Back in 2001 there was a game called Operation Flashpoint: Cold War Crisis on the PC. It was developed by a small European company named Bohemia Interactive, and the game was groundbreaking for its day. It was a giant open world warfare simulator that let players drive tanks, fly helicopters, and control troops. It's always stuck in my head as an amazing gaming experience. I tell you this because Bohemia has created a brand new title in a similar vein called ArmA 2. Like Operation Flashpoint and ArmA before it, it's a giant open world military simulation giving the player a ton of freedom. With a single player campaign playable in co-op, numerous bonus features like an armory of all the game's objects, a mission editor, an incredibly deep online mode, and literally hundreds of vehicles and weapons - there's very little here to get bored of.
ArmA 2 thankfully supplies you with a series of training excercises to get you familiar with the game and game world. After that it's off to do whatever it is you want to do. There's several quick missions you can hop right into, or you can pick up the game's story. The Red Harvest story puts you in control of a squad of operatives placed into a country at war. The game's map is approximately 225km, and every inch of that is at your disposal. You'll find missions that take you from one end to the other, with various forms of transportation at your disposal to quicken the journey. Your squad constantly communicates enemy positions and points of interest to each other, almost too frequently, adding to the immersion of the game. Unfortunately the voice acting is some of the worst I've heard in a long time for a game, so don't expect any Morgan Freeman style voice overs.
Everybody loves a pretty game, and ArmA 2 is by far one of the most realistic looking games to date on any system, huge, expansive, lifelike environments lay in front of you. It's the little touches, like grass the gets flattened as you crawl over it, that add to the experience. Of course all that pretty takes a toll on your PC, so be prepared to do some tweaking - or invest in an upgrade. The audio effects work well enough, though the odd guitar riffs and music that randomly seem to pop up during the campaign feel a bit out of place.
ArmA 2 is a military sim, and should be treated as such. Running and gunning does you no good, and it only takes one stray bullet to knock you off your feet. Teamwork and communication are crucial. And while you can heal characters to a certain degree, being shot causes sustained injury, so expect to be gimping around for the rest of the mission if healed. The biggest problem I have is there is only one save slot in the game, and it only auto saves at mission way-points. You could travel for 20 minutes and not hit your next objective, only to be killed by a sniper hidden in the grass 500m away. It's definitely a lesson in frustration, especially when you randomly encounter one of the game's bugs or glitches.
The game's campaign can be played online or via LAN in a four player co-op mode. Tactical games are built for co-op, and ArmA 2 is no exception to the rule. Each player can gear up to a specific role and pick their own loadout of weapons, and while it's wise to stay in formation players are free to roam anywhere. Hopefully you have a set of pals lined up to play though, because if you go looking for people to play online you won't find them. That's not because people aren't playing co-op - oh they are - they are playing custom missions and mods with 50+ players. A really slick feature of the game allows you to create custom missions on the fly in the editor and test drive them in co-op play. Downloading these take only a few seconds and it's off you go. There were a few large scale battles I was in with planes, tanks, and helicopters that rivaled Hollywood style war movies; but for the most part things are pretty low key with small skirmishes here and there.
There were plenty of cool moments to be had, and it's sort of surreal to sit in the belly of a transport plane with 10 other players -chatting in real time about the upcoming battle or drop point. For the serious player there's definitely some immersion to be had, and players online frequently role-played their character to an almost annoying seriousness. I was impressed with how smooth it ran online with very little lag as well, still it felt that there was a lot of downtime between the action, and when the action actually happened it was a bit too disorganized.
Perhaps I'm getting impatient in my old gaming age, or perhaps I only remember the highs of Operation Flashpoint - but I was a bit disappointed in ArmA 2. There's almost too much content and depth here. I never quite knew what to do next. 60 player co-op sounds good in theory, but in execution it's just beautiful chaos. If military sims are your thing and you have a lot of patience ArmA 2 is right up your alley.