[PC exclusives are typically] designed to be as complex and unintuitive as possible so that those dirty console-gaming peasants don’t ruin it for the glorious PC gaming master race.
–Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw
If you’ve been reading this site or know anything about ArmA, you probably know it’s not a pick-up-and-play game. It’s not supposed to be, it’s supposed to be realistic, kind of like the Gran Turismo of military shooters. It’s so deep in fact, developer Bohemia Interactive had to create not just a tutorial, but an entire tutorial campaign for ArmA III they ended up releasing around nine months after the game’s “full release.” And it still doesn’t cover everything to my liking.
This is a game where, to order a guy to get in a truck as the gunner, you have to press F2 (or whatever corresponding F key) to select him, then 4 (I think) to bring you to the vehicle-entering sub-menu, then 2 to select “gunner.” Picking this (and ArmA II) up reminded me of first picking up Ultima Underworld. It feels like that 90’s PC game design mentality where developers just stack one gameplay system on top of another to create the most deep and complex world possible with little regard for simplicity or a game’s learning curve. It creates incredibly impressive games but also very intimidating ones. It’s exactly what turns a lot of console gamers away from PC gaming. Such games actually feel much less common on the PC these days, the only other big example I can think of being Star Citizen. People on podcasts like Idle Thumbs talk about not even being able to figure out how to hop in a space ship’s cockpit and lift off in the demo for that game. You ever see that Zero Punctuation review of the first Witcher game criticizing the complexity of its UI and pinning it on the stuck-up “Glorious PC Gaming Master Race”? ArmA III is that game.
In this type of game, ArmA III in its initial state basically throws you into the campaign, or even the multiplayer, with the absolute bare minimum of assistance. Oh Bohemia gives you tool tips during the campaign as if the game is Microsoft Office, and that’s a pretty apt comparison for ArmA and big PC games of its ilk — it can often feel more like a computer application than a game. Oh and there’s the field manual too, which operates very much like the help section of Microsoft Word and contains about as much content. And Bohemia does expect you to read it.
The tutorial is in two parts — a VR-themed mode that teaches you basic actions and a mini prologue campaign that takes you through some slightly more advanced aspects of the game as well as the story.
Here you learn how to operate weapons and order people around, as well as the difference between certain AI behaviors. To its credit the tutorial focuses on a lot of the things that separate ArmA from Call of Duty or Battlefield, like how fatigue and distance affect accuracy. It even shows you how claymores work in the game in a highly illuminating manner. Most useful of all, it teaches you how to read bearings on a compass and use that in conjunction with the map to find things based on vague descriptions. It even tells you what “one click” means in case you don’t know.
In my opinion it all only really scratches at the surface. Actually I think that’s a problem fairly common with a lot of simulator games I try: their tutorials teach you the basic controls but don’t teach you anything about how to not suck at the real game.
The original Ghost Recon teaches you the basic controls but never how to actually survive firefights. It doesn’t teach you how you should approach the enemy, how you should cautiously move through terrain, or how to properly clear a building without losing your whole squad. The only non control-oriented thing it teaches is how you should always open doors from the side so as to not be targeted if there’s someone on the other side. The Total War tutorials I’ve tried also thoroughly teach the basic controls but little in how to actually win battles. I never got a grip on what formations I should use when, or what were good numbers to have in a battle. There were times I’d win a battle in Total War and have no idea why.
ArmA III’s tutorial will teach you how to order your men into a column formation, but never why, or in what situation you should do so. The manual has information on when certain formations are useful, but a playable tutorial could have fully illustrated this. What about standard tactics for assaulting bases? I had to learn on my own that it’s a good idea to attack from elevated positions. The main campaign has some characters give you advice but it’s pretty generalized most of the time. Basically, there’s little here to teach you actual strategy.
And I’m not even talking about the multiplayer. Bohemia actually has you covered there. The tutorial update actually includes a multiplayer coaching mode where one player can mold situations for others to follow in order to teach them things. But no, I’m just talking about not sucking at the singleplayer campaign.
And oh God, the tutorial still teaches you very little about the inventory system. It should teach you about things like carrying capacity and what side of the menu means what. ArmA II’s inventory took me forever to figure out, and ArmA III’s is only slightly less obtuse. Having such an inventory system is a great idea for a shooter, it’s just weirdly executed. Couldn’t Bohemia have at least just ripped off classic RPG equipment screens or something?
All that said, this update does include tools for fans to craft more tutorials. That’s really the story of this whole game I hear from official reviews: that ArmA III’s real value is mostly as a massive toy chest for fans to create things. It has a huge, dynamic, beautiful open world that the campaign underutilizes, and now a lot of tutorial content that leaves a lot of room for the community to fill in. Even before this update I already saw at least one fan-made helicopter tutorial. Once nice thing the update adds is an armory where you can test out every weapon and character in the game.
This whole post probably comes off as making ArmA III feel like the most intimidating shooter on Earth. It is intimidating, but you should never come in here expecting a fast-paced game built on the immediacy of most video games. In fact the tragedy of a game like ArmA III is it’s a shooter built for the gamer who prefers slow-paced, cerebral games.
Put it like this: If you can deal with the learning curve of Final Fantasy Tactics, Disgaea, a Shin Megami Tensei game, or better yet Gran Turismo, you can probably figure out how to play ArmA. ArmA’s base interface just isn’t quite as intuitive as most console games. Gran Turismo is probably the best comparison you can make to someone who only plays console games — it’s one of few console games that prefer the clean simulator appraoch with realism as its first priority.
If you’re wondering why I even keep playing the game after all this, you only need to look at the previous post on this blog.