What a way to come back from a 5-month reviewing hiatus. For a long while, I wasn't particularly in a reviewing mood. I had other priorities and I just couldn't get myself to write down large blurbs of text on video games, music, or anything for that matter. But yesterday night I nearly forced myself to write a review of ArmA X, a collection boxset of all games in the ArmA series, something which I had been planning for quite a while. And it was worth it. Because even though I ended up going to bed at about 3:30AM and yawning constantly during college the following day, I managed to produce a rather worthwhile read. People who have read my Cryostasis review will already know that I like to approach a game review from a different angle every once in a while. With the ArmA X review, I decided to take this approach even further, resulting in a read that is borderline pretentious, but also a welcome break from the graphics/sound/lifespan model of the usual review. I think that, if the medium is ever to overcome its relative superficiality when compared to genuine art forms, we'll have to start looking at games in a more mature way. This review merely reflects a personal attempt to do so. You can read the entire thing with pictures and everything below this paragraph, but don't forget to thumb up my review through this link if you like it. Why? Ego boost, that's all.
ArmA X: Anniversary Edition
Developer: Bohemia Interactive
Publisher: Bohemia Interactive
Genre: Sandbox First/Third-Person Shooter, Military Simulator
Input Methods: Mouse + Keyboard, Xbox 360 Contoller, Track-IR
Release Date: September 16, 2011
"A true video game monument."
The biggest problem with the debate about whether or not video games could be considered art, is that gamers and developers alike seem to have a fairly limited view on the meaning of art, preventing them from seeing the true artistic potential in the video game craft. Just enter a random discussion on the topic, be it in real life or on the internet, and the advocates of art in video games will often defend their stance by referring to aesthetically pleasing, often drawn or painted visuals, or to a well-composed orchestral soundtrack. With these tunnel vision arguments, they do not only fail to realise that separate artistic components do not guarantee that the final product is artistic, but also that the artistic and aesthetic potential of video games lies elsewhere, namely in the interactivity between the medium and its 'beholder'. The word 'beholder' might not be entirely appropriate here, exactly because his role is not only to behold (passive), but to interfere (active). And, with this, we have already captured the difficulty of the debate at hand: as similar as the video game medium may be to other media, such as television and music, in terms of both the production process and the experience, the relation it establishes between the creator and the 'beholder' is so radically different from what we are used to in more traditional media, that it becomes difficult to apply the traditional concepts and ideas of art to this new, peculiar craft.
The peculiarity of the video game medium inadvertently forces us to explore alternative ways of defining its aesthetics. Because different as the craft may be, we still judge video games the same way we judge films. In the average video game review, much emphasis is put on production value and exterior aesthetics, often resulting in relatively short, safe (and dare I say marketable) blurbs that rarely stray from the 'buyer's advice' review ideal, meaning that the essential question the review answers is "should you (i.e. the reader) buy this game or not?", rather than "does this game lift the medium to a higher plain?" This approach is partially inevitable, due to an economy-centred mindset being embedded in the modern, Western way of thinking, but nothing is stopping individual reviewers such as myself from choosing a different perspective and judging a video game based on how it manages to establish a link between the game and the 'beholder', or rather, the human actor.
Paradoxical as it may seem (the franchise seeks to emulate reality rather than chase an artistic ideal), the long-running military simulator ArmA is perhaps one of the best examples of a video game series that is aware of the power of interactivity, as it never ceases to explore beyond the boundaries and conventions of the medium. The ArmA X collection box presents all of the titles in the series in their definitive form: ArmA: Cold War Assault from 2001 (originally released as Operation Flashpoint; the game was rebranded due to copyright issues), ArmA: Armed Assault from 2007, ArmA 2 from 2009 and the ArmA 2: Operation Arrowhead standalone expansion from 2010, including all expansions/DLCs associated with these titles. Together, they form a true testament of Bohemia Interactive's extraordinarily progressive work as video game designers. At the centre of every instalment is the literally limitless freedom, which manifests itself in various aspects of the game. While marketed as a military simulator, ArmA is, at its core, a sandbox shooter. Missions take place on huge maps, offering a variety of terrain, conditions, and combat circumstances and opportunities. Each game in the series offers the player a choice in weapons and vehicles that is so large that it is yet to be matched by any game that falls into the not particularly tight mold of the action genre(s).
Meanwhile, the AI has been programmed to adopt to the unusually dynamic and extremely variable nature of the gameplay. Marred by occasional bugs and unnatural animations, the robust nature of the computer-controlled characters prevents this aspect of the game from generating an appropriate amount of praise. The eternal curse of sandbox gaming - and ArmA is by no means an exception - is that the unpredictability of player behaviour as well as the dynamic nature of the circumstances will inevitably generate conflicts from time to time: a superior number of variables equals higher odds of something occurring which was unanticipated by the designer and, with that, the engine. This is why linear shooters such as F.E.A.R. and Killzone are more likely to impress - on a superficial level - with their more perfected yet more limited AI than open-ended games such as S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and indeed ArmA. While understandable, it should be noted that the AI in ArmA 2 especially is capable of such advanced movements that, sometimes, the line between human players and computer-controlled characters becomes blurry. Computer-controlled units will make choices on the spot and enemy troops may advance to your position or wait until you come and get them. They will execute complex manoeuvres that do not just involve flanking, but what genuinely seems to be anticipation of what the player expects him to do. Soldiers may even make tactical mistakes, which adds to the authenticity of the experience, as well as the fairness of the gameplay. It is safe to say that, as the series progressed, it has consistently upgraded the abilities of the AI to a point where it outcIassed nearly all of its contemporaries at the time of release.
