“The antithesis of the cinematic AAA game, ArmA II can be shunned or lauded based on the same gameplay footage.”
Developer: Bohemia Interactive
Publisher: 505 Games
Release Dates: June 19, 2009 (main game); June 29, 2010 (Operation Arrowhead); 2010-2012 (DLCs)
Genre: First-Person Shooter; Third-Person Shooter; Military Simulator
NOTE: To get a better idea of what the purpose of the experimental style of this review is, please read this article.
The key to writing a good video game review is realising that it is not worth sharing your personal views on a game when you are incapable of explaining what they are based on. This may seem like stating the obvious, but a considerable part of the reviews – even those from professional outlets – tend to be descriptive rather than analytical. Describing the music, graphics and overall polish of a video game will hardly pose a challenge to the more experienced reviewer, but it still occurs all too often that they fail to establish a clear link between the technical information and their overall view on the game. Such an omission is strange, considering it is futile to throw about superlatives and share information that the audience might already be familiar with, if the reviewer does not point out its significance for the overall experience. This flaw in the standard review model is related to the notion that the main purpose of a review is to serve as a buyer’s guide. This is a misconception, because gamers have so many other, superior means at their disposal to gather basic information about a game. As a reviewer it can thus be very frustrating to be expected to tell readers what they probably already know, not only because it generates a check-list model that leaves little room for actual analysis, but because it diverts attention away from what is really important. Putting too much emphasis on technicalities can lead to a high school-type grading model, where points are deducted for errors in form and structure, with the actual content being barely relevant. This why it is near impossible for a reviewer stuck in the buyer’s guide mentality, to properly assess a technically perfect game that leaves no lasting impression on them, or a flawed game that still manages to provide an experience so memorable that it reminds them why they like video games in the first place.
ArmA has always been a love-it-or-hate-it experience.
With all the shortcomings and issues of the standard video game review model in mind, ArmA II: Combined Operations  proves a particularly difficult case for even the most seasoned of reviewers. This is confirmed by the initial critical reception of ArmA II: according to Metacritic, the scores handed out by professional reviewers range from 66 to 92 out of 100, with the game averaging at a solid but far from impressive 77 out of 100. And indeed, it is near impossible to give ArmA II one consistent verdict that definitively answers the question of whether or not the reader should buy it. Being the one-of-a-kind series that it is, ArmA (and Operation Flashpoint before that) has always been a love-it-or-hate-it experience, with the gamer’s disposition towards this military simulator depending upon not only their ability to overcome the uninviting learning curve, but also their willingness to cope with the uncanny amount of quirks, bugs and general imperfections that the game throws at them. As such, this review will be more effective providing insight into the kind of experience the game can provide. This is preferably over producing elaborate buyer’s advice that, in the end, would effectively render itself obsolete, seeing as reviews that fall into this category eventually all boil down to score fetishism.
One of the biggest errors one could make when taking a glance at screenshots or artwork of ArmA II: Combined Operations, is to assume that its modern military setting means that its gameplay shares common ground with blockbuster arcade shooters that use a similar backdrop. Not only does the fact that it is a military simulator guarantee a much more dedicated effort to mimic realism, but its overall presentation disassociates itself as much from the ‘manshooter’ aesthetic as the gameplay. Because indeed, a commonly heard complaint is that modern military shooters offer uncreative settings that seem to be based around a potpourri of cringeworthy stereotypes rather than an attempt at authenticity. And while this assessment is certainly true for some of the more widely known first-person shooter franchises, ArmA II’s presentations of both the fictional Eastern European state of Chernarus and the Afghanistan-based country of Takistan are in full concurrence with the aspiration towards realism that is so evident from the core gameplay. Particularly Chernarus ranks itself among the finest open worlds in video games to date, as it offers a near harrowingly authentic portrayal of post-Soviet gloom . Mostly a rural map, the majority of Chernarus is covered in dense forests, with the occasional structures and settlements betraying a human presence. Meanwhile, the coastal towns consist primarily of factories and typical Soviet structures that were obviously designed with the sole purpose of functionality. World War 2 monuments and communist murals hint towards a glorious but bloody past. It is truly extraordinary how well the developers have managed to capture this melancholy vibe in a game that employs the allegedly worn-out modern military setting. The idea that artistic design can only be creative when it is cel-shaded or drawn by hand has lost any credibility it may have had left.
