Developer: Bohemia Interactive
Publisher: Bohemia Interactive
Waiting is an inescapable part of the Arma 3 experience.
You'll lie motionless in tall grass for what feels like an eternity, scanning the expansive horizon for an enemy soldier to break cover before squeezing off the perfect sniper shot. You'll tread water in full SCUBA gear underneath a speedboat, waiting for a moment to sabotage its engines and disappear back into the depths. You'll scan enemy patrols through your binoculars, hoping for an opportunity to infiltrate their position or tell your team-mate to lob a mortar shell into their midst, or ferry squads of allied troopers into battle in a helicopter, waiting to see if this next trip will be cut short by bursts of AA fire. As a simulation aimed squarely at a dedicated PC audience, patience is every bit as important as a mouse or pair of beefy graphics cards.
However, we'll also have to wait several weeks - if not months and years - for Bohemia's simulation sandbox to fully realise its clear and obvious potential.
Like Arma II and Operation Flashpoint before it, Arma 3 is not a run and gun shooter. Instead it's a game that focuses on the reality of war, on the execution of complex plans throughout enormous maps, and then working out how to salvage them when everything falls apart. Throughout two truly expansive playgrounds - the 290km² islands of Altis and Stratis - you'll pick one of four factions and descend into infantry, underwater, armoured and airborne engagements.
These enormous environments make combat a much more tense and nervewracking experience than your usual FPS fare: long periods of inactivity or vehicular travel punctuated by brutally decisive and explosive bouts of gunfire. If not the sickening crack of a skull perforated by a perfectly-aimed sniper bullet from a distant peak. Realistic physics, reload times and stamina ground you in the reality of the situation, alongside a versatile selection of weapons with meaty sound effects. Compared to the likes of Call Of Duty and even Battlefield, it's a welcome dose of nail-biting tension and authenticity in a genre that, for many people, has lost its way.
"Will it run Arma 3?" PC hardware nuts have been waiting for another benchmark game to come along, and Bohemia have delivered what is perhaps one of the prettiest games available on the platform. Superb real-time lighting, crisp textures and detailed models bring the islands to life with exceptional clarity, at least if you can ramp up the graphics options to high or ultra. The clear Grecian waters teem with fish, while the islands are full of ambient wildlife, but the micro scale soon becomes irrelevant next to the macro majesty of it all. A whopping draw distance lets you see leagues into the distance, to the foothills and ocean beyond, knowing that the movements of every AI soldier and player are being simultaneously tracked and represented miles away. There's a price to pay for these sumptuous visuals and epic scale, which we'll get to later, but first impressions are awe-inspiring.
More to the point, long slogs through or flights over the terrain are worth it just for the virtual sightseeing alone.
Your first port of call will be Showcase section, a selection of scenarios designed to show off the new gameplay features and act as perfunctory tutorials. The infantry tutorial demonstrates a reworked stance system, with numerous speeds and positions to assume, and pleasingly smooth animations between them. You'll sample the new SCUBA combat that gives you three degrees of freedom and an entirely new set of weapons to master. Vehicle handling has been completely reworked, letting you hoon around the hills in an APC or bark out orders as a tank commander, though piloting helicopters and jets is still has hardcore as ever. If you don't know what 'cyclic' and 'collective' mean, prepare for several dozen embarrassing crashes... before deciding to control a fantastic array of drone aircraft instead.
Arma 3 lets you choose your own role and become incredibly skilled at one specific thing, whether it's acting as a helicopter taxi service, submarine pilot or spotter for a mortar team, and encourages you to master your craft. Whatever you want from a military simulation, chances are you can do it here, and find your calling.
After you've smashed through the learning curve, that is. Unless you're a series veteran, you'll have to come to terms with an arcane series of keystrokes to access the wealth of stances and communication/support options, not to mention a clunky action menu bound to the mousewheel. It's a necessary evil that won't and shouldn't be marked down, but an unavoidable one. The AI certainly won't help ease you into the swing of things during your formative hours, instead punishing you with unerring accuracy once spotted by enemy troops. On the other side of the coin, allies are embarrassingly useless, seemingly incapable of doing more than the simplest of tasks (and exhibiting some nasty regurgitated voice work), meaning that you'll quickly want to seek out human beings to fight with and against.
So once you've cut your teeth in the Showcases, you'll then have to wade into an endless ocean of user-generated content in search of the real action.
See, Arma 3 takes a very literal approach to the term "sandbox." Bohemia provided the maps and a staggeringly intimidating editor, then basically just sat back and told the Steam Workshop community to start playing with it. Hundreds of user-made scenarios are already available to download, both in terms of cooperative engagements and multiplayer maps, either directly from Steam Workshop or automatically when joining a match from the server list.