In fact, one of the most remarkable things about the ArmA X collection is that it even allows newcomers to experience just how far ahead of its time the series was when it was first presented to the public under the Operation Flashpoint banner in 2001. It is very noticeable that the project was born out of the dissatisfaction of some former servicemen, who worked with Bohemia, about the war-based first person shooters of the time. Because while Medal of Honor and the likes had already transferred the romantic ideal of war to the video game medium and taught us how the backdrop of major armed conflicts could be used for entertainment purposes, there were not really any games that gave us a glimpse into what it would be like to be an actual soldier. Bohemia Interactive filled this niche by offering us a shooter that was not really a shooter in the sense that it completely reconsidered all of the conventions that we had grown so familiar with whilst bearing arms in the virtual world ever since Wolfenstein 3D and Doom popularised the first-person shooter genre in the mid-nineties. And so it came to be that, over the years, the ArmA series set a completely new standard for the emulation of human movement, weapon handling and vehicle control, inadvertently showing us just how primitive the traditional FPS movement format actually is. It was one of the first first-person shooter series to include head-bobbing, a realistic ballistics model for guns, a carry limit of two or three weapons, a fleshed-out vehicle control model for both land and air units, and many other things. The games even include ideas that are not only revolutionary, but logical, yet which are still ignored en masse by developers of first-person games across the world: the aim deadzone and the ability to move the head independently from the body are just mere examples of this.
In short, the ArmA series has, in the first decade of its existence, completely redefined interactivity between the player and the game, lifting it to a new level of authenticity that is as admirable as it is necessary to transcend one's constant consciousness of 'just playing a video game'. Naturally, much of the believability required to blur this border between game and gamer is achieved through atmosphere: sound design, visual design, story, pacing; when executed well, they can all enhance the experience and bring the player closer to a genuine experience. But what might be even more important is giving the player freedom. Freedom in movement, freedom in how he approaches each situation, freedom in how he enjoys the game. Eliminate the limitations in the game's design and the game will seem more natural, or, in other words, believable to the player. And this believability is required to establish an emotional link between the player and the game.
At the same time, one of the biggest challenges that game developers still face today is to make the player forget that he is using a controller or a keyboard or a mouse, exactly by making what appears on the screen so believable that he focuses on the interior movement of the game rather than the exterior movement involved (i.e. the action required to connect the player to the game). There is a reason that, despite the advancements made in motion gaming over the past years, believability, atmosphere and immersion are still achieved largely through in-game adjustments rather than making the player move physically like he would whilst executing the real-life equivalents of the actions that appear on-screen. Just like games such as S.T.A.L.K.E.R. and Cryostasis, the ArmA games utilise the game design itself to appeal to our emotions to immerse us into their world. But unlike the former two games, in which the immersion generally manifests itself as feelings of genuine solitude and emptiness respectively, the ArmA series consistently converts the power it has over its players into a small but actual taste of what war must be like. Fear, adrenaline and excitement all run through your body during battle.
Due to its focus on realism, or rather, authenticity (because the games do concede occasionally to accommodate gameplay), the ArmA series is demanding in the sense that it requires the player to make a considerable effort to really get into the series and discover its strengths. None of the games in the series will blow you away instantly, but as you progress, hour after hour, you will keep discovering new features, aspects and details, the plethora of which will, at one point, make you realise that there really is nothing out there quite like ArmA. This does not only refer to the rather niche subgenre the games find themselves in (that of the military simulator), but also, or should I say, especially to the fact that this game does even the most basic aspects of gameplay (such as indeed human movement) so differently from what we have grown accustomed to, that it makes one wonder why other developers keep sticking to so many conventions on the sole account of their familiarity, while this game proves almost single-handedly that nearly everything we see in even the most recent first-person shooters could and should be done better.
There are many, many more things to be said about a franchise consisting of games as profound as these. Be it the extensive mission editor, the amazing visuals, the vast online component or the invaluable modding community, there shall not be a review written about even an individual game from the series that does not impose great injustice upon it by omitting at least a few of these aspects altogether for the sole sake of readability. The strength of ArmA, however, is rather briefly summed up by the uncannily progressive (and one might even say overambitious) thinking of a few crazy Czech developers that demonstrates their understanding of the importance of the connection between their creation and the player. Whether such a creation then goes on to let us experience the chaos of war, the nostalgic solitude of a post-apocalyptic exclusion zone, or the coldness of a haunted nuclear icebreaker matters little. What does matter is that video games, as a medium, finally seem to be getting better at provoking emotions simply by rethinking the technology behind them; emotions that surpass the short-lived excitement of the more popcorn-suited productions. And if we keep exploring this road, video games might one day actually be considered art. But before that happens, not only the creator, but also the 'beholder', i.e. the gamer, will need to teach himself to perceive games from a different angle. We still have a long way ahead of us, but perhaps this review might prove to be a small but determined step into the right direction.