So, having run a competition to equip some of our cleverest readers with copies of Arma 2: Operation Arrowhead, we set out to play one of the game's co-operative missions on a splendid 64-man server provided for us by JestServers. Thanks, Jest!
We picked one of the community-made missions for the game, of which there are many different kinds. This sprawling, multi-objective desert operation would test us to the very limit, write new legends, forge new heroes, and make some people feel a bit silly.
The following report is written partly by James Carey, our occasional community organiser, game designer, and – for the same of declaring interests – the script writer from the original Arma 2 campaign. It is also told from the perspective of Jim Rossignol, who you may be familiar with from his daily bloggings on this very website. Two men. Two tales of war and stuff.
So, unto the AAR:
Carey: I've been playing BIS games for the best part of a decade which makes me feel terribly old, grizzled and worryingly habitual. I've played with all types; ex-or-current military types who demand rigid formation adherence and Section Battle Drill orders, strict radio protocol where you actually have to be given permission to speak, moustaches, the lot... I've played with regular, normal types who just turn up on a sunday afternoon for a semi-organised bit of fun, I've played with public types who don't know how to crouch. And now I've played with RPS types. Surprisingly, you largely fit into the “normal” group.
The winners turned out to be a good mix of ArmA/OFP vets and newbies which made for a good balance of confused wonder and happily-resigned familiarity. ArmA has a learning curve like the North Face and big, sprawling custom missions like the Domination map we played on Wednesday only add to the complexity. Still, we managed to get everyone more or less grouped into squads, if only to pose for the obligatory pre-fight photo.
Rossignol: I've played far less ArmA than James, but enough to know my way around both the rudiments of the controls and the principles of the game itself. Although still quite familiar in terms of being a first-person shooter, this is far more of a simulation than anything I generally elect to play, but the versatility and scope of the thing always draw me in.
As we gathered up and rolled out I began to think about how much technology in gaming often disappears into the background. We just sort of get used to grand feats of technical accomplishment, and it's only when you encounter something like ArmA 2, with all its rough edges, that you begin to see just how much gaming has accomplished, but also how potential there is for accomplishing even more. The range of things that ArmA 2 models, from the flight of helicopters throught he dozens of different weapons, to the destructible buildings, is mind-boggling. The sheer scale of the terrain equally so. You can't really hope to get anywhere without someone to drop you off in a helicopter. Convenient, then, that we had half a dozen such air-taxis on the server with us.
Carey: One of the things I like most about ArmA 2 is the pace. I was talking to KG the other day about a paucity of 'planning' in games these days, a lack of calm-before-the-storm opportunities, some time to strategise before putting your schemes into action. ArmA doesn't offer this, or even demand it. It quietly, naturally, suggests that doing so may pay dividends. Put simply, if you don't take time to plan, you won't have as good a time as if you do. Your choice. There's an ethos of 'getting out what you put in' at work there that runs through BIS games like, well if not the name through Brighton Rock then at least the chewy bit of a Toffee Penny - Hard work but tasty. On Wednesday we didn't plan much. We didn't bring enough ammo, so we ran out, we didn't plot a good approach to the LZ of a hostile area, so we got shot down. Lessons like this need to be learned early if you're not to lose patience with ArmA.
Rossignol: I totally grabbed a big gun from the crates and bagged an APC though, so I was happy. There was an air of optimism – misplaced as it turns out – as we piled about the Chinook and headed off to kill some bads.
Carey: Our first objective was Nagara, a town high in the northern hills. On the 6km way from our base we were offered a side mission to assault a old mining complex in the mountains: root out a badguy bigwig, earn ourselves some fancy gunships back at the base. We tried to land on the hillside above the complex, but were shot down thanks to that poor approach I mentioned. By chance, Jim was the only survivor, carried as he was in the belly of the APC slung beneath our Chinook. Having revived us all, the assault could begin.
Rossignol: From my perspective this was a moment of comedy. My point of view was locked into the APC, and I couldn't see anything of what was happening. I heard screams, and then the APC was falling. It landed on a slope, rolling. I brought it to a halt and got out. Turning around, I faced the tumbling, burning chassis of the Chinook, and all of its passengers strewn across the hill. They pleaded with me for medical assistance. I couldn't say no.
Carey: In assaulting the mine itself, we showed some early promise, moving and covering each other down the hillside, waiting for the Anti Tank guys to take out the armour before opening up with small arms on the unlucky milita in the camp. It was a fairly one sided fight, but it seemed we might have an unexpectedly organised group of players for this dangerous mission.
The attack also left a partially destroyed T-55 tank in the complex which we could repair and take on to Nagara. Reader Alex and I manned the ancient war machine and trundled off around the mountain. There must have been some kind of logistical collapse in Jim's squad after that, because the next time we saw them they were overtaking us on a narrow nighttime road, piled onto quad bikes.
Rossignol: Well, the collapse was that half the people with us climbed aboard a small helicopter which have followed the Chinook from our base. That group were off to do another side mission. That left six of us waiting around. Somehow we spawned the quad bikes. Not exactly orthodox military tactics, granted, but we figured we'd drive them along the road to the target. We were, after all, operating in the spirit of Hero Squad. A mythical band of heroes whose exploits resound across so many possible worlds. Also, night was falling.
