Arma is an experience that teeters somewhere between gleeful joy and nail-biting, toaster-throwing frustration. If you can’t handle being shot in the head repeatedly as you load and reload a save, trying to get through a single realistic mission while occasionally looking up at heaven and thanking every deity with a name that you never enrolled in the military given your obvious bullet magnetism, then this game probably isn’t your cup of tea. If, however, you’re willing to fight through all of that in order to experience the rush (and there’s no other way to describe it) of taking out an entire camp of soldiers in the dead of night and surviving against all odds—several deaths and reloads aside—then this game will undoubtedly be your everything. It may be more likely to explode you with a tank than it is to hold your hand, but there’s no denying that overcoming its punishing difficulty is a lot of fun in the end.
It’s a journey fraught with moments of immense pain, though. Enemies aren’t the “lie down and wait to be shot” variety that you’ve likely come to expect from other first-person shooters, and going in with that expectation can lead only to profanities so rampant and unchecked that you wind up summoning minions of long-dead gods to run amok and murder your loved ones. This isn’t that kind of game. If you’re in a helicopter and up against some tanks, being shot down by a stray bullet (surprisingly frequent) is pretty much a death sentence. Running toward enemies, or even just standing upright when they’re in range, will get you quickly killed every time. This heightened awareness that you’re required to keep up at all times is only compounded by the fact that you’re often in charge of more than just yourself, and failing to give your team orders that suit the situation is a quick way of getting everyone but you killed. The first time you have three tanks between you and your goal and no team to back you up is an experience you’ll remember.
Things aren’t all peachy in this war-torn wonderland, though. Arma is plagued by weird quirks and bugs unlike those I’ve seen in any other game, bugs that not only deter from the experience but also render the otherwise believable difficulty cheap at moments. An example: In one mission, I was required to sneak into an enemy camp alone in the dark of the night, plant some charges on the tanks in said camp, then sneak out and detonate the charges. The first thing I noticed was that my silenced pistol was absolutely worthless, but a silenced pistol doesn’t necessarily mean a pistol with a flash suppressant, so it was bearable and at least explainable. The darkness in this particular mission was so dark that I was able to crawl through the camp, right in front of guards, and plant the charges without any problems whatsoever. The irritating bug-filled part of all of this is that detonating the charges somehow allowed every guard to magically divine where I am, even when obscured by bushes, and proceed to drill me with a million bullets of unrealistically inerrant accuracy. Not only this, but the guards clearly knew where I was, because they followed me with their heads as I crawled, ready to shoot me the second I detonated the charges. It made no sense and completely ruined the immersion of this mission.
That’s not the only bug, either. In two other missions, enemies failed to spawn for no discernible reason, making it impossible to progress without starting the entire mission over. They weren’t hiding somewhere, something I know for a fact because I ran around for what must have been miles looking for enemies. They simply didn’t exist in the level until I restarted the whole mission over again. There’s no reason for bugs like this to still exist, and it’s incredibly annoying. There are also some issues with bullets clearly going through enemies yet causing no damage, psychic guards who can somehow sense that you’re causing trouble somewhere completely out of their range of sight/sound, and some incredibly irritating moments where you’ll kill the driver of a car, only to have them die in such a way that it becomes impossible to enter the car yourself in any capacity. That last one is ridiculous to the point of being laughable. Take out the driver and gunner from long range and then use the gun to mow down nearby enemies? No, sorry, they died in such a way that it’s now impossible for you to enter the vehicle, even as a gunner, and those nearby enemies will instead mow you down as you attempt to enter an un-enterable vehicle. That seemingly random lack of consistency undermines the unforgiving realism present when everything is working perfectly, turning realism into a dice roll every time you run up to a vehicle/gun/anything that requires a prompt to enter.
