfortable BIS are with that? Does it hold their game back from the general public?
Jim: Well BIS are the genuine "livin' the dream" developers. They're doing this for the love, as much as for the profit - which is true of most studios, but this is an extreme case. Half of them even live on site at the studio. If they were producing religion they'd be a cult.
Jim: Anyway, even if multiplayer mega-sessions are too formidable to bother with, what might really sell it for me is the capacity to be ludicrous in the editor. The defining moment of OpFlash was the tractor race, which we set up to give each of us tractors to race across the island, while Ste Curran from Edge hunted us in a helicopter. Good times. The first thing I did in Arma2 was steal a tractor, racing towards my doom while my AI squadmates ran along behind.
Alec: Cow hunt could be a great mode - everyone as bovines, one guy with a machine gun.
Jim: Haha! Can the cows escape into the woods? Assuming the animals are still playable, that was unconfirmed last I heard.
Alec: It was in there when I saw the game. I was merrily steering a cow through a warzone.
Arma 2 set for release on June 19th. Expect patches.