ArmA: Armed Assault Hands-On

The maker of Operation Flashpoint is back with another ultrarealistic military sim. We suit up and enter the battlefield to bring you a full hands-on preview.

When it was released back in 2001, Operation Flashpoint gained legendary status among tactical shooter fans. It was immersive, difficult, and unflinchingly realistic, and it became a critical and commercial hit as a result. While a console edition was inevitable, the Xbox conversion went on to take up years of Bohemia's time, and it was released to a mostly muted response from the public. However, with six years now having passed since the release of the original Operation Flashpoint, Bohemia is ready to move on with a true successor to its breakthrough debut.

Tanks, planes, and helicopters are among the 30 vehicles you can use in ArmA: Armed Assault.

ArmA: Armed Assault retains the core elements of Operation Flashpoint while giving the graphics, vehicles, and weapons a much-needed upgrade. As a result, OF fans should experience a certain amount of familiarity when they encounter ArmA for the first time. Fortunately, Bohemia has also taken advantage of the considerable advancements in technology that have occurred since 2001, improving the graphics, increasing the size of the gameworld, and offering more freedom to the player to explore. This means that the number of weapons and vehicles has been upped to more than 30 each (some of which are exclusive to the UK release), along with brand-new multiplayer modes and support for the vast modding community with the inclusion of a built-in mission editor.

Those unfamiliar with Bohemia's past work may be daunted by just how difficult ArmA is--it's like Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter but with the realism level cranked up to maximum. If you're unlucky enough to take a hit in the leg, you'll have to crawl on your belly to find a medic. If you're hit anywhere in the torso or head with even a single bullet, it's game over. You're also forced to stop moving when reloading, and unless you're in a prone position, your firing accuracy will be greatly reduced. Every concession that's made in modern shooters has been scrapped in ArmA, but those who commit themselves entirely could find a rewarding experience waiting for them.

Like Operation Flashpoint, ArmA: Armed Assault takes place in a fictitious location--this time it's the tropical island of Sahrani. The island is split into northern and southern states. The northern democratic republic is the larger of the two, while the smaller southern island is governed by a monarchy. Unfortunately, there's trouble in paradise when the North suddenly decides to invade the South, and as a US soldier training troops during the takeover, you're unwittingly caught up in the conflict. While your character finds it a slight inconvenience, seeing as though he's at the end of his tour of duty, it does mean that you get to lead your men into battle and repel the invaders, using equipment such as helicopters and tanks.

While all this sounds like standard fare, Bohemia has made the rather mature choice of highlighting the contrast between the horror of war itself and the sanitised way it is portrayed by the media. News reports link missions together and present you with a one-sided story as the invasion takes place, but if you fully explore the gameworld, you may notice some differences between the actual and reported events. For example, the South makes claims about massacres that don't actually take place and feeds the media information to try and win international support. The free-roaming nature of the game also means you can decide which shoot-outs to get involved with, presenting you with a moral dilemma--do you save civilians at the possible expense of fellow soldiers? It's possible to skip entire side missions if you prefer, although completing them will often make accomplishing the main objectives easier overall.

ArmA offers a great variety of vehicles, ranging from planes and helicopters to cars and tanks to even boats. Aircraft carriers are one of the few vessels to be left off the list, but Bohemia claims that this would have been too difficult to implement in the game. Instead, we'll have to make do with new civilian vehicles such as cars and bikes, most of which are left deserted on the battlefield for you to take advantage of. While aerial vehicles adhere to the same level of realism as the rest of the game, they're actually quite easy to control using the keyboard and mouse, and here Bohemia admits to making some concessions for its fan base.

Just like Operation Flashpoint, ArmA emphasises realism.

While protecting yourself on the battlefield is crucial, you'll also have to keep a keen eye on the rest of your squad. Luckily, training missions help you become accustomed to ordering your men around and using the weapons in the game. The standard army assault course is used to teach you how to move your soldier around, while the F keys are used to issue orders to your men. Just like in Operation Flashpoint, you're fed information by your units in a slightly stilted vocal manner, but it's coherent enough to provide information on enemy locations, current targets, and any injuries sustained.

ArmA features 400 square kilometres of terrain and an ambitious open-ended nature, so it will depend on you how long you take to complete the game and how many times you want to go back and do it again. Bohemia has a fairly open approach to letting the player mess around, with many levels open from the beginning for people who just want to jump straight in and pilot a helicopter, for example. The developer estimates that an average gamer will clock in at around the 20-hour mark for the campaign. However, that doesn't take into account the skirmish missions, mission-editor features, and multiplayer modes--the latter of which could take up a large portion of a shooter fan's time.

If ArmA's single-player mode seems open-ended, then the multiplayer mode is even more so, offering up the entire island for players to use as their playground. Of course, using the entire map could mean that games go on for days at a time, but Bohemia hasn't restricted the hardcore fans who will inevitably want to experiment. Perhaps most ambitiously, there's no limit on the maximum number of people that can get involved in a game, with Bohemia leaving it to the host of each game to adapt matches to individual circumstances. While this could lead to over-ambitious 100-plus-player games hosted by people on superfast broadband connections, the community should hopefully find its own equilibrium for map size and player limits. The only downside is that the multiplayer component wasn't playable in our preview build.

While ArmA has been available in certain European countries for a couple of months now, those that held off for the UK release are set to be rewarded with a more polished game that boasts more vehicles and weapons. While the game isn't exactly a graphical powerhouse, Bohemia has introduced more detail to background objects (although no news on Vista compatibility as of yet). It's clear in speaking to Bohemia that there's a small level of regret for releasing the game early in certain territories, and while a glitch let us roll helicopters upside down in our preview build, the UK release should be the definitive version when it lands on February 16. The North American publication rights, meanwhile, are still in negotiation.

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