Updated: October 22, 2010
After you have played Operation Flashpoint, you will have a very hard time choosing your next first person shooter. Because the game was the most realistic combat simulation ever created. It was perfect. Virtually endless landscape, combined arms, extremely smart AI, massive combat, everything. As simple as that. Almost a decade since its release, it's still going strong. I know I play it quite often with friends and family. The game is hard and brutal and it won't appeal to Web 2.0 players. Absolutely perfect. Now, if there were a sequel, what would you expect to happen?
A little lesson in history
The original game and the two expansion packs, the Red Hammer and the Resistance, were written by a Czech team of developers known as Bohemia Interactive, all of whom have had proper military training in the Soviet-flavored theater, by the way. The game was packaged by Codemasters and shipped worldwide to the uttermost delight of older, more mature, more serious games, who had finally found the one real first person shooter.
Several years later, Bohemia and Codemasters divorced. The name Operation Flashpoint was Codemasters property, so the Czechs could not release a sequel with the same name. So they opted for ArmA. It was supposed to be a transitional game until the proper Operation Flashpoint sequel could be created. Following the incredible success of the original title, there was a frenzy in the community. And last year, it happened.
Codemasters released their interpretation of Operation Flashpoint 2, called Dragon Rising. Bohemia Interactive unleashed ArmA II. This review is about the latter, although I will give you a 20-second speech on Dragon, as well.
ArmA II, grab and try
I tried the free demo on Steam, using my HP laptop as the testbench. The machine has fairly decent specs, including a reasonable graphics card, so I did not expect any issues with the gameplay. The demo is almost 3GB worth of data.
The download was successful and I launched the game.
First impressions, game settings
The game was virtually unplayable. I tried changing the details level from high to low and back again, without any effect. So it was not the resolution or the graphics level issue. The motion in the game remained slow and jerky, with a massive delay that made my fingers hurt trying to overcompensate.
Googling about, I learned that ArmA II played much better with anti-aliasing and filtering turned off, so I did this. Lo and behold, the game became playable. While I may not have the perfect rig, I managed 30-40 FPS, which should be fairly decent for singleplayer stuff. There's a lot more to be said about how the game engine has been implemented and how it affects playability, but I won't go into technical details, I'll only provide the simple impression of an avid gamer. First mission, here I go. A short ferry by a chopper and you're in combat.
ArmA II is nothing like you've played before. There's a supposedly human-like delay introduced to any motion you try, which is supposed to simulate the body intertia and the extra 20 kg of combat gear you're lugging, impeding the grace and fluidity of your movement. Sounds good, but the problem is, you cannot possibly translate the delicate mechanism of hundreds of muscles, bones and tendons into keyboard-and-mouse signals.
End result? Your character in ArmA II feels heavy and slow. Even though you run at a decent pace, you feel the weight of the dampening forces. After a while, you will feel the strain in your wrists. You will be annoyed.
Going the other way around is not a solution either. Instant change of direction or speed is not what humans do, so no arcade for sure, but once again, there's no way a linear, almost binary electric output of the keyboard can simulate what happens in our body when we try to do something. The digital detachment makes for very unnatural feel, and you won't get used to it even after many hours of gaming, provided you survive that long.
Another element that hampers the experience are transition animations. Like the original game, there's no jumping in ArmA II, so if you want to clear an obstacle, you need to kind of climb over. Regardless of the obstacle in question, animations are identical and cannot be stopped once initiated. So you will see yourself doing a weird sidestep when climbing over a 4 cm rock. It's absurd. The same goes for rolling on the ground. It feels as if the whole of Planet Earth pitched just to accommodate your kidneys.
Overall, the sub-optimal gameplay due to supposedly inferior hardware, although an i5 processor and an Nvidia GT 320M card with 1GB VRAM should be more than sufficient for just about anything, plus the robotic-like heavyweight handicap, make for a very alien and unfriendly experience.
It gets worse, I'm afraid. Like most modern games, ArmA II attempts to look real. Now, almost every single game tries to achieve near-real-life video-footage quality by doing two things: 1) adding clutter 2) hazing the details over so they appear blurred. Here's an example:
What's up with the horrible sun glare? How come? On one hand, you have crystal-clear shadow outlines for trees, bushes and houses. On the other hand, you have a moderate continental climate with just a bit of steppe. On the third hand, you have haze and bleached sky glare that are more fitting to 90% humidity sub-tropical regions. It's a mix between Rio in Brazil and Svitavy in the Czech Republic. A paradox, really. Now, the real action is supposed to happen in a fictitious Russian republic. Go figure.
Clutter wise, ArmA II is relatively modest, although you will catch an occasional pile of nothing really important, it's just there to inflate the size of data on the disk. Real life is far less detailed, plus when you're running with a gun and trying to kill people, you experience tunnel vision and you don't really care about daisies growing in the field around you or the weird pattern of lichen on a rock right there. Still, it looks much better than pretty much any counterpart game, and you're spared most of apocalyptic rubble that you see in typical arcades, like Modern Warfare 2.
Now, let's be fair. The graphics is extremely well done. The landscape is beautiful. People and vehicles are rendered with stunning precision. The display of colors is realistic. You get lots of muted drabs, greens and gray, lots of dirt and dust. If only the blur and glare were toned down, more like the original game where you have slight fog at a distance, it would be superb.
If you can forgive a bit of coding showoff, you will enjoy the graphics. More importantly, once you immerse yourself into combat, you will forget the little details and focus on surviving the battle.
Now, you may assume that the game physics and the over-zealous graphics might interfere with the gameplay. You assume correctly. However, if you're into first person shooters other than silly teen titles, then you won't really care much about what it looks like. You'll focus on what it plays like.