Naturally, a game that presents its world(s) so realistically can only make sense when it has the gameplay to match. And even more so than its predecessor, ArmA II: Combined Operations lives up to this prospect, even if the unstable game engine often manages to mar the immersion somewhat. The game showcases incredible ambition on so many levels that it would serve little purpose to try and cover every aspect. Instead, let us focus on those elements that are the most crucial in shaping this experience. The movement, for instance, is a fine example of the developers’ utter disregard for conventions, making for gameplay that may not be the most comfortable, but certainly something special and verisimilar. True, defying the norm does not necessarily serve a purpose, but the movement in ArmA II proves that it is high time that we reconsider the way in which motion works in first-person games. The scalable head-bob may not be an absolutely genuine representation of actual movement, but this feature, which is perhaps best described as a shakey-cam effect to the layman, does succeed in emulating the slight disorientation that may be experienced after running certain distances. In combination with heavy breathing sound effects, a gradual loss of accuracy and the thumping sound of boots pounding the forest floor, this makes for unparalleled lifelike movement: a sharp contrast indeed with the tripod-on-wheels feel that still prevails in many first-person games.
Perhaps even more vital to the success of a military game is the shooting aspect in all its facets. As can be expected from a simulator, the handling of the weapons underwent a realistic treatment true to the nature of the game. This has been successful for the most part, with every weapon having its own, characteristic feel: older, less sophisticated weapons will have more recoil and concede considerably in terms of accuracy. Bullet drop has also been customised for each gun, meaning that you will not be able to hit distant targets with a weapon that has been designed for close-quarter combat, although some weapons can be calibrated, effectively compensating the bullet drop effect. On a more critical note, some assault rifles, particularly the ones that came with the base game, feel like they lack weight, particularly due to the relatively low volume of the associated sound effects. However, this problem is less obvious in the Operation Arrowhead guns, and totally absent in the weaponry that comes with the latest DLC, Army of the Czech Republic. But, regardless of the minor weight issues, experimenting with the radically varied weaponry of Combined Operations is a true joy, even more so because a different choice in weapon can dictate a vastly different style of gameplay. This versatility does not only manifests itself in obvious ways such as the difference between a shotgun and a sniper rifle: even a wrong choice in assault rifle can prove fatal when it has not been designed for the type of combat at hand, for example due to a low firing rate or a lack of stability.
Outnumbered enemy troops might even attempt to escape the battlefield.
Choosing a weapon that will be able to see you through combat is essential, because the AI will put up a serious fight. Taking on computer-controlled enemy units can prove a dangerous task due to their unconventional behaviour compared to other gun-based games. True to military tactics, enemies will rarely charge you head-on, and instead use cover to manoeuvre around the battlezone without entering your line of sight. Especially in more urbanised areas, this can lead to exciting cat-and-mouse games where both you and your enemy could very well end up running around the entire town, double-flanking each other, until one of you shoots the other in the back. Outnumbered enemy troops might even attempt to escape the battlefield when they realise their chances of successfully fending off the opposing force have diminished to near zero. Unfortunately, however, as with many sandbox games, particularly those by small developers (S.T.A.L.K.E.R. et al.), a lack of proper motion capture and general unrefinedness seriously hurt the convincingness of the AI. The animations are utterly primitive, and due to generally terrible path-finding, computer-controlled characters appear to be downright incapable of seamlessly executing certain tasks, most notably driving. Their inconsistency may even affect the combat itself, as enemy troops frequently spot you way too early, making forest-based combat in particular more frustrating than it should be. It is unfortunate, though, that the AI in Arma II has barely received any praise on the account of its shortcomings, all the while enemy soldiers are, in fact, capable of dynamically executing tactics and manoeuvres that can simply not be witnessed in any other game, making for a very rare type of foe that may sometimes genuinely outsmart its human opponents.
The dynamic combat on an unrestricted battlefield makes for unique gameplay.
