ARMA III: The Alpha and the Omega

The ARMA III alpha test gives a tantalizing glimpse of what the upcoming war simulator has in store.

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As any series enthusiast will tell you that ARMA is not a shooter or an action game: it's a war simulator. A grueling, unforgiving war simulator that requires you to be cautious with every step you take, every bullet you fire, and every leaf you rustle. Developer Bohemia Interactive's dedication to authenticity and open-world structure has made the ARMA franchise deeply respected among PC gamers who crave challenge and realism. ARMA delivers its unique joys only in proportion to how much patience and loyalty you are willing to give back.

ARMA's next iteration is almost upon us: in Q3 of 2013, ARMA III will be released and hopefully bring with it the same demanding gameplay we've come to expect. If you're anxious for a taste, however, Bohemia is offering a tantalizing glimpse of ARMA III via its alpha test, which is available today, March 5, for anyone who preordered the game. Last week, I was able to play the ARMA III alpha myself, as well as catch up with co-creative director Jay Crowe, who shed light on the differences between ARMA III and ARMA II, the expectations of series veterans, and the technology that could make ARMA III one of the most photo-realistic games to date.

The high quality of the game's graphics engine is clear from the moment you enter a scenario. There are four scenarios to explore in the alpha, each of which focuses on a different aspect of ARMA III: infantry, vehicles, scuba, and helicopter flight. Each mission shows off ARMA III's lifelike vistas. In the scuba mission, you dive underneath the waves and admire the way the light refracts off the water surface above you. Fish swim by and undersea topography guides you through natural trenches. From the vantage point of the helicopter, you can gaze remarkably far into the distance and allow plumes of realistically billowing smoke to guide you toward areas besieged by artillery strikes.

Crowe is understandably proud of the work the team has done on the visuals. "Our terrains play a huge part in how you first experience the game, and the Mediterranean setting in ARMA III feels unique and distinct--you ain't in Chernarus anymore! So, from the way it feels and looks to the way it sounds or is presented, there's a bunch of stuff at work that will mean different things to different players."

It's the lighting, however, that stands out most. Says Crowe, "The HDR [that is, high dynamic range lighting --Ed.] is a big step up from our previous games. There are many things that make the visuals in Real Virtuality 4 unique and impressive--no more so than the scale of the terrain or the range of detailed models--but we know that some compromises must be made. Other game engines do things that we can't, and they do them fantastically well, such as lighting in interiors or amazing wet-weather conditions. In ARMA III, I really like the detail on the soldier's character models. The artists have done a great job of making them military, and regimented, but different in subtle little ways, so your group doesn't look like carbon copies of each other. I like that our worlds can be huge, but there's still room for care and attention of the little details that make it feel rich."

I can confirm how much more refined the character models look and move, though there are moments in the ARMA III alpha when soldiers move in an odd, robotic, or otherwise unusual manner. (And for a game with so many explosions, the explosions look sadly canned.) I also noticed how much more natural radio chatter sounds than in ARMA II. In the past, the splicing of small audio clips made for weird, unnatural radio communication. In the ARMA III alpha, I was surprised by the high quality of voices all around; rather than being a distraction, voice-overs gave the soldiers bits of flavor and character.

But the ARMA III alpha is about more than just technology: it's about war. And the war is not easily won, as each scenario makes clear. The infantry level gives you a feel for the care you must take rather quickly, as you make your way through a valley, avoiding the shots of gunners within the valley as well as from the hills above. If you're a newcomer, it should be immediately clear just how different ARMA III is from most modern-day depictions of battle. Expect to whip out your binoculars to get a good view of your surroundings, and to go prone and carefully inch forward to avoid the watchful eye of nearby soldiers. You must also exhibit eagle-like awareness of your surroundings in the vehicular scenario, in which you nab an attack vehicle and use it to lob grenades into a nearby base. Pay too little attention to nearby soldiers, and your car may take too much damage to its motor and leave you stranded. Waste too much ammo on enemy infantry, and you fail the mission.

