The small orthodox church casts just enough of a shadow from the midday sun to cover three wooden crates. A big marine, hands on hips, stares down at the crates while the local priest looks imploringly at him.
“Please try to understand, American. If you report this weapons cache, the local militias will think we have abandoned them. The American army doesn’t protect us here. You’ll be throwing us to the wolves!”
The sun glints from the marine’s sunglasses.
“I’m sorry. I have no choice. I’ve got to call it in.”
“You always have a choice!”
The marine turns from the priest and radios in to the base. “Battlemage, this is Razor. We’ve located the weapons cache. I’m sending you the coordinates now.”
“Roger, Razor. We’re sending a logistics unit. Sit tight until they arrive.”
The marine trudges back to the rest of his squad and they watch the road uneasily.
A few minutes pass and the sound of an over-revved engine, like a teenager’s first driving lesson, drift over the ridge. A USMC supply truck roars over the horizon, immediately hitting a fence, then overcompensating into the turn and flattening a jogger.
Welcome to the world of Arma II. A deadly serious modern warfare sim populated by ether-sucking clowns.
Developers Bohemia Interactive are not ones to turn away from a challenge. Creating a ‘spiritual successor’ to the groundbreaking soldier sim ‘Operation Flashpoint’ set in a 225 square kilometre ‘Theatre of Operations’ and filled with fully driveable vehicles from clapped-out Yugos through to jet fighters is no small task. Set in the fictitious Russian breakaway state of Chernarus, closely modelled on the Czech Republic, this is a ‘go anywhere, do anything’ sandbox army sim. The landscape is stunning in its detail and scope with everything from woodland shacks to military bases to run-down post-soviet port towns depicted with startling realism. Mission structure plays to this strength, generally requiring a certain degree of planning and intelligence-gathering before the guns start blazing. The depth really is incredible, and the learning curve steep but manageable – during your first mission your squad will all be shouting instructions, situation reports and other military chatter and you’ll be lying in the weeds, randomly shooting at anything that moves, but it will only be a couple of dedicated hours later that you’re commanding your squad to assume a wedge formation and maintain sound discipline as you infiltrate enemy outposts.
With such an enormous playing area you’re going to need to get around, and from early on in the main campaign you’re assigned a helicopter and a pilot to ferry you round, and although it’s pretty fun to watch the lush countryside flow past below your whirling blades of death, real recon teams drive hummers. Driving a vehicle around the roads and tracks of Chernarus is strangely reminiscent of the rural bits of San Andreas. Despite the war, the citizens of the province try to go about their daily business while you cruise around in your expensive military hardware, or whichever other vehicle you choose to appropriate. There’s nothing quite like filling a rusty Lada with four burly recon marines and joyriding it full-pelt down a wooded hillside. I mean, so long as it’s critical to the mission, of course.
A note to Call of Duty 4 players looking for more of the same – this is not your standard arcadey soldier sim. If you storm in to even a small group of enemies without a workable plan you will be killed. If you try to take on an entrenched enemy position without calling for artillery, armour or air support, you’re looking at Purple Hearts instead of Congressional Medals of Honour. Even leaving base without a clearly thought-out plan can land you quickly in hot water. The AI are stupid – God, are they ever stupid – but not in every way. They’ll lounge around on the ground, watching in mild interest as the gunner in your APC thumps bullets into them one after the other, but if your squad snaps a twig moving up on a group of foes their marksmen will have you zeroed in seconds flat.
On top of the detail lavished on the world map itself, the game is filled with features. You can assign fireteams, issue individual orders to small or large groups of allies and direct fire from remote positions. While this is all well and good with a battalion of brain-damaged buffoons, it becomes a very different game on-line. While deathmatches are, of course, available, it’s the teamwork element that makes this game different. Co-op servers are immensely popular due to the great feeling of executing a flawless plan and hitting the enemy before they even know what’s happening, regardless of whether they’re online foes or inconsistent AI gibbons. Fitting in as a cog in a well-oiled machine is what it’s all about: one-man armies need not apply.
This is realistic soldiering at its best. The world is believable and gorgeous, and the missions varied and demanding of initiative. Combat can be intense, particularly on-line, and the first couple of times you play you will be killed before you even know you’re in a fight. It flies so high, but greatness will forever elude it due to the shonky AI. Oh, and the woefully dire voice acting and occasionally buggy missions. It was a brave and laudable goal and the developers get close enough to touch it, but we’re still not quite there.