ArmA II (PC)
"Welcome to Manhattan, Marines," Colonel Shaftoe says to us.
Well, to me. I'm the only one standing here. I told the other Marines to wait in the car.
Forward Operating Base Manhattan consists of concrete blocks arranged into barricades, indestructible tents, desultory vehicles, impenetrable lines of barbed wire, stacks of crates, and various generator-powered trailers, one of which is supposed to let me control an unmanned aerial vehicle (more on that later). The other Marines are waiting in the car parked outside. I didn't let them come in with me because they have a tendency to get stuck on objects. It's easy enough to jump into their skins to simply walk them out of their stuck positions. But I might not notice they're stuck until I'm halfway to some distant objective, trundling along in a vehicle or plunging through some woods with the squad fanned out in a "V" behind me. At which point I hear and see:
3: "WHAT IS YOUR LOCATION?"
What? I'm right here in the Humvee, you dolt. Why on earth are you?? Oh, wait, Number Three is not in the car, is he? Has anyone seen Number Three?
Numbers Two and Four are mum. As usual. The car is quiet. The weird thing about road trips in ArmA II is that no one talks. These guys are terrible travel companions. And there's no radio. Craning my virtual neck, I see the overlay for Number Three on the HUD. He's 1,800 meters behind us. Numbers Two and Four look blankly ahead with no opinion. Okay, guys, let's go back and pick up Number Three, who's probably jammed between a pair of concrete blocks.
That's how it went last time. So this time, everyone waits in the car while I go into Forward Operating Base Manhattan alone. I'm here to get the briefing from Colonel Shaftoe, who addresses me in the plural. Maybe he thinks I'm good enough to be referenced as multiple Marines. Maybe he's drunk and seeing double. I should cut him a break. This is war, and a videogame, to boot. He can't possibly have known that I wasn't going to bring the boys to the briefing. Like me, he doesn't expect all the glitches the get in the way of this game functioning like it's supposed to.
And that's pretty much ArmA II in a nutshell: a tremendously exciting, ambitious game that you cannot possibly expect to be so bad for all the terrible bugs and glitches and unfinished bits and systems that just simply don't work. But it is that bad, and it will make sure you know it. You cannot avoid discovering what a mess it is. A lovely mess I hope will one day get fixed, but mostly just a mess at this point. I find it interesting that my commanding officer is named Shaftoe, which sounds like the verb for screwing someone over and then kicking him. Very clever name, that. Very appropriate.
ArmA II, which is not a very clever name and does not -- the developer insists -- technically stand for "Armed Assault II," is the sequel to ArmA: Armed Assault, itself a sequel to Operation Flashpoint: Cold War Crisis. It's the latest in a long line of ambitious, dysfunctional military sims from Bohemia Interactive. They are harshly realistic and enormously complex, and now they're open-ended to a fault.
You're playing a U.S. Marine recon team mostly left to its own devices. The setting begins as a civil war in a foreign country. Once you get to Forward Operating Base Manhattan, which is about four hours or so into the single-player campaign, things start to look incredibly promising. This is where everything gets wide and generous and expansive. Shaftoe will brief you on the insurgent outposts and their base camp. He will ask you to capture a couple of contacts. He tells you to find and destroy a weapons cache and take out the weapons smugglers. Take your time. Do them in any order you wish. To help you with these various tasks, you get the support of an 81mm mortar battery, an armored vehicle depot, a helicopter with a pilot, and an unmanned aerial vehicle. It's all so open and nonlinear. It's a bit like a cross between a role-playing game, an action game, a hardcore military sim and Grand Theft Auto. It's Oblivion meets Call of Duty meets S.T.A.L.K.E.R. meets "Generation Kill." You will be totally psyched.
At least, that's how it should go the first time you walk out of Shaftoe's briefing. You won't be so psyched the fourth time. I'm on my fourth, or maybe fifth, attempt. My very first trip to Forward Operating Base Manhattan was cut short. The Osprey VTOL aircraft flew in low, slammed to a hover, descended, ejected me, and then landed on top of me. My second trip was pretty thrilling (note to self: Hit the ground running when you get out of the Osprey). It was one of those points where I still loved ArmA II for what it was supposed to do. But as I played and played, I grew more and more dismayed as I encountered broken scripting and bad artificial intelligence and vague objectives, and the terrible dawning realization that this game is not ready to be played. Enemies ignored me. My teammates did silly things. My commands didn't work. My artillery was AWOL. My helicopter transport didn't show. I had to drive or walk everywhere. The UAV trailer was nearly impossible to find, and there was no word about what it did or how I was supposed to use it. Was it broken or simply undocumented?
That is a question that will haunt you throughout ArmA II. Is it broken or simply undocumented?
