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Full Steam Ahead: Arma II – Operation Arrowhead

Time logged before Full Steam Ahead: None

I picked up Arma II and all its various mission packs in a bundle during one of the Steam sales. If I had to guess at this exact moment, it would be the summer sale of 2014. Since then, across five different games, I have logged only 97 minutes. Arma 2 – Operation Arrowhead is just the first one to show up due to the random nature of Full Steam Ahead.

The Arma games are a series of military simulation games. They aim for a higher degree of realism in gameplay than say, the Call of Duty or Battlefield series, with features like bullet drop. The games and downloadable contents in the bundle included the Original Arma II, Combined Operations, British Armed Forces, Private Military Company, and Operation Arrowhead. These five different programs in my library vary in scale and in focus, with some adding new units and some adding whole new campaigns; however, all of these games are based off of the same initial programming, the same graphics, and the same core gameplay. Since I’m going to be encountering Arma II in some form or another four more times in the future of Full Steam Ahead, I want to try and cover some different ground with these posts.  For the time being though, we will focus on the game at hand, Operation Arrowhead.

Operation Arrowhead Title Screen

There is a lot to cover here. Operation Arrowhead features single player campaigns, multiplayer games and missions, training, a sandbox for creation, and other assorted features. This game also has, or at least had, a very dedicated modding community. There is, for example, a full conversion mod for Arma II and Operation Arrowhead called Day Z, which turns the game into a multiplayer zombie survival horror game. As interesting as it would be to try that out though, I think I’ll start with the single player campaign.

Before rushing into the campaign though, I play through some of the bootcamp missions. I can already tell this game is going to be hard. The inventory screen has more in common with the Elder Scrolls games than Call of Duty. The soldier you control has to account for gravity when aiming long distance shots, you have to manually adjust the scope of rifles and long range weapons. Also, the game seems to have some bad bugs. For example, I’m instructed during the first aid tutorial to drag a wounded soldier to a new location. However, there is no prompt or direction given as to how to do this. It’s not listed in the controls either.

No soldier left behind, except when they’re literally unmovable.

Also, during the parachute training, I am instructed to land in a specific area. The first time, I overshoot the landing area by over 200 meters. The game tells me I failed and to try again. That’s alright, 200 meters is a long way. I try again, landing 80 meters away, and fail. I try again, putting myself a mere 40 meters from the designated landing zone. Call me lazy, but If I can get to the landing zone in less than 10 seconds with a light jog, that ought to be good enough. Even though I failed these tutorial missions, I feel like I’ve learned enough to proceed with the campaign.

Operation Arrowhead’s single player campaign is a fictional conflict in a fictional country, Takistan. In order to prevent the military government of Takistan from launching missiles against neighbouring Karzeghistan, a combined taskforce of UN and US troops invade the country with the goals of deposing Takistan’s leader and installing a new government.

Well, I suppose Arma II does strive for realism. In the first mission, I die several times. Sometimes I die because I didn’t check my corners well enough, allowing an enemy to flank me. Sometimes me and my squad get pinned down by a well-placed machine gun or sniper, getting picked off one by one. Sometimes, I die because I followed orders and someone didn’t bother to check if those orders were safe to follow. Also, an alarming amount of time, I “die” because the game bugs out and stops responding.

If the enemies and game crashes don’t kill you, the control scheme will make you wish you were dead. Want to switch on your gun’s laser? There’s a button for that. Want to switch the colour scheme of your thermal imaging? There’s a button for that. Want to salute someone? You bet your camo-wearing ass there’s a button for for that. I understand that the game wants to present as many different aspects of military operations as they can, but it’s all a fair bit excessive. And that’s before we get into the communications controls, which give a variety of options for commanding your fellow soldiers, pointing out targets, and organizing your missions, but all of these are done through scroll wheels and mouse buttons, making it unintuitive and easily accessed by accident during hectic moments.

