Dawn breaks over Stratis, pushing back the stars so accurately rendered that they could guide a lost wanderer — such is the level of simulation at play here — and for a solitary moment in what will likely be a digital lifetime spent in war-torn purgatory, it’s quiet. The videogame sunrise is something long since perfected — god-rays breaking over any variety of hill or sprawling beach — but few capture the early morning silence that completes the picture.
At the same time that rising sun pulls back the curtain on Bohemia Interactive’s latest refinement of a genre not just founded but forwarded, enhanced and defined by them and them alone, and for all of its love affairs with the breadth of blood-soaked battlefields — satellite imagery rendered to the nth degree — the early-morning sunrise has always been a highlight. Bohemia have a way with detail.
That details shows in the cities, true-to-life recreations that would have their real-world partners feeling like familiar places if ever visited. It shows in the “Crack!” of a distant AS50’s gunshot reaching your ears seconds after you’ve heard and felt the impact of the shot close by. It’s in the ghillie suit, hiding an enemy player in plain sight. Yet in the same breath, that unapproachable detail has always been Bohemia’s achilles heel, as if throwing up a warning sign to anyone with a passing interest in this curiosity of a genre.
But something’s different this time around.
The zombie’s bite, so lambasted for the genres it has crippled, has instead been kind to ARMA, infecting its sprawling landmass with the sprawling hordes of both zombies and players, infecting it with the staying power to keep on top of the Steam sales charts month after month after month. 2012 was the year ARMA finally received the introduction it deserved — not in decried “accessibility” but in an inviting apocalypse that highlighted not only the how but the why of ARMA’s near maniacal obsession with the trajectory of a bullet.
DayZ started it, Wastelands furthered it, and as they’ve begun to tire, ARMA III’s Alpha and its island of Stratis have arrived to the rising sun of new faces ready to serve the ARMA cause, sir. DayZ may well have wandered off to greener standalone pastures, ensuring Chernarus’ preservation, but there’s a new horde waiting at ARMA III’s door.
This could be big. Really big.
For now, though, it’s very, very small. Stratis, while larger than ARMA’s previous off-shore excursions, is a 20 km2 island that will play host to ARMA III’s continued development and its current focus on infantry refinements. A small blip on the some 270 km2 landmass that is Altis — ARMA III’s main island that dwarfs that of Chernarus two times over.
So where does a series, and its developer, go, then, when their only competition is themselves? The devil, as always, is in Bohemia’s detail, not just increasing draw distances tenfold, but refining wholesale. The changes are initially so jarring there’s a knee-jerk reaction to reject it point blank and fall back into ARMA II’s embrace. The comparisons are easy ones to make – Chernarus and all of its quirks have a way of working themselves under the skin – and yet the assumption here is that ARMA II is the pinnacle of realism that all others need to be judged by — but devote more time here and going back to Chernarus can feel entirely too wobbly, swirling around like a soldier made of jelly who could fly out of control at any second.
Combat is an entirely refined beast, familiar for those experienced with it and yet closer to the long-held standard for FPS controls. ARMA II’s sluggish movement is gone, so too its floating, flailing rendition of an aiming system – systems so endearingly ARMA but decidedly uninviting to anyone already out of their depth.
Mash out an ever-increasing number of Street-Fighter-esque button combinations and you’ll enter one of ARMA III’s new stances, allowing greater interactivity between soldier and the environment that both combatants are attempting to bend to their will. More than that, take aim down the sights and you’ll find increased flexibility – a light jog and no more of ARMA II’s stop-to-shoot silliness. This, amongst ARMA III’s stable of changes, is its key to unlocking a far greater variety of combat paces and engagements, dragging ARMA’s combat out of the one-dimensional box of the slow-paced crawl of advancing enemy lines.
The end result is a small island that is currently playing host to early intricacies and a future of possibilities, in an Alpha that will evolve, twist and contort over the coming months as release approaches. Parameters will be tweaked. Features will both come, and go. Its deep sea diving will expand to something more than a novelty. Promised possible additions of mountable weapons and new flight models will scratch the patch-note trawling itch of enthusiasts, while remaining ignorable by newcomers looking to see what all of the fuss is about.
Not that this early look-in for the ARMA-starved isn’t without its expected problems, filled with as many instabilities, performance wobbles and server crashes as it is possibilities. Bohemia’s definition of Alpha is truer to life — fittingly — than the betas-cum-demos of the modern videogame landscape.
So it’s all a bit messy, then, but it’s an exciting mess: the scribbled outlines of a great artist laying a foundation. A week or so in and Stratis is already feeling cramped, a pity since ARMA’s finest moments come when it has room to stretch its legs and unfurl the wargaming table top with a flourish. If nothing else, DayZ’s success has ensured Bohemia now has a lot more eyes watching it, awaiting Altis’ first morning sunrise and all of the days that follow — and now more than ever it’s approachable, and better yet, understandable.
This will be big.