The military first-person combat genre is dominated by the Battlefield and Modern Warfare franchises. Let's be honest, though, neither of these games are particularly realistic and, whether it's single- or multi-player, each is about being the hero. They are designed to have wide appeal, with little complexity, and a modicum of reality applied to the combat. The ARMA series, however, has taken a different approach, and offers a realistic combat experience, where playing hero often results in you ending up dead - in short order.
I have been playing the Alpha version of ARMA 3 and I have to say, it has been a different experience from what I am used to. The first thing that strikes you about this game is the high level of realism. The obvious example is the huge maps (the Alpha allowed us to play on a 20 square kilometer one, while on release the game area covers 270 square kilometers.)
It's not the size however, but rather the detail that sets it apart from other combat games. Set in the year 2030, with a storyline that has you pitched against the Iranians, the battle takes place in the Aegean Sea of the eastern Mediterranean. The terrain is photo realistic, so you can expect dry terrain with rocky outcrops and sparse vegetation. It is here graphical realism first meets game realism
My first infantry mission was a simple "follow the commander and advance down a valley" type. Naturally, I pushed on ahead and ignored the rest of my squad. After all, I have played a lot of FPS games, so the basic formula is ingrained. That was my first mistake; I was quickly eliminated. I had no idea where the enemy barrage came from. The second and third attempts were pretty much the same. It seems that enemies in camouflage are very difficult to discern, and walking upright in the middle of combat makes you a bullet magnet. Who knew?
My other mistake was not listening to my commander and working with my squad mates. ARMA 3 is not about raking in the kills but rather achieving team objectives. Laying down covering fire and forcing the enemy to move exposes them to shots from other members of your squad. Cover, zones of fire, and suppression are vital if you want to be successful. Most of all though, you need to keep a close eye on what is going on and where the incoming fire is coming from. In one memorable play-through I ended up stalking an enemy around a large rock outcrop. After playing merry-go-round for a good five minutes, he managed to take me out just as I noticed him hiding behind a piece of scrub.
The physics simulation, too, is realistic. You gun is set to a specific range, and bullets lose momentum and height over distance. You have to rely on tracers and indications like puffs of dust to see where your bullets are landing. Going prone and controlling your breathing steadies your shots. The lighting effects in the game are also just not for eye candy. Exposing your self on the ridgeline [Is that legal? - Ed.] or casting a shadow sets you up as a target.
The game is not just about infantry combat, as you have the opportunity to drive and fight in vehicles and armored units, and (in what seems to now be an obligatory option for modern combat games) you can also take to the water and do some scuba infiltration. For good measure, you can also fly helicopters, pilot submersibles, and go navy in a speed boat.
The game is billed as an open world tactical shooter, and I think that sums it up very well. There is no mad rushing about, impossible knife throws, or gimmicky remote-control bombs. Instead, what you find is a very realistic simulation. This was brought home to me with the example infiltration mission: a simple "go to a set point on the map and steal a vehicle" objective. To do so, I had to carefully avoid traffic on the road and also ensure that I was not detected by a passing combat helicopter. With careful planning, I got right into the outpost and managed to steal the vehicle without a shot fired. Granted, I should have read the instructions on how to drive the vehicle and perhaps I should have noted where the road exit was from the outpost, but maybe next time I will get to play it right through.
The depth of the game is also reflected in the complexity of the controls. There is a lot to take in, with about the only intuitive controls being the standard movement buttons. This is really my only concern about the game. My initial attempts were quite frustrating, and it was not until I sat down and went through all the key options that I started to get a handle on how to successfully play. There is a very well thought out help system in game, which helped me out of a lot of “what the hell do I need to do” moments, and by using this (and taking the time to setup the controls to suit your style of play) you do soon get the hang of it.
The first two games in the series have attracted a good following of players, and there is no doubt that they will be looking forward to what is being promised in this latest release. The ARMA 3 alpha build initially frustrated, but after taking off my "arcade combat" hat and looking at the game from a more tactical level, it certainly began to grow on me.
ARMA 3 is releasing later this year on Windows-based PCs.