Right before ArmA 3’s Apex expansion came out I decided to finally start up a popular mod scenario called Pilgrimage. It is an odd, sort of slapped-together attempt at unlocking a lot of the potential of Bohemia Interactive’s toy chest of a game. I think it touches on one possible reason DayZ is such a success as well.
The second-place singleplayer winner of Bohemia’s mod contest, Pilgrimage is sort of an attempt to mold ArmA 3’s components into a more traditional open-world action adventure game. It sets you on the edge of the map and tells you to track down the remains of the player character’s brother. You get information from people, hunt down leads, loot resources, and deal with groups of hostiles peppered across the map. In my experience the result accomplishes just enough in the right places to do things Far Cry or Fallout haven’t quite accomplished, despite its limitations as a mod.
You see, in order to make ArmA into a realistic combined-arms combat simulator, Bohemia Interactive gives these games big maps based on satellite data that incorporate what modern armies might run into: hills, big forests, towns, etc. It’s like a flight simulator game where you can actually walk around in all that Google Maps terrain. The byproduct of this however is that at the human scale, ArmA maps harbor a sense of scale, depth, and natural atmosphere that a Bethesda game or a Ubisoft game just hasn’t been able to touch. If Bohemia is really good at one thing, it’s designing 3D worlds that really feel like worlds.
The problem is that these worlds are pretty much just empty stages for combat simulation. You can walk inside 99 percent of those buildings, scale those mountains in the distance, and get lost in those forests, but there’s nothing in them. If someone filled them with mysteries to solve, people to interact with, items to use, and enemies to fight, you’d have potentially the biggest and deepest Far Cry game ever by a wide margin. Pilgrimage is an attempt to scrape at that potential.
I haven’t played DayZ, but I think Bohemia’s map design might be part of its appeal. It not only drops players into a dangerous online world with thick survival systems, but a very big and intricate world. DayZ’s Chernarus probably ranks among the largest on-foot traversal environments that doesn’t use procedural generation, and that game fills it with uncertainty around every corner.
Pilgrimage pretty much just uses random generation to fill the buildings with occupants and loot, and pepper the landscape with armies of enemies. The dialogue is all text and the random generation doesn’t allow for any specificity in it, but it does its job in giving you somewhere to go. The loot is probably what works best here. It gives you a reason to explore the dozens or hundreds of buildings in each town while giving you a sense of progression as well as a sense of survival gameplay. The combat is still ArmA’s harsh tactical simulation which turns out to be a unique thing to combine with this kind of structure.
What’s really neat is how much Pilgrimage let’s players customize it. You can mess with things like the number and density of civilians and enemies, what they can do, and whether or not there are two sides fighting each other. You can potentially turn it into a game where you almost never encounter enemies and just do the detective thing.
If you’re willing to put up with some additional jank on top of ArmA’s already janky-but-impressive systems, this mod can give you both an alternate take on combat simulator gamplay and a look at what a more conventional open-world game would look like within its mechanics.