Arma III Alpha preview impressions
Arma III is set in the 2030′s, on a Greek island inspired by Lemnos, but altered to the changing taste of Bohemia Interactive, during Operation Magnitude; NATO vs (a hopefully fictionalized) Iran, and other Eastern states (the CSTO?) Needless to say, Arma III has been banned from Iran. Their loss, me thinks.
This is going to be one of a potential many previews for Arma III, because as someone who’s put over 300 hours into the series, there’s really not enough here to get a decent grasp of what the final game will play like. Arma has always been a series that evolves as the developer tweaks and changes things throughout its lifetime, and within each of the four “showcase scenarios” currently playable, I found enough game-breaking or otherwise disappointing bugs and aspects that left me completely disheartened.
We’ve all seen the videos of mortars firing people into space, and vehicles bouncing around like bouncy castles; helicopters bopping along the ground, and explosions looking like .gif animations. Arma III isn’t in great shape, and it hasn’t met my personal expectations. The implemented changes – in theory, and on paper – are great concepts, but as it stands, most of them are incredibly incomplete, broken, and come as a detriment to the classic dynamic of game play.
Arma III is most certainly a work in progress, though, and I’ll do my best to explain from the perspective of someone who loves Arma to give you the “need to know” information. Remember, Alpha bugs are going to be expected – but when the early demos, featuring most of the notable changes to the games primary mechanics, are broken, I can’t help but feel woeful about Bohemia’s ability to repair them.
This plant life is not so treesy on the eyes.
Firstly, since I started with the bold claim that there are extant game-breaking bugs (yes, I know it’s only Alpha) within the four scenarios, let’s summarize them briefly:
Scenario 1: Sent to look for two mortar spotters on the hillside, I found them, and killed them, only to be met with “Failed to kill spotters.” (See video below).
Scenario 2: Set to diffuse under-water mines, steal an AA launcher, and destroy a helicopter, I became invulnerable once I got onto land, and was spotted putting on an enemy cap. When the animation had finished, the enemy who saw me wearing it couldn’t kill me.
Scenario 3: This is a problem with vehicles in general. The new physics engine incorporated into this version of the Arma engine makes vehicles so springy, that at reasonably fast speeds, your vehicle begins to bounce. Bouncing at high speed makes you bounce progressively higher, and I constantly find myself bouncing so much that eventually my wheels, and vehicles, explode. I could not complete this mission.
Scenario 4: The helicopter controls have been inexplicably altered for both Xbox 360 and keyboard controls. On the 360, yawing to the right is the same trigger as firing. If you want to yaw right, you better hope that what you want to kill just so happens to be in your path. For the keyboard, the controls seem to inexplicably change depending on your height or speed. Yaw and pedals seem to both be controlled by the mouse, which is clunky. It feels as though they tried to make things more intuitive, but anyone who’s familiar with the Arma II controls for helicopters knows they didn’t need to be fixed. They just took a little getting used to.
I know its only in its Alpha stages, but things are looking incredibly janky. This is to be expected, I suppose, and it genuinely pains me to say it considering how much I love Arma II for how hardcore it is as a military simulator. I loved the clunkiness, and I loved how ‘deliberate’ everything felt. Once you’d gotten used to everything, things became very intuitive, and you could play and command huge insurgencies across massive level areas, orchestrating your own wartime operations. The problem here is that Arma II, in some areas, needed to be fixed – but right now, all those fixes seem to have broken the dynamic of the game further, and, actually, altered areas that, arguably, didn’t need to be altered.
The first thing I noticed about Arma III coming from the second game was the fact that both third and first person movement mechanics had been changed. In my opinion, this is both a good and a bad thing. Things certainly feel a lot less clunky, and movement is both animated better, and much more fluid. Bohemia have done away with the slow and deliberate first and third person aiming mechanics from Arma II, which I was actually a fan of. Sure, it was harder to shoot people, but the way in which the cross-hair reacted slower than your characters head seemed to emulate the drag between spotting an enemy, and reacting to his presence, quite well. See an enemy too late in Arma II and you’d be toast, ostensibly as in war.
This did feel clunky, and it wasn’t popular with a lot of the Arma fans, and certainly not with those prone to more casual first person shooters, however, beckoning in change. In Arma III there is no “reaction-time” lag between movement, cross-hair, or gun, what-so-ever, and this is one of the changes that mirrors controls of games like Battlefield 3 - is it genuinely a step forward, or a way to appease more casual crowds? This is a hotly contested point, and there really are good arguments for or against it.
For a good fusion of pseudo-realistic and gamey first person shooting mechanics, just look at Red Orchestra 2: Heroes of Stalingrad. Arma III is arguably more arcadey than that.