With a profound armoury and AI that can, at the very least, be labelled as ‘interesting’, ArmA II: Combined Operations has at its disposal several key ingredients to a truly magical recipe. The dynamic combat on an unrestricted battlefield makes for unique gameplay that will turn out completely different upon each new session. Ultimately, this type of gameplay is particularly rewarding, as it becomes very fruitful to share your experiences with other players and experiment with different tactics. The biggest obstruction in enjoying this gameplay to the fullest extent is formed by the fact that ArmA II is very much a game that has you shape your own experience. Players who refuse to commit themselves to learning the ins and outs of the mission editor, for instance, are missing out on an integral part of the game. Said 2D editor allows for the creation of custom missions and even entire campaigns, though taking full advantage of its possibilities will require familiarising oneself with basic scripting commands. While this is by no means an impossible task for even the biggest of neophytes, it is a time-consuming task that not every gamer will be prepared to sink their teeth in.
Alternatively, the game features several campaigns that each offer a respectable amount of story-based single player content. In most of these campaigns, it does become apparent that the game engine was not designed for stable, cinematic gameplay, making for an experience that will be interrupted by utterly unimpressive cutscenes, dubious scripting and various gameplay bugs. Still, it is more the overhauling storyline structure that exposes the weaknesses of the game engine than the missions themselves. This becomes particularly apparent in the dozens of single missions, many of which present unconventional scenarios and terribly exciting gameplay. The fact that the game attempts to interweave some of these missions by making them part of a campaign, highlights the issues with pacing and stability. Eventually, this culminates in too high a rate of flaws and imperfections, effectively sucking some of the enjoyment out of missions that, in themselves, can be very worthwhile to play through.
ArmA II is a game like no other.
But even with the game’s shortcomings uncharmingly surfacing more frequently than would be desirable, ArmA II does provide many special moments, allowing the military simulator to distinguish itself as a game like no other. It is on these very moments that every element comes together, and you are forced to dip into all of your combat experience and tactical insight to fend off a fierce enemy attack, that you appreciate just how far this game goes in providing an experience so dauntingly realistic that it appeals to senses you have simply never felt before in a video game. Instances such as fleeing from an enemy patrol through a forest clad in total darkness, breathing heavily, as the bullets whiz pass your head, create an anxiety akin to that of horror/survival games, yet arguably even more genuine due to the absence of cheap scare tactics. So while the game does have to cope with a notorious lack of stability in some areas, it manages to absolutely nail so many other concepts, that it becomes easy to forgive the discolouration of some parts of the painting and be perplexed by the overpowering beauty of the complete picture.
It is not easy to capture the appeal of ArmA II in words. Its steep learning curve and complex game mechanics make this military simulator an easy target for superficial qualifications such as ‘boring’. In addition, it is particularly difficult for reviewers to judge this game within the standard review model. A few minutes with ArmA II will reveal to anyone that the game concedes considerably in terms of polish, as to permit the overambitious developers to materialise their wild ideas. In combination with the fashion in which the game juxtapositions innovative game design with convoluted menus and controls, this means that definitive judgement can sway wildly depending on something as trivial as the mood of the reviewer. The antithesis of the cinematic AAA game, ArmA II can be praised for its refreshing complexity or shunned for its omnipresent clunkiness based on the same gameplay footage. Bohemia Interactive’s Opus Magnum can even make some reviewers ponder over the integral conventions of their craft. One possible result of this auto-analytical thought process is the reconsideration of the customary review model. Maybe it is indeed time that we cast the score-focused, buyer’s guide ideal out of the window, and allow ourselves to value an elevated experience – deeply flawed as it may be. As such, the impertinent final verdict may be gleefully ignored by those of you who are reading this.
 Combined Operations is a combination of ArmA II (the main game) and Operation Arrowhead (the expansion). This review covers the Combined Operations version of ArmA II, and also takes into account the DLCs that can be added to the game, and are in fact included in some editions.
 Seeing as the Soviet nostalgia emitted by its propaganda fascinates me, I once tried to capture it in this video.
All screenshots by Draugen for System Wars Magazine.