Updated: December 16, 2023
The one and only true First Person Shooter (FPS) game in the world has a name: ArmA 3. Since its inception, Bohemia Interactive's franchise of realistic war simulation has always been focused on modern-era combat and technology. Operation Flashpoint was all about the 1980s Cold War. ArmA 2 covered the modern battle landscape. ArmA 3 takes the conceptual futuristic battlefield and brings it close. The game has never been about the olden days, ergo World War Two.
That didn't stop the gaming community from unleashing mods, left and right, covering pretty much all and any scenario. After all, a great strength of the ArmA 3 engine is that it can be modded so easily, and you can have lots of cool stuff beyond the game defaults. Thus, for instance, the community was able to pretty much recreate the entire Chernarus setting (ArmA 2) for the latest release. And the game just seems to be getting more and more popular. Indeed, more recently, we saw an influx of big, serious DLCs focused on past theaters of war. I've already reviewed some of these here, including S.O.G. Prairie Fire and Global Mobilization. Now, I'd like to talk about the WW2-themed DLC called Spearhead 1944. Band of Brothers. Shaving Private Ryan. Or something. Let us begin.
The problem with cinematic-themed mods? Cinematic action.
As most DLC, this one brings its own maps, its own single- and multiplayer missions, plus tons of new weapons and tools. Of course, you can play both sides of the conflict, but the built-in scenarios focus on the Allied side. My friends and I decided to try a few CO-OP missions, to see what gives.
Right away, we noticed an over-abundance of information. For example, the CO-04 mission lets you select among three distinct objectives. The map looks chaotic (and somewhat cartoonish), supposedly intended to resemble the maps of yore. Notice humor, the name of our unit, Baguette. Witty. So yes, you can play as the French resistance.
We decided to go on a little sabotage mission. But we immediately encountered a couple of problems. Night time fighting is supposed to be terrifying, but on a computer screen, an over-dark, hazy setup merely looks exhausting, not exciting. There was also waaaay too much chatter from the AI units, intended to help you immerse yourself in the action. Instead, it creates noise (not in the pure aural sense) and confusion, and goes against the basic logic of a stealthy infiltration task. The AI would-be mission commander also uses cliche terms to describe the enemy. Fine for a movie, not so for a war simulator.
Rather than having an ArmA feel, Spearhead actually instantly reminded me of Hidden & Dangerous, which was a super-cool spec-ops shooter slash tactical commando game from 2003. This ain't a bad comparison, at all, but this is not what you expect from ArmA really.
Soon enough, there was chaos and mayhem and all that. You can't fault ArmA's realism, attention to detail, the weapons ballistics. These are spot-on. Playing with WW2-era guns can be tedious, though. And overall, the atmosphere feels a bit off.
How about armored combat?
Next, we decided to try Defense of Pont-Brocard. This is a highly complex CO-OP mission, with tons of different crews (six to be more precise). You can play as infantry, tank crew, tank destroyer crew, AT gun crew, and then some. This mission is supposed to be, in a way, a loose recreation of the final battle in Saving Private Ryan. You have a bridge to defend and whatnot. Of course, there's the pre-mission objective vote and all that.
I played this scenario a good three or four times, to see whether there's variation in how it's generated, and where the enemy units spawn, and if playing different elements of the defense force affects the mission results, and/or adds to the experience of the mission as a whole.
Instantly, I found a few rather annoying (and commonly repeatable) characteristics to this scenario, too. Again, it's unnecessarily chaotic, as in, there's too much happening, probably in order to create the sense of combat confusion, but this merely makes the game too arcade-like. Fog, bad lightning, lots of background explosions, NPCs talking all the time, as if radio wasn't (and still isn't) a precious asset used only when strictly required.
WW2 armored vehicles are noisy beasts. They are slow, lumbering. Gun aiming is manual, reloading is manual and takes time, and here, you can actually appreciate the gritty nature of combat. While playing the Defense of Pont-Brocard, I tried to ignore the in-game messages and just focus on getting the job done.
The enemy came in (predictable) ways, infantry and tanks. You can't really see much, because the haze makes the scenario feel more like Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory than the slick and uber-realistic ArmA. I am not sure how much we contributed to the outcome of the scenario really. There are so many friendly AI units, so that even if you sit out the entire fighting sequence, the victory for the defenders seems inevitable. A few times, we managed to shoot only a handful of enemy soldiers, or destroy just one or two vehicles, and yet, nonetheless, the other side surrendered. Every single time. As a consequence, I felt no engagement, because my actions were rather meaningless. Here, much like in Hidden & Dangerous, the enemy soldiers can surrender.
The worst part? Once the mission ends, you end up with a cheesy, black & white video, supposedly a documentary of the fighting. This is really not my cup of tea.
After playing a handful of DLC-provided scenarios with lukewarm satisfaction, my friend and I decided to try a handful of DRO missions on Altis, with the Allied and Axis factions, and WW2 weaponry. When I wrote this review, I couldn't find a DRO scenario in the Workshop, so playing on Altis was the next best thing. Sure, some things were off, especially architecture wise, but the raw combat was spot on. Hard, grueling, exhausting (in a good way). Only after firing some of the vintage guns do you really appreciate how sleek and accurate modern tools of war really are.This proved to be a much more enjoyable endeavor.
We then hit the sandbox mission on Stratis, and went wild testing all of the available tools in the DLC. There are lots of goodies, everything a grown boy needs. When it comes to the simulation element, nothing beats ArmA. The weapons do whatever the original article did back in the day, for better or worse. Flying a lumbering and HUGE P-47 or a sleek but ultra-noisy Fw-190D is a blast. The clank and scream of aircraft engines, the groan of wood, the smell of leaded petrol, all there. Except the last one, of course, duh.
Most ArmA 3 DLCs are reasonable. I mean, Spearhead ain't bad. But sometimes, oftentimes, less is more. By trying to combine cinematographic drama with war simulation, this DLC errs on the side of arcade and takes away from the essence of ArmA, which is blood and sweat and slow, careful combat. With NPCs going wild, they merely saturate your senses, they don't "simulate" war. And any attempt to make war look like what you see on the silver screen is plain and simple wrong. Understandable, but wrong.
I found the built-in missions inadequate. That said, the attention to detail is spot on. You get fantastic uniforms, fantastic weapons, great recreation of ancient technology. But if you want to enjoy it fully, then you are better off playing custom scenarios of your own, where you can focus on the purity of war simulation, and not be distracted by movie chitchat. Well, worth buying, especially if you've always wanted an official WW2 ArmA mod. Other than that, the raw gaming performance (and FPS) can be a bit better, but this ought to be ironed out over time. Well, that would be all for today. Closing credits.