The helicopter scenario requires the most patience, forcing you to come to grips with authentic helicopter physics while simultaneously shooting down artillery installations and delivering troops to their destination. The ARMA III alpha is not a flight simulator, but its flight model is hardly arcade-friendly, either. The controls necessitate nuance--nuance most ARMA players already exhibit. But if you're a novice, the challenge isn't insurmountable: you might crash and burn more than a few times, but comfort does come.

Suffice it to say, the ARMA III alpha does not feel dumbed down, though it does streamline certain elements to make interacting with the game less cumbersome. I asked Crowe whether he thinks the full game will improve accessibility in the right ways without sacrificing the authenticity that makes ARMA such a hit. His reply:

"We're on the right track, I hope. I remember speaking to you last year at E3 about what 'accessibility' means and arguing that, for ARMA, it shouldn't be about 'dumbing down.' Rather, it's grinding down the rough edges: things that aren't authentic or fun to master; features or behaviours that are just somehow awkward."

"One good example is the way we handle throwing grenades in the ARMA III alpha," Crowe continues. "The feature isn't complete, and in its current state, I think it's a bit too simplistic. You press a key, the grenade is tossed, whatever animation state you're in. I think that's a legitimate example of where we haven't quite yet hit the right balance. Of course, it's a big improvement over ARMA II's turgid system. I basically didn't use grenades before, and now I do, so that's progress! It's more instinctive and usable, which is why we've left this WIP feature in the public build. However, for me, it's probably now too easy. There's not enough depth of control: you can't cook the grenade or manipulate the flight in any truly meaningful way."

Crowe's ultimate hope for grenade handling is to make it fluid and natural--but also to make sure it's simulated in an appropriate way. He's also conscious of how the modding community might further adjust that mechanic, and other ones as well. "This same through-process can be applied to a whole range of new or refined features," he says. "Is it useful? Is it appropriate? Are the community going to try to hijack it?"

Controls in general can be a sticking point for ARMA fans and detractors alike. I noted how much more fluid the game felt straight off--and it seems I am not the only one. Says Crowe, "The change hit me when I recently reinstalled Operation Arrowhead on a new PC. At least compared to ARMA III, the first run of OA was not a great experience--the first 15 seconds, the first 15 minutes. For example, I stuck a rifleman in the editor, moved around, and immediately felt somehow…stuck. I hope our players appreciate the difference in ARMA III."

The adjustments to how the game handles go much deeper, however. ARMA III can handle control presets, so if you're enamored with ARMA II's control scheme and have no intention of messing with what works for you, that's fine. But Bohemia Interactive is also pushing forward with a control preset that falls a bit more in line with standard controls in other games--though just what that preset will entail is still up in the air. "Sitting at Alpha, we've still got some way to go, and rancorous disputes within the team yet to be had," says Crowe, "but we're working towards our 'default' controls setup."

This rabbit hole of player control goes deeper still, however. More from Crowe: "The biggest changes are probably combat pace and adjusted stances, and the way that these are controlled. The stances enable an increased range of movement and are controlled using Ctrl as a modifier, together with WASD. Combat pace is where you can maneuver quickly with your weapon raised, making it more useful in closer quarters. Currently it's a toggle, but we're still working on how best to integrate this into the existing controls to make the best use of it."

My favorite of the four scenarios might be the scuba mission. It starts slow, having you swim from one mine to the next to disable them before emerging from the water and stealing a missile launcher from a nearby base. Even if you shy away from third-person views in the ARMA series, it's worth hitting the enter key on your number pad and moving out of first person, if only to admire the way your avatar glides forward. It's a nice, dreamlike introduction to the nail-biting bit of subterfuge that follows. The scuba options are new to the series, and I asked Crowe how they will fit into the overall package.

"First, it's a logical extension of what ARMA always offered, the idea of freedom or opportunity," he says. "It's another option, another tactical choice, that can be made to execute your mission. It, like other choices, comes with its own unique constraints and its own advantages. Giving players more opportunities always leads to good things. Plus, the sea turtle models are exquisite."

"Secondly, I like to think of it as removing an arbitrary barrier," Crowe continues. "It's like when I loaded up Grand Theft Auto III a while ago. I was in a pinch so jumped into the water, and died. I forgot that they only added the ability to dive in later versions. Now, we want to be careful not to make our game too 'arcade'--it comes back to the balance we were talking about before--so, there are constraints about using weapons underwater or how much air you have in your lungs. But we also don't want to unnecessarily frustrate the player when he wants to do something. It's not necessarily what gameplay it brings to the players, as what it's no longer preventing."