I restarted for a third trip to Forward Operating Base Manhattan. I hoped my artillery support and helicopter pilot wouldn't bug out. But at the very beginning of the mission, I was stranded inside the Osprey when I was supposed to be on the ground. The pilot was saying good-bye, but I hadn't gotten out yet. Dude, hold on, I still haven't gotten out! I frantically searched for a menu option to "get out," but none was forthcoming as the Osprey climbed, banked to the left, and began soaring away over the trees. Dude, stop, I need to get out! This is my stop! Hold on!
I switched to another team member and watched the leader icon on my HUD recede into the sky. Then the character was ejected, but he didn't fall. He hung there, about 200 meters in the air, over Forward Operating Base Manhattan. I zoomed in the sniper scope and saw myself sitting up in the sky, frozen and in blatant violation of the laws of gravity. It was like Wile E. Coyote having run over a cliff but refusing to look down because he knew it would trigger his plummet. So I switched back to the character in the sky, at which point gravity kicked in. I smacked into the ground and died. That was trip No. 3 to Forward Operating Base Manhattan. That was where I started to finally lose my patience with ArmA II.
Over Forward Operating Base Manhattan?
I don't think I'll ever get over Forward Operating Base Manhattan.
But here I am, starting my fourth, or maybe fifth, trip to Forward Operating Base Manhattan. I suppose I could have resumed progress from a previous attempt, but I keep hoping it will work out better this time if I just start with a clean slate. So far, so good. I survived the ride in and now I'm getting the briefing. Shaftoe stops talking and then vanishes downwards. He just drops out of my line of sight behind the table, as if someone opened a trapdoor under him. I peer under the table. He's down there, prone and fidgeting, as if nervously expecting an incoming artillery barrage. Posttraumatic stress is a hell of a thing. There are other times Shaftoe will inexplicably die, but I've only read about those online.
From reading about all the bugs online, I've also figured out that I can cheat to get past the Manhattan mission. This is how I've checked out some of the later missions, which create whole new sets of problems once the civil war escalates into a full-blown war between superpowers. Spoilers, I guess. But I'm determined to beat Manhattan fair and square, even if the game won't play by the rules because it's too broken to even establish them. And what do you know? Walking back to the Humvee where the other Marines are waiting, I see that I still have no artillery or helicopter transport.
There are other ways to play ArmA II than suffering through this terribly broken campaign. You can do standalone missions, which are focused enough that you can get a good idea of how the game is supposed to play. These are a great way to work with the squad commands and to see the firefights in action. They're limited enough that they don't break the game as often. You can load up scenarios that drop you on the map and dynamically create missions. Not that it works very well, but it seems like a cool idea, and I'd love to play it when the game is in better shape. There's even a mission editor where you can create battles by hand, or put together dynamic modules, or set up simple exchanges of gunfire. It's a pretty friendly scenario editor, considering that it's situated inside a broken game.
Playing online would be nifty if it worked. I can't run a LAN game without getting fatal sync errors. The server is bound to crash before too long. Jumping onto public servers can be mystifying, since many of them are running custom game types apparently played by guys who know each other, and don't really feel the need to have new people jump in. Hosting servers with AI opponents is probably the most you can get out of ArmA II multiplayer, so long as you don't expect too much from the more ambitious game modes.
The biggest shame is that this is exactly the kind of game I want to play: a hardcore, realistic shooter set in an open world. It's Far Cry 2 without any action-movie sensibilities. It's arguably not even a shooter, because if you get to the point where you have to rely on shooter reflexes to win, you've done it wrong. It's a game about tactics and positioning and situational awareness. Only smart and patient sim-heads need apply. There are a hundred commands and a thousand variables, and not enough documentation, and a razor-thin margin for error. It is a long ride in a truck you found in a village. It's a line of men cradling their guns and advancing across a field. It's studying a distant tree line through a pair of binoculars. It's the shadow of a passing bird. It's an old lady watching you from within the doorway of a church. It's a little red car randomly trundling up the road. What's he doing here? Then it's tracer fire and someone hit and your men saying things on the radio faster than you can keep up and where is that fire coming from and should you just lie here in the grass or advance or fall back or duck around those buildings and which way is southeast anyway?
For the sake of all this, I can handle the sluggish graphics engine, the obtuse interface and the god-awful voicework. But I cannot handle the fact that the game is so undeniably, blatantly, shamefully broken. I really want to like this game. I really want to play it. But I don't and I won't. We get the game we've been sold, not the game we wished we had. And I hope that at some point in the near future, the developers at Bohemia Interactive fix this game and turn it into the one I wished I had.
This review is based on a retail copy of the game provided by the publisher.