Arma 3 Alpha Preview

14 Mar 2013  by   Peter Parrish
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If you’ve watched any of the IncGamers Plays footage of myself, Tim and Paul bumbling around in Arma 3‘s alpha release, then you’ll know we’re not exactly pros when it comes to this military-sim minded series. Had this been a real-life war, our rag-tag squad of Britain’s most hopeless conscripts would most likely have been court-martialed and had the footage of our helmet cams re-purposed as a training video called How To Make The Enemy’s Day.

Luckily we were all killed in action and spared the embarrassment of even a virtual dressing down by the top brass. That’s probably for the best, because it means that my naive attempts to steal and wear an enemy’s uniform (which I’ve since learned to be in direct contravention of the Geneva Convention) will go unremarked upon. Thank you videogames, you’ve helped me cover up my sordid trail of attempted war crimes yet again!

Arma 3

In short, no-one at IncGamers is about to be accepted into ShackTac in a hurry.

That’s ok though, because Arma 3 (even moreso than its predecessor) is looking like it’ll be able to satisfy a pretty wide range of interests; from those who just want to mess around on its massive, dynamic terrain, to the most dedicated of mil-sim veterans. Despite aiming for a more specialised audience than the majority of military-themed FPS’, the basics of Arma 3 are actually somewhat accessible. Playing it for the first time will give you a distinct sense of the familiar, followed by a sudden jolt of being out of your depth (probably as an unseen attacker puts a bullet in you from 250m away.)

For example, there’s a single player ‘showcase’ mission in this alpha that puts you in the snug wet-suit of a scuba diver. Your mission (at first) is to deactivate some enemy mines. No problem. Anybody who’s ever played an FPS before will be right at home with using WASD to move and strafe, mouselooking, right clicking to bring up iron-sights, left to fire and all that business. Deactivating the mines is a case of swimming up to them and pressing the space bar. Job done.

Arma 3

Except no, not job done. Job still in an undone state. Now you have to liberate a portable anti-aircraft weapon from a nearby camp, to blow up a patrolling helicopter. So, follow the waypoint, head to the AA gun and … oh, you’ve been shot and killed.

Right, it must be a stealth game. Go prone, observe the camp from a distance, pick out a guard and take him dow … oh, this gun doesn’t really seem to perform over a long distance. Now he and his friends are alerted, and you’re dead. Again. Hmm.

In any other game that looks and controls like this one, four or five people guarding an objective would be no big deal. In Arma 3, it’s a serious tactical conundrum. Until you’ve trained yourself to pick out camouflaged movement at a distance, the AI will probably see you before you see them. That tends to be a problem with a fatal ending. The controls may be familiar, but the behaviour demanded of you by the game is not.

Cover and positioning are vital, and even that isn’t just a case of getting behind the nearest solid object. In this game, it’s just step one. After putting something between you and the bullets, you’d then be best advised to find the right ‘stance’ (when standing, crouched or prone you have a couple of different options, plus the ability to lean); preferably one which sticks the fewest parts of your body out of your chosen hiding place.

Arma 3

That gives you a brief idea of the accessible-yet-demanding dichotomy at work throughout the game. By insisting that you maintain situational awareness it goes far beyond the usual forgiving nature of an FPS, but doesn’t go as far as to, say, abstract difficult tasks like reassembling a gun to a baffling series of key presses. It tries to be authentic, but not to the point of absurdity. Persevere, and Arma 3 will show you just how rewarding this design approach can be.

For the unaware, the Arma series has been steadily evolving into a gigantic military sandbox with outstanding mod support. As a result, with enough work or patience, it can pretty much turn into whatever you want it to. Developers Bohemia Interactive will be putting in their own single player campaign, stand-alone scenarios and multiplayer missions (both co-op and competitive) for the full release, but in the end the game will be limited only by the creativity of the community.

Mods are already starting to tumble forth from the internet.

You can opt to play with a handy-dandy folding map, keep track of your stance with a stance indicator, or involve yourself in a full-on war for the island. At the time of writing, there are 158 different ‘scenarios’ (single, co-op and competitive multiplayer) to investigate, showing the breadth of commitment from the creative arm of the Arma player-base. If you can dedicate the time to learning Arma 3’s editor (included in the alpha,) you could be adding to that selection too.

Arma 3

At present, this build of the game restricts players to the island of Stratis, although ‘restricts’ is probably a bit of a harsh word to use there. It’s a 20 square kilometer space to roam about in, whether on foot, in a vehicle, or in the air. You can explore woodland (and die in it,) ascend to a hilltop to look at a village church (and die there,) or just wander the coastline and gaze at the lovely ocean (before being killed and tumbling off the cliff into the embracing waves below.)

Death is inevitable, until you know what you’re doing. At that point you may be able to snatch enough time to appreciate the scenery without losing your life.

It looks suitably pretty, and the alpha seems to already be running better than Arma 2 did on this very same PC. Improved graphics for improved performance: that’s a rare trade-off in the land of the PC, but I’ll happily take it.

Stratis is a fair old size (especially if you’re on foot,) but it’ll pale beside the title’s main island, Altis, which will be something like 270 square kilometers. Assuming it stays on track, this a strong contender for crawling-on-your-belly-through-miles-of-unfamiliar-bushes-while-soldiers-hunt-you-down title of the year 2013.

Arma 3

It is, to reiterate, still an alpha. That means odd bugs (at least I’m pretty sure it was a bug) that prevent you redressing in your fatigues after taking them off, and occasional bouts of both unerring presciense and incredible stupidity from the AI. Although actually that could just be an Arma thing, since my enduring memory from Arma 2 is calling for a sedate helicopter evacuation and watching in horror as the AI pilot cruised merrily into a hillside and exploded.

Long-time Arma players will appreciate the improved performance (which should actually get better if the game stops leaning so heavily on the CPU and asks the graphics card to pick up more slack) and the leaps made in the ‘feel’ of player movement. Earlier games felt a bit like controlling an unwieldy robot-man; now it’s smoother and far more fluid. New players will appreciate that too, as it provides a comforting FPS-style welcome to the game. Before it gives you a harsh lesson in positioning and tactics.

Really, Arma 3 is a title that looks like it will play to all the strengths of PC gaming. It’s a game whose only borders are at the edge of an island; an open-world sandbox of military toys with boundless modding possibilities and the developer support to back that potential up. It’s free-form, tense, and demanding of its players. I’m keen to see what will emerge.

The Arma 3 alpha can be purchased on Steam. It will evolve into the beta and full versions as they become available. A free ‘Lite’ version has also recently launched.

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