My squad’s latest objective is to confirm an enemy helicopter wreckage deep in the forested mountains in the north. The suspected range of its location is something like a square kilometer, and the edge of that range is at least that far away from home base. It’s night time with no moon, so it’s pretty much pitch black, and there are undoubtedly already enemy squads sweeping the forests for the wreckage.
After a short drive with only a truck’s headlights to illuminate the trees and country highway, I manage to find the top of a ridge overlooking the entire suspected area and park our truck there. The hills and trees below form a mass of blackness against the blue night sky, but in that blackness I can immediately spot a glimmer in the woods about 700 meters in the distance which is almost certainly the burning wreckage. Before we even move we spot enemies around there running through the woods. I never see the actual enemies themselves but all I have to do is aim towards their flashlights — dancing in the darkness like fireflies.
I imagine one way developer Bohemia Interactive intended for this ArmA III side quest to go down was for me to have a firefight deep in the valleys below the ridge in the middle of a pitch black forest. I just happened to pick an advantageous spot which completely turned the battle around. That mixture of open-ended mission design and atmospheric scenery is why I play ArmA.
The intimidating thing about ArmA is the fact that it’s a realistic military simulator, and many of the game’s fans probably do play it for that hardcore simulation. This gives everyone else the impression that the series is just a sterile workbench that takes away what makes Battlefield or Call of Duty fun.
I’ll admit ArmA’s gameplay is probably everything console gamers hate and fear about PC gaming. The moment-to-moment fighting is a very 90’s Microsoft Flight Simulator mentality where you have to know which sub menu is where just to be able to restock ammo. To ask your squad’s medic to heal someone you have to press F3 (or whatever corresponding F key) to select him, press 6 to go into the command action menu, then press 1 or 2 to select injured team mates within that menu. When you’ve killed an enemy you’re expected to press 5 to reach the status communication menu, then 7 to manually make your character say “tango down” so the rest of the squad no longer has to factor that enemy into their behavior.
I’ve already gone at length about how a main reason I play these games despite their difficult, complex gameplay is because they’re some of the only shooters that let me decide how to conduct missions. I’ve also talked about the scale and beauty of this franchise’s open worlds. Where it all comes together is how successfully Bohemia has managed to utilize these things together.
Actually, a major element I haven’t talked about is the pacing of ArmA. Being a tactical shooter should make it obvious things are going to be much slower than a Call of Duty game, but ArmA’s pacing extensively leverages its scenery and terrain. Honestly, the game moves along more similarly to an RPG than any military shooter.
Bringing my squad all over the countryside feels like bringing an RPG party through trails or across the world map, only instead of swords and spells we’re decked out in military gear. The subtlety of that scenery, in turn, creates a contrast that makes every shootout feel more intense. It’s kind of like Shadow of the Colossus really.
Similar to that game, in ArmA you could spend a sizable chunk of time driving along a dirt road, trekking through a forest, climbing over a hill, flying over the mountains in a helicopter, and finally coming upon a deserted town, taking in the scenery until a bullet whizzes past your head. In an instant the tone changes as you plant your face in the grass and your buddies start screaming out enemy positions. Or rather, you’ve set up an ambush and spend several minutes waiting on a silent mountain overlooking a valley before the time comes to strike.
Among shooters this is a huge difference from how Call of Duty likes to have things turned up to 11 almost 100 percent of the time. Maybe this kind of pacing is simply inherent to open world games, which inevitably require some amount of travel, and thus time to experience the world outside combat. Then again, a lot of people who play action games are bored by that kind of stuff, hitting fast travel as soon and as often as possible.
People apparently hate traversal across Far Cry 2’s world, but driving along sun-baked landscapes or boating through rivers is one of my favorite parts about that game. These are the same people who don’t like sailing in The Legend of Zelda: the Wind Waker, but I love how big sailing makes that game feel.
Like I’ve said before, if I could play a shooter with ArmA’s open world, freeform gameplay, atmosphere, and sense of pacing, that wasn’t a terribly complex military simulator, I would. Far Cry is among the few action shooters that allow for that contrast between calm and explosions, but ArmA of course does this on a much larger scale. The other closest example we see on the horizon is Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. Its recent gameplay video gives me high hopes for what I’ll be able to see and do in the final game.
The point is, ArmA isn’t just its hardcore focus on realism. ArmA is heading out into a world that is at once massive, intricate, and beautiful, and making your own decisions about how to conduct combat missions. The reason I’m willing to accept the hardcore realism is because these games are almost the only ones in the shooter genre willing to strike out from the “corridors and explosions” formula.