ArmA And The Potential For Open-World Military Shooters

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Okay I think this is the last post I’m going to make about ArmA II. I’m in the middle of the campaign, and so far I think I would describe it as an imaginative but budget-constrained collection of ideas I would love to see EA or Ubisoft attempt. In my experience it’s one of the most interesting and ambitious attempts at an open world first person shooter. It’s also very hard to describe because there is pretty much nothing extremely similar to it. It has small similarities to a lot of shooters, RPGs, and strategy games but the complete package is very different from pretty much any mainstream game. I think it’s best if I just describe what some of the missions feel like.

The second main mission in the game puts you and three squadmates you command in an industrial complex roughly the size of a 64-player map from Battlefield (the central southern city on this map). You need to find and kill one sniper in that complex, with no directions as to where to go and your only information being “he’s on a tall building.” If you’re not quick enough, either he’ll kill a group of friendly characters, or another friendly may get him first. The first time I played this mission I just climbed the tallest building in the area, found him on the roof of an adjacent building, and told my marksman to shoot him. The second time I played the same mission, all the enemies in the city including the sniper were in a general retreat northwards due to an allied force making some kind of push. I was able to catch him running towards the northern tip of the complex with about 20 other enemies.

The third main mission tasks your team with capturing another guy, but he could be anywhere in the southeastern third of the map, which is probably more ground to cover than all of Liberty City. You start out with a couple leads and your choice of which to follow, and a time limit of about an hour. Following those leads takes you on a breadcrumb trail of True Detective proportions through hills, forests, and a bunch of villages. You gather clues and talk to locals who give you a Zelda-style runaround. Furthermore, the target has to physically move through the world just like you do, so it’s possible to run into him at any point during your investigation (though he’s scripted to head somewhere when certain conditions are met). If you fail the game continues — as the campaign actually has around five endings.

On one attempt I immediately put my team on a helicopter and directed it towards a village I heard mentioned earlier. As it neared the destination the chopper took enemy fire from around a castle sitting atop a forested hill near the village, so I touched down around there and went to investigate. After a firefight in the forest I spotted the target exiting the castle and bolting through the woods. On the official ArmA II forums someone posted an account where after gathering up clues they got a scripted call that the target was headed to a certain town and they had about 20 minutes to intercept. This guy put his team in a humvee and slammed it down the road, at one point having to dodge an enemy APC and its cannon, eventually spotting the target’s car just upon entering the town. A game of chicken ensued between the two vehicles, and the target spun out, got out of the car, and limped towards a nearby barn as the team pinned him down.

The fourth main mission which I’m on now puts the team in a similarly-sized area but with over half a dozen different objectives spread out all over the place, and your choice as to how and in what order to do them. It’s kind of like a shopping list of Fallout quests. Some have you track leads on gun runners, some have you trek through forests looking for enemy camps (and because this game world is realistically scaled, a forest is as big as an actual forest, not a collection of trees). Among these objective are two people you need to capture. You have a photograph of one of them, as well as detailed descriptions of both their daily routines: where they work, what time they go to church, etc.

And finally, you have missions and scenarios set up in ArmA II’s unique “Warfare” mode. At the beginning you can choose whether or not to be the commander of a whole military force. If you take command, the game literally turns into a real-time strategy game where your job is to capture a bunch of towns and important areas by building bases and commanding units. If you chose not to take full command, the AI will, and you’ll just play as what is effectively a single unit in an RTS (potentially with command over your own small team). The AI commander will still build a base and everything, but its commands manifest in the form of objectives which you can tackle when and however you want.

If you choose the latter, in practice ArmA II becomes something like Battlefield’s conquest mode but with you and possibly hundreds of bots spread out over a GTA-sized map. The effect of choosing an AI commander is that mission objectives essentially become dynamic. Say for instance a helicopter somewhere get’s shot down but the pilot survives. If you’re the closest guy to where that happens, the AI commander might give you an objective to rescue the pilot.

By the way, I’m pretty sure all these missions support co-op.

ArmA II is of course not the kind of shooter every shooter fan wants to play, on account of it erring much more towards realism than fun, which is why I really wish someone would apply its mission structure to a more mainstream, action-oriented shooter. Another issue is that a lot of what I described above is possible because ArmA II’s singleplayer simulates complex AI over distances of many square kilometers, which wreaks havoc on most CPUs. On my 3.4 GHz i5 I’ve decided to settle for 30 frames per second on some missions (and I’ve confirmed it’s not due to GPU strain). I don’t know how any console CPU could handle that right now. Also, Bohemia Interactive’s budgetary limits definitely show in ArmA II’s low production values. Character animation is non-existent, the voice acting is pretty terrible, and the game is so buggy that I often have to retry missions because the scripting doesn’t work. And yet, it attempts things games with budgets multiple times its size never even dream of. I just can’t help but think what would happen if someone put an EA or Ubisoft-sized production budget on a military shooter with least some of ArmA’s ideas, or at least one that tried to capture the same sense of freedom.

Some of the stuff I described above could theoretically happen in a Fallout or Elder Scrolls game. Far Cry 3 also has a lot to see and do as an open world shooter, but I feel its main missions are much too linear, which kind of kills the point of being open world. Far Cry 2 is probably the closest mainstream shooter to what I might be looking for — an open world where each mission is little more than a place and a goal with everything else left up to you. The problem with that game is that it was a bit too shallow. Right now I’m pinning my hopes on Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. I liked the open-ended mission structure of Ground Zeroes a lot and anticipate how it will translate to a true open world.

BULLETS:

  • Nintendo’s season pass for Mario Golf World Tour doesn’t seem too bad. It’s only $15 and nearly doubles the amount of content in the game — a game that is already the most content-rich Mario Golf ever. The season pass itself adds as much content as any entire previous Mario Golf game.
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