In the world of Military Sims, the Arma series stands alone in its combination of a focus on realism, a feeling of grandeur and the slightest sense of accessibility. Arma III continues to be an Arma game, where the complexities made necessary by sheer number of actions a player can commit at any one time creates a control system which is overwhelming to a newcomer (though utterly logical to fans).
It steps away from the series by moving 25 years into the future, removing the real guns of its predecessors and replacing them with futuristic variants (which don't have licensing complications). Forget “but will it play Crysis?”. Chasing the memetic benchmark is no longer relevant now that Crytek studios has forsaken the PC platform in favour of the consoles. If your computer can't handle Crysis these days, it probably can't handle more than seven Chrome tabs at once.
The new benchmark is here, and it's huge. Arma III is the game hardware manufacturers have been praying for ever since we all bought GTX 580s three years ago, never to return to staticICE.
In single-player the game has to account for the many elements of AI, and thanks to optimisation efforts the game is capable of doing that quite well. In the showcase missions when you call in Artillery Support there is an actual AI unit doing the firing. The AI is 'emergent', so events rarely happen the same way twice -- but there are still limits to what the AI can think of and do.
When we discuss AI, we're talking about a computer which is easily exploitable. On its default setting Arma III's AI takes altogether too long to recognise a player's presence, but once it does it is Xaero-with-a-railgun accurate in its fire. Fortunately they appear to have trouble once you're more than about 500m away, so SOP for AI enemies is to get a sniper rifle (or run them over with a car while they stand there, dumbfounded).
The full-blown single-player campaign won't be implemented until October, and even then will come in episodic chunks, but the game does feature a number of showcases you can experience on your own. The Drone and the Supports showcase are two particularly solid missions, even if they are quite short.
In multiplayer the game treats players the same way it does AI -- every soldier exists in the game, no matter where they are. This means if I'm killing noobs at the Altis International Airport and xXxJoeBlowxXx is crashing his helicopter in Pyrgos, the resulting explosion and destruction of terrain will eventually affect me. Usually it ripples across the map in a wave of FPS drops, like some sort of laggy thundercrack.
The frame-rate drop is usually nothing significant -- a stutter here, a grinding there -- but it can happen at wholly inopportune moments and it has gotten me killed on occasion. Still, it's the nature of the game -- if you want massive maps without restrictions and large player counts, you're going to have to deal with performance issues. Even in Arma II large, map altering events can bring the game to a halt.
It doesn't help that Arma III is so damn ambitious. Snakes, rabbits and even butterflies cast shadows on the ground. Fish do too, if the lighting is right while you are underwater. Yes, in Arma III you can swim underwater, which brings with it a whole new set of challenges -- such as representing combat in a truly 3D space. Weapons which can fire underwater exist, wetsuits and SCUBA gear have been added and sunken marvels can be found all around the coast of Altis, if you care to find them.
The size of Altis is overwhelming too. Covering 270 sq km and featuring multiple airfields, a massive sandflat, multiple major cities and endless coastal roads for you to cruise around. The rub is -- it feels unbelievably empty. The snakes and rabbits and bees and birds all just sort of do their thing, and you move around in it like an otherworldly visitor in a place humans left behind a long time ago.
It is of course up to the mission developers to make it feel alive, but it seems like the constraints of modern computers make this feel nigh on impossible. Certainly, when you and all your teammates spawn together in a Domination game and you roll out as a squad to take on the enemy AI, things are happening and you're in the thick of it. But if you drift away from the squad -- let's say your ATV breaks a wheel and you find yourself walking to the rally point -- the size of Altis can make it seem like hours pass before you reach your group.
It's fortunate that Arma III's engine shares enough with Arma II that missions like Domination were easily ported across -- already Arma III has stacks of mission types available to server hosts, from Domination to variants on Wasteland. I've even seen a Life server floating around.
For a budget game, it doesn't seem like too great an ask for the community to play a large role in the creation of multiplayer missions, and I don't begrudge Bohemia Interactive for taking advantage of it. I had wondered why the popular ACRE mod hadn't been built into the game, but it makes sense to allow the very competent modders to continue their work while concentrating Bohemia Interactive's limited resources elsewhere.
I worry for the game's overall population though. Players who could have a fun (if low-fi) experience on Arma II servers featuring any of the popular mods will struggle dearly to play Arma III. And if I've seen anything during my time playing Arma, it's that server population means everything to the potential fun of the game.
This doesn't mean I haven't had fun in Arma III though. While cruising in a pickup truck just east of Panochori I barely missed a group of hooligans street racing in the other direction. Turning around to give them a stern talking to, I found one of them had crashed upon entering the city, and the others had hopped out to shoot me. Because I was an Engineer they hoped to take my repair kit to fix their broken car, and I didn't want them to do that. What followed was a tense standoff as they attempted to get a firing line on me which eventually ended with only one of them leaving alive.
The thing is, an emergent encounter between two groups couldn't exist in any other game. Even in Arma II it probably wouldn't have gone down like that because the vehicle physics treated cars like boats on a calm ocean of bitumen. In Arma III cars have suspension, they can be rolled and you need to slow down to take corners or else you'll die in a fiery mess.
That's what's beautiful about Arma III. It looks utterly gorgeous, and when it's running well it's fantastic. My computer, with its -- then top of the line -- three year old components, doesn't struggle too much with running the game, but many people will have problems.
The AI is abysmal, which is par for the course in Arma, but it means truly great experiences need to come from player interaction. With a map as large as Altis, those interactions are now even less common than they were in Chernarus and Takistan, where clever mission design resulted in the majority of player vs player conflict.
For now, I think it means you're better off sticking with Arma II. Underwater missions, accomplished vehicle physics, an impressive array of player stances and fantastic visuals can't make up for a too-big map full of nothing and a handful of missions most computers and servers can't fully handle. I'll tell you what though, Arma III is going to be a great game in 2015.