Carey: Inevitably, Alex and I had run into an armoured patrol on the mountain road. We were exchanging fire with BMPs, BRDMs and other dangerous acronyms when “Hero Squad” and co. came careering into the fray atop their quads. This surprise move must have given us the edge in the firefight because we somehow came through unscathed.
Pressing on to Nagara we encountered yet more resistance in the desert. Off the roadside more enemy armour was lurking in dugout craters, ready to ambush our comedy convoy. The T-55 took a terminal hit, forcing Alex and I to bail. By which I mean we were mortally wounded in the blast and our bodies flung into the desert sky. I think it was Nullkigan who charged back from where the quads had run into trouble up ahead to revive us, but by the time he'd made it back we had only seconds to live, he only had time to save one of us. Luckily he got to me first...
Overhead someone was circling in a Huey, occasionally pouring tracer fire into the desert. On the ground Nulkigan and I grouped up with the other ambush survivors by the road side, only to discover a stuck - but still active – BMP (armoured vehicle with big gun) in the ditch next to us. In the first truly heroic act of the evening (and earning him a copy of the BAF DLC) Nulkigan crawled up to the stranded vehicle and placed explosives beneath it. As we scattered from the blast zone in all directions with the timer ticking down the BMP suddenly found purchase on the sand and began to drag itself out of the ditch, we had to risk blowing the charge before we were all clear or the BMP would escape.
Rossignol: Watching in disbelief, I saw the explosion go up. Was it dead? NO! And yet it was retreating. The AI had decided to take flight. The BMP zoomed away across the desert and disappeared over a hill. Had we scared it away?
Carey: By morning we'd finally reached the outskirts of Nagara, splitting into more or less two groups I headed off with Hero Squad to the hills on the far side on the town.
Normally choosing high ground is a good move, especially when assaulting a town in a valley. But as Hero Squad and I made our way across the featureless hillside the lack of cover made us a prime target for a Machine Gunner somewhere on the opposite slope. Had we got there before daybreak the muzzleflash from his rifle might have given us something to aim at, but in daylight those of us without thermal optics were firing blind.
Rossignol: Well, everyone else had reached Nagara. I had become distracted by a lone enemy soldier along the road. I tracked him down to where he was hiding and killed him. It was the only kill I could be sure was mine. Except, he wasn't a lone enemy soldier. He was two enemy soldiers. Oh dear. I had to respawn.
Carey: Our firefight with the Machine Gunner alerted a Hind gunship patrolling the skies above Nagara to our presence. A series of strafing runs decimated Hero Squad almost to the point of collapse, but then E.Bass appeared clutching a RPG launcher he'd scavenged from a dead Takistani. Hitting a stationary target with an ironsights at any range is hard enough in ArmA. Unless you've had time to rangefind and manually zero your sights to match it's a case of dead reckoning or trial and error, but with the Hind zooming around overhead at 100mph pvt.E.Bass still managed to score a hit and bring it down. One copy of the BAF DLC that man!
Rossignol: At this point I was trudging across the desert to try and rejoin the group. In the distance I saw the Hind explode in the air. The voice-comms roared with disbelief and excitement. A one-in-a-million shot!
Carey: The battered remains of our forces had to get off that exposed hillside. We spotted some trees on another hill and made our way across, thinking we could move down into the town using them for cover. Still taking fire from the MG, we pulled back behind the ridge, out of sight of the town. I made for the trees with the squad in tow, but in my panic I lead us out into a road which had a direct line of sight into town. The garrison spotted us instantly and began to open fire. After our narrow escape from the Hind I thought we'd had it, but just as we started taking hits artillery rained down into the town. Our forward observers had saved us by our coincidence of timing.
We settled down to a cagey war of attrition, trying to push into the town on foot. The enemy's radio tower was still standing which meant reinforcements were constantly being flown in. Until it was down we'd get nowhere.
Rossignol: The attack on the town revealed a bunch of neat stuff about the game. One of these was the scripted events that the mission had set up. Helicopters would bring in paratroopers every few minutes until we took out that radio tower, and with limited ammo that's a real problem. This gave us a real sense of urgency in proceedings. It also gave me plenty of opportunity to sit on the hillside and call in artillery strikes. Arma 2 is nothing if not comprehensive in its array of military toys.
Carey: Once the tower was down we made good progress, finally capturing the enemies own artillery and turning it against them. By this time night had fallen again and the muzzleflash of the artillery lit up the town. In ones and twos we emerged from our cover and stepped into the light, the town was ours.
Rossignol: A chaotic, even ramshackle victory, but tremendous fun. And that's probably the major success of Arma 2. It's a simulation, but it's flexible enough to allow a range of tactics, and to be just as entertaining for amateurs as it is for the people who really know what they are doing. A decent enough way to celebrate the sacred rituals of goofing around in videogames. Not that I'd consider piloting a helicopter of course, that would just be silly.
Thanks to everyone who participated. We're hoping to hold another Arma 2 event in the near future!