Based on what I played, I am not worried that ARMA III in any way represents a dumbing down of ARMA conventions, but I asked Crowe what he would tell anyone who voices those concerns. His response was candid. "Oh, veterans will always have troubled minds whatever I say! That's part of the beauty of being a diehard fan: complain loudly, frequently, but love unreservedly! More seriously, though, our teams are densely populated with ex-community members, and we're certainly keeping the core of ARMA III the same as ever. Once again it comes back to that difference between dumbing down features and trying to design them more effectively."

One thing Crowe isn't worried about is attracting the Modern Warfare-playing masses. Instead, his goal is to support new players and help them realize ARMA III's unique potential. He says, "ARMA will never be an 'easy' game, as it were. Its rewards are found in the mastery of the challenges it presents you--sometimes by design, and sometimes by our own limitations--and the openness of the platform."

So no, ARMA will never be the next Call of Duty or Battlefield. It will never be bombastic, or linear, and Bohemia Interactive has no current plans to bring the series to consoles. The team knows that its games have a unique identity on the PC gaming landscape and is unwilling to compromise its vision for the sake of being more cinematic. In fact, Crowe wants ARMA III to be there for the players exhausted with cinematic shooters. And he hopes that once they experience the kind of war only ARMA can provide, they won't have any need to return. "When I played the original Operation Flashpoint," Crowe says, "it just blew me away, and it totally ruined other critically acclaimed, but more linear, experiences. I've really never recovered. When you have a game set in an enormous world with a huge number of different weapons and vehicles, you'll find--even in some of the very biggest budget games--the odd glitch or imbalance. That's true of ARMA, but the rewards, for me, outweigh that."

Later this year, we will discover whether ARMA III finds that perfect balance of fluidity and authentic challenge. For now, anyone who has preordered the game has access to the alpha, which includes four single-player scenarios, online multiplayer (which we were not able to test, since the alpha wasn't live to the public), and a map editor. It's clear that Bohemia Interactive takes this series seriously. And that's to be expected, given how seriously the ARMA community takes the series, too. And that's as it should be; after all, few games take the subject of war as seriously as ARMA.

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Discussion

176 comments
nyran125tk
nyran125tk

I just played it...and omg...it craps all over the competition.

Crush_Project
Crush_Project

get your bf3 noob crap out of my face, its arma time son!

Mackey18
Mackey18

I'm a BF3 fan/player like many here, but played ARMA 2 a little back in the day. I bought the A3 alpha and love it to bits. It's in a different genre to BF3 but it 'IS' a game. I hate it when people say it's a simulator... It's not a bleeding simulator, it's a game 100%. It's a realistic shooter but not a simulator. And dang, is it a good shooter. I recommend it to anyone to try it out. It's an acquired taste, but worth it. It's a bit like that sniper game set in WW2, its name eludes me at the moment, it felt intolerably slow at first, but once you got into it, it was fantastic. Same goes for ARMA really.

Good article by the way Kevin.

hitmaneidos
hitmaneidos

Arma uses the Real Virtuality engine that's used in training simulators by militaries around the world. Battlefield has the Frostbite engine for video games. Both games are fun in their own ways, though I like Arma more.

thetarget
thetarget

I am a avid BF3 player, clocked over 350H hours. Played since release, and still playing today. Enjoy every moment of it. My advice to people who loves BF3: ARMA is not a game for you, BF3 is just a game, ARMA is a simulation.