Hitman squad, running like graceful, fictional gazelles.

But enough about the game’s technical aspects, how does it make me fee? In short, it makes me feel uncomfortable.

It’s a bit uncomfortable when a character you control starts yelling about taking the fight to some, “pissed-off Takis”. I know, I know, Takistan isn’t a real place, and this fictionalized slur is hardly the worst thing the game’s characters could have said – they could have said a non-fictional slur, for example – but it remains uncomfortable. It’s made truly uncomfortable by the context: a soldier responding to the orders of a superior officer. This isn’t a pair of soldiers shooting the shit with one another, this is what your character, Ben Herrera, considers a respectful and professional tone.

Okay, I swear I didn’t boot up this game with the goal of writing about racism or how games address or fail to address this very serious real world issue, but I’m supposed to be writing about how this game makes me feel, and no lie, this scene left a bad taste in my mouth for the rest of the day.

Ben Herrera, fictional racist

So I drove some tanks around, cleared a path for armoured infantry. I used a UAV to scout enemy territory. I got to tell someone I was Oscar Mike, whatever the hell that means. After a plane carrying humanitarian aid workers is shot down and captured, I lead a fireteam codenamed Gambler to a landing zone codenamed Alice so we can rescue them. On the way, One of the team members mentions that there are women among the captured, and, “they might be hurt and they’re probably scared as hell.”

Well damn. I don’t know how the readers of Almost Infinite feel, but I’m certain that if I was shot out of the sky, captured by a oppressive military regime, and relied on the competence of the US military to save me, I’d be scared as hell too, regardless of my gender.

Terry Graves, fictional sexist

So I’ve had to pause and take a moment twice in as many campaign missions. Clearly it’s time to try something else. I leave the campaign to itself, instead trying out some of the single player missions. These take place outside of the campaign, and demonstrate some aspect of the gameplay or specific mission type. There’s one where a spotter and I have to assassinate an enemy officer. There’s another where a team of night vision-equipped commandos storm a village housing militia. These feel a little better, until one of the soldiers quips that with all the laser pointers, it’s like a rave.

We look cool, right?

These moments which happen so frequently in Operation Arrowhead mean one of two things. Either:

  1. the game does not present the behaviour or professionalism of American soldiers accurately, or
  2. The game accurately presents the behaviour and lack of professionalism of American soldiers, which is troubling in its own right.

I really, really hope it’s the former possibility, as opposed to the latter. In a game that strives for realism, the dialogue in Operation Arrowhead feels as cartoonishly out of place as the zombie mode in the Call of Duty games.

Either way, I’m not really having fun with this game. I play through some of the showcases, which are meant to show off the weapons and vehicles of the various armed forces depicted in Operation Arrowhead. They’re basically massive shooting ranges, letting you fire off a plethora of weapons into the deserted countryside of Takistan.

There is one I would like to talk about, though. Showcase number four is called “Civilian Life”, and it allows you to explore the fictional city of Zargabad. You can ride a bicycle around the markets, or wander around the main mosque, or commandeer a bus. There are no objectives, no firing range, not even any weapons that I could find, but it’s easily the most fun I’ve had with the game since installing it. It’s not enough to keep me playing the campaign, but it at least shows that the game has some potential fun for people like me.

One of the reasons I play games is because the world we live in is, far too frequently, a nasty and brutish place, where bad things happen to innocent people for seemingly no reason. I enjoy an escape, be it to renaissance Italy or Sengoku Jidai Japan, or to the foggy swamps of Morrowind. Maybe this game is just a little too close to home. Maybe I’m taking this game a little too seriously. Maybe I shouldn’t judge a game based on my own biases and judge it more on what it attempts to do, as opposed to what I’d like it to do.

There are a lot of maybes about this game, but I know one thing with certainty: I definitely won’t be playing Arma II: Operation Arrowhead again any time soon, no maybe about it.

Next Episode: Sleeping Dogs

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