The problem is, this gives you a false sense of security, and in many combat situations I found it made things way too easy. One shot kill with twitch mechanics is never going to be a good thing in a military simulator. I trust my gaming reactions far too much, and there’s now no need to compensate for how fast we are with a mouse and keyboard compared to the stress and spacial awareness in real life combat, where clarity and twitchiness aren’t so prevalent, or apparent.
Check out the below video to see what I mean.
Other ways the controls seem to mirror Call of Duty or Battlefield 3, are in the new control scheme layout. This probably won’t mean anything to people who haven’t played Arma II, but ‘Shift’ and ‘W’ are now sprint, whereas this would send you into a controlled, slow pace, which has been replaced with an awkward ‘W’ and ‘S’ combination. This seems like an odd change to me, since sprint was never really something I had to use strategically – only when trying to get somewhere quickly. I much prefer easy access to tactically useful controls, so I hope this is something they’ll revise, or I’ll change it myself.
In terms of infantry combat, AI seems about as incompetent although they react a little faster. As ever, don’t rely too much in Arma on your AI allies, but they are still useful for medical attention and effective fire.
Another thing to mention is the fact that the interactive menu is only clickable with the middle mouse button now, so if you’re looking at a friend and want to select an option, such as heal, you can’t left click, because you’ll shoot him in the pancreas.
For an impression of how well these changes – the potential of infantry combat in general – work, take a look at this video + commentary below:
You can see from this video that the dynamic of combat hasn’t changed too much, but on the vehicle scenario, I found the game played a lot like Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter with the new third person cross-hair. I was able to waltz into an enemy camp, shoot everyone in there with one bullet each using the twitch mechanics, and drive out with their vehicles. This felt very “gamey”, and it’s one of my primary concerns with this particular change in the series. Sure it’s nice that it’s easier to kill people, but in a simulator I don’t care about making things easy, I care about rewarding kills much more than I do about dying because of controls designed to emulate reality – because that’s the point in a simulator: emulating reality.
To quote Alan Partridge: “Water way to have a good time”
The ocean in Arma III is beautiful, and whilst the sea-life look like shiny, paper models following linear, life-less scripts, I was impressed with the density and detail in the ocean. It’s not a two-dimensional sea-bed as I had expected, so much as a vibrant and dynamic eco-system. This might give a little bit of a bloated impression of what it actually plays like, but it is visually pleasing – especially looking up into the clouds from under water.
Whilst the whole thing is visually pleasing, movement isn’t quite so; it’s a little clunky, and there’s camera glitches where if you look into the horizon between the ocean and the sky, the sea-floor loses its baby blue charm, replacing it with mere emptiness. Something that I’m sure will be cleared up, but another reminder that there’s still so much work to be done. There also seems to be animations missing between the transition from land to water, since wearing scuba gear and walking into the water magically places a snorkel and flip-flops onto your character. Problems, too, exist with the way in which boat physics react with waves. I found myself and my friends often driving the boat seemingly under water as the weight of the boat couldn’t properly react to jumping and landing on the waves. One of many problems with the games physics in its current state.
There isn’t a huge amount left to say about the water: it’s functional, and certainly a logical step forward in the dynamic of Arma. It offers a host of tactical and strategic possibilities, such as infiltration and avoiding helicopters, and it’ll definitely become an integral part of operation planning. I’m keen to see how the campaign treats it, because the showcase scenario offered a risible attempt at showcasing infiltration. You have to disarm some mines, then stroll up to an enemy base of around 8 opponents, and gun them down. You can, I suppose, steal their uniforms – but I found that, unlike the press demo, I could only take the guys cap, and not his entire uniform. This ‘magic cap’ made me invulnerable to the guy who saw me take it, who proceeded to stand there and shoot me for about two minutes before someone else came a long and did the job for me as I sat there gobsmacked. I quit the mission.
Arma finally learned the laws of physics
Well, it certainly got a physics engine – but I wouldn’t necessarily say it learned the appropriate laws. The physics in Arma III at this stage are incredibly underwhelming. Things tend to bounce around until they explode, or the engines and/or wheels give out. The problem with the Greek island setting is that it’s very rocky, so going fast with the new physics engine is very troublesome. If you hit the smallest stone, or tiniest log, you’ll inexplicably launch yourself into the air only to land having busted a wheel. If you don’t break on the first landing, you’ll just damage yourself on the second. It seems to happen every time, and the only way to avoid this is to stick to the roads (even in off-road cars) or drive very slowly.
It doesn’t seem as though Bohemia Interactive have gone for realistic physics, which seems strange to me. It’s as though vehicles have a trampoline for suspension, because it’s incredibly loose and springy. It’s not just vehicles which are affected by physics, of course, because the introduction of rag-dolls for player characters means that, finally, opponents react to bullets a little more realistically. Don’t expect anything groundbreaking, but enemies flip, toss, roll and spin depending on where, and how, they’re shot. We still have the Arma II issue of enemies being launched into the air rather statically, which looks a bit silly, but this area has been much improved over the second installment.