Problems such as that would be slightly allayed if you were given the freedom to make multiple saves, but Arma only gives you a single in-mission save that overwrites itself each time you use it. You’ll occasionally get autosaves in the middle of later missions, but you’ll largely be relying on your manual save, hoping that you don’t wind up saving right before a bullet enters your skull. It’s that kind of constant fear that makes the aforementioned bugs so horrible; it’s possible to position yourself in such a way that a vehicle is your only realistic option for surviving, and to have that particular vehicle turn out to be inaccessible for some ridiculous reason that makes no sense is an absolute killjoy, especially when you’ve saved right before making a dash to that vehicle. Such a mistake, and I use the term loosely because it’s simply not possible to know when you’ll encounter this bug unless you can see the future, will mandate starting the entire mission over. Sometimes something ridiculous like this can set you back so far that you lose an hour of careful progress, and there’s absolutely no reason for this to still be a problem in a patched game.
When the game actually works the way it was clearly designed to work, however, this game is a shining bastion of freedom. Not once did I ever encounter a “turn back” message or an invisible barrier, and though there didn’t really seem to be anything particularly interesting to discover, it’s certainly a beautiful area to explore. You’re given the freedom to complete missions however you see fit; if your mission is to eliminate the enemy presence in an area, you can jump into an attack chopper and carefully rain your limited supply of missiles and rockets down on your enemies, or you can choose to go on foot and take each soldier down one by one. If you disable a tank with a rocket in a strategic position and kill those inside once they jump out, it’s sometimes possible to jump into the tank yourself and use the gun to help disable other tanks. Nothing ever comes easily, though, and you’ll often find yourself dying in what would be the easiest, most scripted of scenes in any other shooter. The difference is that your experimentation leads to a more refined understanding of how to approach different kinds of situations, an understanding that pays dividends later. A squad of soldiers may be best tackled by lying prone in some faraway bushes and trying to pick them off one at a time, while tanks are virtually impervious to bullets and usually require something of the more explosive variety, as well as some good cover while you reload.
The AI can occasionally be wonky, with some soldiers simply refusing to follow the orders you give them. Whether that’s an attempt to make the game more realistic or just an annoying little bug isn’t really clear, but sometimes it becomes necessary to shoot your squadmates to progress. I had a squadmate with a rocket launcher who kept refusing to fire at a tank for no obvious reason, so I shot him in the head like the responsible leader that I am, took his rocket launcher, and proceeded to take out the tanks and complete the mission. A lot of times it’s not really clear why things happen the way they do, with some squadmates falling far behind and getting themselves killed in stupid ways despite being ordered to do something completely different, but there are usually enough squad members for it to not be too large of a problem. The overall experience of controlling a squad is a positive one, even if virtually everyone under my command winds up dying horribly (just so we’re clear—totally not my fault).
Visually, the game’s passable. Not stunning, but it manages to be surprisingly pretty at times, despite it’s no-nonsense graphics. The plentiful grass and leaves throughout the game tend to be aliased and ugly, and a lot of the textures seem simplistic (though NPC features are somewhat varied so as to avoid killing identical twins ad infinitum), but this isn’t really the kind of game that requires insanely shiny graphics. It works for what it is, basically. Character animations are rougher, often being jerky and unpleasant to look at, but you’ll likely just get used to it and tune it out.
Music is one aspect where this game shines. At one point my squad was driving somewhere and rock music was playing in the background, and it felt totally badass. At another point this dance-y kind of music came on before we went on the offensive, and it felt like we were driving to a rave rather than a firefight. The tracks repeat a little too much, sadly, but they’re interesting and unexpected enough to be worthwhile.
Arma is a lot of fun at times, while other times are so soul-shatteringly bug-filled and unfair-feeling that you could pop a stress ball with your bare hands and power a hydrolic lift with your blood pressure. Despite all of that, there are enough moments where you’ll pull off something so ridiculous and lucky that you’ll yell out “YES!” at the top of your lungs for the whole thing to be worthwhile. My moment was when I was stuck having to get some secret documents early on, but got spotted when I moved toward the objective marker and wound up completely surrounded by enemies on all sides. After being killed many, many times trying to take them all out with a handgun, I inched toward a nearby helicopter, somehow managed to get in, fired up the engines, and spun around in circles while wildly firing the guns. Somehow I actually managed to take out the entire camp, despite one of their bullets hitting the fuel and making the helicopter inoperable. Moments like these make this game truly incredible, because they aren’t handed out for free like in most games. Instead, you hear the bullets flying past you and are forced to realize that it’s a mixture of luck and skill, and that realization makes the whole experience incredibly fulfilling.
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