'Hit and miss' doesn't quite cover it. Sometimes you'll end up in a superbly designed military operation requiring tight teamwork and plenty of improvisation to complete, as you reconnoitre the landscape, tactically move forward and occasionally put your pedal to the metal when the odds flip in the enemy's favour - resulting in a hard-earned win (Insurgency and Operation Fault Line both come highly recommended). You'll encounter plenty of grin-inducing fun, most of which revolve around harassing enemy convoys with helicopters or jets like a gorgeous hardcore Jungle Strike reboot, or homages to other classic games. And, of course, you'll also find yourself mired in a pointless boring grind or a vast expanse of sweet bugger all more often than not. The best scenarios are already starting to stand out from the pack, while the powerful editor will eventually lead to mods that eclipse the original game itself (see also: DayZ), but we're not quite there yet.
Once again, patience is the key as you separate the wheat from the chaff and delve into the Steam community to get some user suggestions... or start editing for yourself. Be sure to find a Steam guide or YouTube video as a starting point.
Cooperative play is fantastic fun so long as you get involved with trustworthy acquaintances or find yourself on a friendly server (I personally found the Arma community to be very hospitable in the main, willing to talk me through some of the more advanced features so long as I didn't get in the way). The enormous playgrounds and wealth of vehicles leads to emergent gameplay that's never the same every time, each match providing plenty of water cooler moments and near-death experiences to brag about while waiting for the next match to load.
The competitive multiplayer is also excellent and unmistakeably Arma, with colossal swathes of ground playing host to relatively few players, resulting in tense games of cat and mouse and a truly satisfying first kill. Mine came courtesy of an enemy driver who inexplicably jumped out of his APC right next to my grassy hiding spot, at which point I riddled him with pistol bullets and stole his vehicle to rendezvous with the rest of my team. Cheap, but so very delicious. Many of the best operations and gametypes are over-subscribed, whereas others are sparsely populated, meaning that setting up your own sessions or joining a clan will be a must if you plan on regularly getting involved online.
Now for the bad news: for a £39.99 release, Arma 3 isn't all there. Numerous vehicles are still missing in action (each faction only has one shared boat, for example, while jets are painfully limited), while the 2030s setting seems to be almost bereft of near-future technology to use. Perhaps more controversially, though, the entire singleplayer campaign is absent at launch. I've nothing against the idea of drip-feeding us the campaign as free DLC in theory, but personally, I feel that it would have been more appropriate to release the game at a lower price point before giving players the option to buy the singleplayer portion down the line - adding up to forty quid total. As opposed to, you know, making everyone pay for content that doesn't exist. Frankly I'm not convinced there's enough to justify the price tag yet. Yet.
Perhaps the biggest issue, though, is the performance cost of Arma 3's visuals and scale. Frame rate varies wildly even between singleplayer missions, let alone well-populated co-op or competitive games, often meaning that you'll log 25-40 FPS at high or ultra settings one minute and less than 20 the next. Expect the latter when playing online, especially during larger or more complex scenarios even if you spend an age fiddling about with the menu minutiae.
Putting a score on Arma 3 is incredibly difficult, then. A superb wargame is in here, waiting for you, but plenty of content is missing or difficult to find and wildly inconsistent in quality. Not unlike the frame rate. Once the Steam Workshop and modding community gets even more experienced with the editor (and Bohemia rolls out some frequent updates alongside the solo campaign), we expect the game to evolve far beyond its original remit, and the final score will become totally meaningless in time.
I'd love to award Arma 3 an 8/10 or higher, but I can't, at least not at launch. It's not finished, yet costs full whack. We have to review what we've got. Thankfully our Editor's Choice Award was made for exactly this occasion.
- Rewarding no-compromise gameplay in utterly enormous environments
- Jaw-dropping visuals and draw distance
- Impressive variety of combat roles, from drone pilots to snipers, SCUBA assassins and tank commanders
- Practically infinite potential for mappers, editors and modders; will last for years
- Shockingly inconsistent performance and frame rate
- Many features missing at launch (not limited to numerous vehicles and singleplayer campaign)
- Reliance on user-generated content makes quality incredibly variable
- Idiotic friendly AI, nasty recycled voice samples
The Short Version: Arma 3 will be a brilliant game, and its incomplete launch is impressive enough to recommend to military simulation fans with little hesitation. Unfortunately we'll have to wait for its full potential to be realised and numerous missing features to be added, meaning that the smart move might be to hold off on a purchase until Arma 3 unambiguously deserves its £39.99 price tag.
If you love the idea of experimenting with user-generated content and taking patient first steps into an authentic military sandbox, though, it probably already does.