Player reaction to the physics is very finicky; often enemies don’t react to explosions at all, sometimes they’re launched into the air. I’m not sure what arbitrates it, but work needs to be done in this department. As it stands at the moment, the explosives from some of the heavier duty vehicles don’t feel satisfying at all, and don’t seem improved over Arma II. Firing the automated grenade launcher feel as though it could be a silenced pistol for all the mayhem and chaos it causes, and explosions look incredibly dated and ineffective.
Another problem is that the physics engine doesn’t seem to have had any bearing on helicopters. We still see the same motionless life-to-death explosions and reactions to either hitting objects or the ground. In the air, too, there’s no real weight to the helicopters, and it feels as though weight distribution is in a central point, rather than feeling as though the whole thing is being held in the air from the rotor, which of course it is. I’d have liked to have seen some work done in the helicopter physics and animation department, but as it stands it seems very similar to Arma II.
The helicopters may have adopted the flight model from Take on Helicopters, but I really don’t think, from what I saw, this has done much to improve the way they fly.
Gameplay and graphics
We’ve already looked at a video of myself completing the first infantry showcase scenario, so we have an idea of how Arma III plays. The potential for realistic military combat is still there, even though the twitch mechanics, in my opinion, come as a detriment to close quarters combat. It’s really quite hard to tell how Arma III feels in terms of missions compared to the second, because the Alpha is comprised of lazily thrown together showcases that seem to illuminate the worst aspects of the game and its changes. For instance, the vehicle showcase wants me to run up a mountain on my own, attack a base of over 6 men on my own, and steal a car. In a vehicle showcase, why are they exhibiting the fact that I’ve the necessary ‘gamey prowess’ to take on an entire base without any stealth? The helicopter showcase showed me how Bohemia haven’t yet bothered to map the Xbox controller, and the water showcase showed me a ton more bugs. The only one vaguely playable in my experience was the first, infantry based one.
Either this view mode isn’t finished, doesn’t work, or I’m too stupid to figure it out.
There are a selection of multiplayer missions, though, but they’re an equally messy episode. Go there, kill that randomly placed group of enemies, ex-filtrate over there. I don’t mean to sound overly negative of what we have here, but I found myself genuinely upset by the apparent lack of showmanship Bohemia Interactive have. They’d proposed dozens of integral game-play changes, including a new physics engine, and vehicle gunnery technology, but they either haven’t been shown very well, didn’t work at all, or just became useful for funny viral videos. I thought we were done with the gimmicky quirks of Arma at the end of Arma II, but it feels as though III has been launched on the same ethos: “look how funny this is.”
Graphically, things have somewhat improved. The most notable changes are a huge improvement in the lighting, and increased poly-count in everything. Foliage is hugely disappointing, especially trees, but I feel as though this is something Bohemia are probably still working on. Things don’t quite look as smooth as they do in Arma II, but this is still the Alpha stage and, of course, performance will be low for a while. The Island itself is huge, dense, and beautiful – although not, yet at least, as interesting as Takistan or Chenarus. There doesn’t really feel like the potential for life as there did in both the aforementioned habitats, so much as a military war zone, but, again, I can’t really speak for that until we see something post-launch.
I’m over-all, quite surprisingly, underwhelmed by Arma III as it stands. I expected more. I know it’s easy to say “it’s still in Alpha” and excuse all of the problems, but some of the integral game-play mechanics have showcased some worrying new trends – such as the ability to take out compounds on your own with great ease – and it’s clear that the “showcases” don’t really do much to showcase anything other than technical quirks, bugs, and errors. I would have liked Bohemia Interactive to release at least some of the campaigns, or some proper scenarios – but right now all we have is demo materials, and a multiplayer full of cheaters, because BattleEye doesn’t yet support the client.
I’m certainly confident that Arma III will grow into a game that I love as much as Arma II, especially with the venerable Benny’s Mod, but as it stands there’s really not much to look at here. One reason to buy it would just be to get the cost of the package out of the way before launch, and support Bohemia Interactive, but don’t expect much gaming. A hell of a lot of work needs to be done, but I’m sure many of the balancing and physics bugs can be ironed out for a somewhat smooth launch.
That said, there’s a much improved mission editor for people to tinker with, but I hope Bohemia Interactive aren’t leaving it to the community to make some of the better missions. Whilst the Arma mission editor has always been powerful (we created some cool things ourselves), it has never yielded substantial results on a scale large enough to tempt me to go out looking for some really great user missions, although I’m sure some exist. It certainly isn’t an excuse for Bohemia to get lazy, and produce less official scenarios.
New vehicles and the philosophical inquiry into possible military technology in the near future is all very interesting, but we’ll see how things improve in the coming months.