Bobadeeba
Bobadeeba

I tried to play this game even though I didn't play any of the others but once I put a lot of practice In to get used to the game and now that ive gotten the hang of it I just don't like it. Its just plain out really boring even though it looks good and is a realistic simulation its just not any fun or entertaining. Im glad i got the chance to play the alpha for free without buying the game because I would never pay for something like this.

ulgk
ulgk

Battlefield or Call of Duty franchise never even comes close to realistic as Arma franchise does. I believe another series is has a very harsh realism is Operation Flashpoint.

tonlikas
tonlikas

And will never be BF3....NOT EVEN CLOSE

chechak7
chechak7

too much realty is not good for gamer's .... 

archiasif
archiasif

Looks like a waste of time, better than World of Warcrafts though.

dalua360
dalua360

I find amazing that everytime I say something about BF3's lack of realism, all the fanboys start to bash me saying BF3 is the most realistic FPS ! Can't we all agree that BF3 is a game for people whose want to have fun blowing up stuff and putting C4 on their vehicles, and ARMA is the real deal for those who understand what is a military operation ???

It's a shame that the engine Frostbite 2 was so misused, the possibilities were so promising ! I remember playing Red Faction Guerrilla in 2009 and we could destroy buildings in different ways depending on the point of force applied, but on BF3 they just created pre-destructible samples with no real physics in action! Imagine Frostbite 2 using the same concept of Red Faction Guerrilla in a game like Arma 3??

alexbartle
alexbartle

AI and animations still look pretty dodgy like arma2

BuBsay
BuBsay

I honestly don't understand all the complaints about the graphics, you guys do understand what a miracle it is to have these kind of graphics with this size of a game?


As is, the engine is amazingly well optimized. I mean if we were to shrink the map down to the size of a CoD multiplayer map, and remove all of Arma's special features you could get this game to run with these level of graphics on a Commodore 64 (A bit of an overstatement to say the least, but you get the point I'm trying to make).

CUDGEdave
CUDGEdave

Just played it and man it's good,I think it's a big improvement over Arma 2,it looks fantastic,AI isn't too bad but Iv'e not played too much as yet,the voices are alot better and not "robot" like Arma 2,weapon feel is better and it doesn't feel like your controlling a puppet. I pleased with it so far.

GIgewg066
GIgewg066

I really, really hope that the AI has been improved for this else I'll be very disappointed. The amount of time i wasted in ARMA2 trying to get my squad to do simple tasks such as moving to a waypoint is just uncountable. Otherwise though, this looks mighty fine!

darkdealer
darkdealer

I am arma 2 ace player love the game but something i have noticed in the beta that must be fixed is something you mentioned in the editorial is the character modeling while moving is OFF way off it doesnt look right going up hills its robotic and seems like feet dont move at the speed the body is travelling im hoping with the beta this will be noticed and tweaked otherwise its looks great also i noticed the sounds once again are off which is why JSRS and others were built for A2 for realism in sounds FIX IT BOHEMIA WE LOVE YOU!!!!

Reuwsaat
Reuwsaat

To me it looks just like ARMA II, of course, with all the improvements from the third, but from the screens you can't really differ if you are not told that this one is the third or second.

CUDGEdave
CUDGEdave

D/Loading the Alpha now,Looking forward to giving it a go :)

PC-EliTiST
PC-EliTiST

This is a game I'm seriously looking forward to... Although, I'd prefer a little better graphics. They don't look as I would expect.

UltimateBastard
UltimateBastard

@thetarget thats a pretty stupid comment. just because you love playing BF doesnt mean your not going to enjoy arma. Iv been playing both since the originals

HarryPalms
HarryPalms

@thetarget arma is not a simulation. Its just the same as BF3, but with larger maps. It doesn't simulate anything at all.

Raptorias
Raptorias

@ulgk operation flashpoint was like the grandfather of ARMA. bohemia and codemasters both made it. they split and codemasters kept making those shitty operation flashpoints, dragon rising and red river, while bohemia moved onto its own iteration Armed Assault aka ARMA

CyberCam1969
CyberCam1969

@chechak7 On the flip side... not enough reality isn't good either! Your average COD type gamer has no value of life when playing the accessible shooters!

dalua360
dalua360

@alexbartle I believe that this is what we will get in my opinion, like all the betas and demos we experience, there's no graphic "tweaking" until retail version , so, assuming this is the final version (I always expect the worse !), I'm still happy that I have ARMA 3 in my hands because after those two guys got into jail I almost lost my hope! Btw, what happened to them ? Anyone knows any lastest update ?

