My first impression upon arriving in Takistan was sepia-tinted. Everything is a faded khaki dust colour. But as my Bradley grinds and rattles up a dirt road into the mountains the bogged-down growl of the labouring engine gives way to the liquid sound of birdsong from the pine trees up ahead. A rabbit darts across the road just dodging our flogging tracks. The brutal dust-dry heat is replaced with pine-scented, mottled shade......Okay, my wife was spraying "Pine-sol" in the bathroom, but you get the picture. You really feel like you are THERE. "Operation Arrowhead" is my first foray into the world of "ARMA".....And it made me wonder how on Earth I'd ever missed out on the previous titles! It is a "Stand Alone" expansion of "ARMA II" and therefore does NOT require the previous title in order to play. I'd hoped to join some online friends who are learning the ropes of "ARMA II", but there is no backward compatibility. Not to worry, despite "Operation Arrowhead" only being out for a few weeks, the plethora of servers for online play is already good, with plenty of players ready and willing to hand you your virtual ass at any time of day...... or night.
"Operation Arrowhead" includes all the cool military toys that the previous ARMA's featured. The array of personal weapons, vehicles and helicopters would make an international arms dealer envious. Having done a hitch with the British Army back in the '70's during my mis-spent youth, I was delighted to see my old friend the FN-FAL featured on the "Red Team" and I became re-acquainted with it's well-remembered accuracy and it's hard-hitting 7.62x51mm NATO rounds ......But I only used it for one mission....Technology has left my old sack-mate in the dust of history, and I soon succumbed to the lure of the M107 Barrett light 50 with heat sensing sights to reach out and touch folks, and the smaller calibre bullpups for up-close-and -personal "wet" work. The Bradley too was a surprise. My impression that it was a "horse designed by a committee" was negated by just how useful this vehicle is in game, with TOW missiles, a handy cannon firing very capable AT as well as HE rounds, the standard M240 machine gun.....and the very useful thermal sights make this a very cool tool. Now this is just a small sampling of the toys in game, there are Abrams and assorted Wawsaw pact tanks, Strykers, BTR's and BMP's, a cornucopia of Humvees with different weapon and support loadouts, landrovers and UAZ-469's as well as Blackhawks, Hinds, Apaches, Chinooks, C-130 Hercules paratroop carriers, and many, many more, too numerous to fully master in my brief affaire with this game.....so far!
As you would imagine from the supporting cast, the game tends towards airborne attacks, either heli-borne or para-dropped, but there is always room for armoured squadrons as recon or heavier support, and, of course, air-support via Warthogs or attack helicopters. The tutorial does a good job of familiarizing you with the controls and weapon systems. There is a single player campaign and side-missions, but to me, any shooter just screams out for online "multiplayer". And that was where I spent most of my time with this game. VOIP (voice over internet protocol) comms, both in game and via Teamspeak, give the ability to co-ordinate attacks, flanking manoeuvres and call in artillery, air strikes and other support. A roster of "specialties" assign roles as medics, snipers, engineers, pilots etc. And when well run and directed, without a bunch of team-killing wallies such as bedevil games like "Call of Duty", this game is all the fun that "Battlefield 2" was at it's very best. When played by a clan or group of like-minded or disciplined players this game can play out like a true small-unit military simulator. There are currently 3 main types of online games being offered on dozens of servers around the world. Perhaps the easiest to get into was "Co-operative" missions where all players work together to free the huge sandbox that is Takistan from the evil red-force, of the AI. Generally "Blufor" has all the advantages of US military technology while "Redfor" has the robust but lower tech Warsaw pact weapons. Having seen what a good Russian Clan can do with WWII Soviet planes in IL2, I would love to see what a similar crew could do in this game. Next was pure "player-versus-player" (PvP) which plays out similarly to my old favourite WWII shooter "Red Orchestra", with even more "friendly fire" incidents due not only to no "side markers" on targets, but also to the rather longer ranges involved, poor target identification skills, and the greater lethality of the more modern weapons involved. One assault on a town I took part in went off very well, with few friendly casualties, due to a very good mission commander and strong fire discipline. Imagine our chagrin when some cowboy Warthog-driver rolls in and bombs our entire team assembling for evacuation by heli with a nonchalant "Sorry, I thought there were still enemies in that town". The third gametype is PvP with the addition of buildable depots for weapons, teams and vehicles which each player then buys and controls with the aim of beating the other team off the entire map. This is probably the most technically challenging, since it requires mastery of the team control commands as well as the basic personal and vehicle controls. But can be huge fun as you claw your way back from the verge of anihilation to reconquer the entire map.
The sandbox map of Takistan is one of the new features of "Operation Arrowhead" and is pretty big at around 164 square km, with numerous villages, roads, tracks and oilfields to play in. There are also a couple more maps available, 67 square km in and around Zargabad town and a desert map. Other new features include night-fighting with night vision goggles, thermal imaging, IR strobes, laser sights and target designators. Useable backpacks, UAV's, UN and civilian figures and several wild animals. I about cracked up the first time a rabbit ran across in front of my sniper's hide. Naturally I had to shoot it, and it turned up later on my stats sheet as a colateral civilian kill ---"Rabbit". I've also tried hunting the wild pig who hangs around the police station in Zargabad, but he is a pretty wily fella, and sticks inside the "weapons-tight" no fire area...Grrrr! Which brings me to some of the amazing "mods" that have already started to show up for this game. I played "Zargabad Life" which is a cops-and-robbers mod with gangs trading drugs, holding up the bank and gas stations and generally creating mayhem, while the cops try to keep it all down to a dull roar while operating under restrictive "rules-of-engagement" that mean you can't just wax some civvy 'cos he gives you a queer look. And, of course, there IS already a Zombie mod.
Should you buy this game? Well, it's not yer average shoota. If you are just looking to go out and whack endless columns of zombies, then ARMA is not for you, and the community won't want you anyway. Team-killing is an inescapable fact of life in this game for the reasons discussed above, but indiscriminate spawn-killing, out of boredom or frustration, raised it's ugly face in many of the servers that I sampled, and was ruthlessly quashed on sight....And that's the way it's gotta be to ensure the co-operative gameplay environment that the rest of us want. If you want a sim that closely approximates realistic military scenarios.....Including the endless waiting for helicopters, transport...And for targets to fall into your traps, that is so inseperable from the military philosophy of "Hurry up and Wait" and you have the patience to learn the complex interface....almost as complex as a flight sim IMHO, then this is a game that will likely stay on your hard drive for years to come. Just like my favourite combat flight sim IL2, this is a game that you can get good enough to play in a few minutes with the boot camp, within hours you will be competent, but to really master everything in the game will take many hours of fun-filled ARMA'ing. I suspect that, like IL2, this game could live on my hard drive year after year!
The downsides are the usual fare for this type of game: Graphically intensive with maybe 30-50 players in the server sporting all kinds of different rigs, the system requirements are pretty steep. The lag-spikes can be ferocious, especially when riding vehicles or choppers pilotted by other players, broken-chain symbols showing synching become a familiar sight and getting dropped from the server, server crashes and the odd game crash-to-desktop are not unusual. But all in all, the pain is more than made up for by the sheer fun of playing this game. Were it not for these occupational multiplayer hazards and bugs, this game would have gotten a "10" from me.