In this regard, I must admit, ArmA II is as good as the original. You have vast, open maps, smart artificial intelligence, one shot one kill, long-range engagements, cooperation between infantry, armor, artillery, and air units, the confusion, the helplessness, everything. Seeing a large body of troops move in cohesion, slowly advancing toward death and terror is inspiring. You want to be a part of that big, brutal, cold machine called war.
The first two missions are sufficient to give you a good feel what the game is all about. The combat engagements are sudden and hectic. You don't have the big picture. You don't understand what is happening around you. You follow your commander and you hope that the instructions he has make sense. On a large scale, it's a military operation with clear-defined goals. Down there, in the battlezone, it's a bunch of frigthened soldiers hoping to avoid the next bullet.
Sounds in the game are phenomenal. The crack of rifles is as real as it gets. The long whoosh of artillery is eerily true. You get some echo, but not that much, since the first two maps happen across the flat, open ground. You don't really know where the fire is coming from and you have to concentrate real hard. The audio effects add immensely to the quality of experience. The shots are fairly sporadic. Unlike Call of Duty, the radio chatter is minimal, with only a few sparse commands barked.
Explosions are also great, too. Quick flashes of bright light followed by lots of dirt and gray smoke. But this is nothing new, it has already been done in the original game. Man, that looks Reuters quality.
You won't easily spot your foes. And when you do, they will be tiny dots in the distance, gone the next second, hidden by the curve of the terrain or a clump of trees. Furthermore, since all soldiers look pretty much the same, you won't really be able to identify the enemy that easily. Most often, you will shoot in the general direction where you expect the foes to be rather than rely on precise visual identification. Just like reality.
Part of ArmA's unique gameplay is the ability to contact local population. This has never been tried before. You will have to be careful and diplomatic and all that, nothing you have trained for. Plus, you will have a hard time telling the enemy apart from local rebels and whatnot. So if you hesitate before you shoot, that's good, but it will also lead to a handful of embarressing deaths on your end, forcing you to replay the mission.
On top of all that, you get other little things that make it all work well. If you turn toward one of your fellow soldiers, they will salute you or greet you. You can also talk to the indigenous forces, using your English. Now, there's Andy, and he says hi.
You will get wounded. Or killed. Interacting with wounded soldiers is also smartly done. If you encounter a hurt comrade, you can drag him to safety. Grab his vest and pull him away behind a building or something, then wait for a medic to arrive. Don't expect any instant miracles, though.
Likewise, if you're hurt, you'll see a tragic, slightly overplayed scene of the world from your weird prone position, with blood-hazed vision, labored breathing and all the accompanying effects of getting hit in the stomach with a small-caliber rifle round.
One thing I did not like about the gameplay is that when you turn your head left or right, the scenery blurs for a moment or two. Supposed to simulate lack of focus, but it can't really be done. Human sight can compensate for self movement, that is, head bobbing and suchlike does not interfere much with our ability to focus and see well. On the other hand, moving or jittering objects are hard to see. Which is exactly what happens on the screen. There's no physical way you can simulate eye movement. End result is a somewhat nauseating effect that spoils the overall fun. Something like this:
Issuing commands in ArmA II has taken a turn for the worse. In Operation Flashpoint, you had the sequenced commands, in the style of soldier, go to, place, bearing. But it was narrated quickly, plus you had a choice of voices, from deep booming to thin and pitched. The voices were also used smartly, with the big booming voice going to a big, potato-fed American farmer boy and the thin one going to a small, potato-fed Russian farmer boy.
In ArmA II, you get a retarted version, with individual words spoken with a long pause, so it sounds like a telephony operator. Plus, the voices are neutral, passive and they lack emotion, hardly fitting combat. Now, just like in the original, you still get the cliche names. There was Gastowski, and now you have Kozlowski. Can't get any cornier than that. Apparently 90% of all US troops are Polaks.
Overall, you can forgive the little glitches and focus on the pure combat. You won't see them running around, waiting for you to kill them. You won't see it coming. When you die, you die instantly. It's brutal and fun. You will feel a part of a merciless military campaign, you will feel like a bit of statistics on someone's order of battle sheet.
ArmA II is a very decent game. It has quite a few big issues, like the playability on anything but top-end hardware. Then, there's the weird physics engine that spoils the gameplay a bit. There's glare where there should be none. But the essential part of the game is Bohemia Interactive. Combat is done every bit gritty and hard as it was in the original.
Despite a very positive impression, which takes time ripening, mind, I don't feel the same sense of attachment like I did with the original. I remember my first game in Operation Flashpoint. It was a mind-boggling revolution and ecstasy. It was instant love. ArmA II plays great, but it does not have the homey touch that made the original so special. Considering the enormity of the task at hand, besting the best, ArmA II makes an extremely good job, but it does not surpass the original title.
Regardless, ArmA II is intended for serious players and hardcore realists. If you're more of an arcade kind of guy, forget this game ever existed and play something more suitable to your mental level. ArmA II is wild and raw and cruel and it won't give you any slack.
Graphics gets 9/10, and it's not pure 10 because of the glare and eye blurring. The physics engine is the weakest element, so 5/10. Gameplay is perfect 10/10, perhaps 20/10. Nostalgia plays a big part here, too. If you've played Operation Flashpoint before, you will suffer from a nostalgia syndrome. Overall, 8/10.
Recommendation: Try it, you will like it, but you won't fall in love. Free demo is a good choice to decide whether you wish to spend some money. The Czechs have done a superb job, but the problem is, they've already done that once. Until Operation Flashpoint fades into the annals of history, there won't be another FPS. Bohemia Interactive is its own enemy here, unfortunately. And you can't beat that.
Finally, one word about Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising. One word: arcade. Don't buy it.