PernicioEnigma
PernicioEnigma

@BuBsay 


It's better optimized than arma 2, but it's still not what I'd consider an optimized game. It doesn't take full advantage of my 3930K or my 2 GTX 670s. I'd say on average I get about 45-50% utilization on both GPUs, and it's never taking advantage of all my CPU cores.


The physX implementation in the game disappointed me a bit too. It's still an improvement over what they had in Arma 2, but death animations and vehicle handling still looks and feels very primitive. I hope they polish it more before final release, I'm sure they will.

Sw1tched
Sw1tched

@BuBsay i give you the size and scope, good for them for solving that y making animations and character interaction with environment stiffer that road kill. I mean you just warp through the side of walls into a helicopter

BoP-Falcon
BoP-Falcon

@GIgewg066  Sorry mate AI is still as terrible as in ArmA2 and I don't think it'll get better in the Final... They don't even plan to change anything "bigger" for the AI... just some "Optimization and teaching them usage of the new features" 

Bohemia Interactive is really lazy when it comes to AI... instead they focus on making it more appealing by dumping it down and ripping off the ideas and features of Mods like ACE... 

It's a shame there is no real competitor for ArmA... Bohemia is milking the Fans, knowing they have nowhere else to go...

larkin-54
larkin-54

@Reuwsaat it looks amazing in game, i dont understand how you cant see the improvements  how much ARMA II have you played?

Falzonn
Falzonn

@Reuwsaat I can.  The new lighting (as mentioned in this article) stands out immediately to me.

mlcarter815
mlcarter815

@Wahab_MinSeo There is no "Next-Generation" when it comes to PC games. It's just a fluid transition. 

JAGOUAR100
JAGOUAR100

@dalua360 @alexbartle  They went in court as the law predicts, the judge found them innocent for spying but they still had to pay a fine as they were in a restricted area. In the end they 've been set free. 

BuBsay
BuBsay

@Sw1tched @BuBsay You know, that sounds like a bug you usually find in an Alpha version of a game.


Wait...

GIgewg066
GIgewg066

@BoP-Falcon Ugh that's just shit :P Such a shame cos it would be a 10/10 for me if the AI was actually decent...so disappointing. At the end of the day it is a war simulator and they should be making a game to reflect that realistically. I personally think they've been too wrapped up in the new graphics and gameplay mechanics to give a shit about NPC AI :(

BuBsay
BuBsay

@HarryPalms @Kevin-V It's not as if yours had much backing behind it either other than "It's not a simulator because it doesn't simulate anything, because I say so"

Fantastic argument you've got going there.

dalua360
dalua360

@JAGOUAR100 @dalua360 @alexbartle Oh! This is so cool, after you mentioned, I put aside my laziness and used my friend "The search bar" and I found the article! Thanks for the reply!

HarryPalms
HarryPalms

@GIgewg066 @BoP-Falcon Yep, Arma 2 had very big potential that was never realised. This time, its more of the same shit just more of it and worse - this game has the most atrocious movement system in any, bar none. 

GIgewg066
GIgewg066

@BoP-Falcon @GIgewg066 Just sounds to me like they're starting to follow the 'Call of duty' formula-just give the next game better graphics, new weapons, maps etc and actually completely ignore the core mechanics which are the reason most of the hardcore players buy the game. It's totally ridiculous. Even so, I'll still be buying it because like its predecessor, despite the little niggles ARMA 2 was extremely good :)

BoP-Falcon
BoP-Falcon

@GIgewg066 @BoP-Falcon Yes, it's pretty frustrating... under the hood the AI actually has some real nice tactical stuff coded in, but they can't get it to work... and most of the basic configstuff like how good the can spot players, hear people and their "weapon handling system" are totally fucked up... and that's mostly stuff that can't be fixed by modders... they can change some values, but that doesn't fix anything...  They even "cheat" with the AI by giving Squadleaders (the charactermodels) worse camoflage-Values resulting in the AI shooting at them first... Most people think thats an actual "Feature"...  But as you said their focus seem to be the "cash features" like graphics and garbage like Warfare, new models (that modders will replace with better ones after some months anyway)... They shouldn't even talk about realism all the time... they do NOTHING for the Mods and Communities that really focus on realism etc. they just lure the "tacticool Children" into the game and the real Hardcoreplayers have to babysit them...