Time logged before Full Steam Ahead: None.
For those who have read my past posts, you’ll remember that I bought the Arma 2 bundle during one of the Steam summer sales. For those of you haven’t read or can’t remember the previous post, featuring Operation Arrowhead, I’ll sum up: I didn’t like it.
I didn’t like the over-complicated control scheme, and I really didn’t like the characters in the campaign. I didn’t play very far into the campaign, and I barely spent any time in the individual scenarios. Immediately after finishing the post, I was somewhat disheartened, because I thought I’d said everything that could be said about the Arma series in that one post. I had no idea what I was going to do when the other four games showed up in the random list.
Bad news: less than ten games later in the list, it’s time for another game in this military simulation series: Arma 2 – Private Military Company.
Good news: Arma 2 – PMC surprises me.
Don’t get me wrong, a lot of the mechanical problems I had with Operation Arrowhead are still present in PMC. The graphics aren’t especially polished, and the control scheme is still a nightmare from which there is no waking, and the AI vary in competence between unstoppable killing machines and dachshunds wearing giraffe costumes. All in all, it doesn’t lend me a lot of confidence.
However, PMC is one of the expansions which adds a whole new campaign to the game: Operation Black Gauntlet.
Set sometime after the largely unsuccessful campaign in Operation Arrowhead, Black Gauntlet follows a group of military contractors tasked with protecting a UN inspections team in the remnants of Takistan. The first few missions serve as simple introductions to the Ion PMC team; Asano, Dixon, Tanny, Reynolds, and your player character, Brian Frost, AKA Poet. You are members of the squadron codenamed Sword.
Within five minutes, Sword makes a better first impression than the forces in Operation Arrowhead. They cuss a lot, and they are definitely in over their heads, but they do actually seem to care about the job they’re doing and the lives that job affects. When Dixon once refers to the locals as “Takis”, Tanny immediately launches into a profanity laced rant against Dixon’s racist and reductive tendencies; spot on mate. Furthermore, Poet frequently is troubled by the escalation of actions by Ion PMC; the rules of engagement initially only call for limited use of force, and only when the inspectors or PMC is attacked first. However, these standards are quickly abandoned in favour of more powerful weaponry and first-strike tactics.
I like it when games let me to choose between many good options, but I find it more compelling when games force me to choose between bad options. Arma 2 – PMC is full of these moments. I can’t talk about some of these moments without revealing some spoilers. I personally don’t care much about spoilers, and I don’t know how many readers plan to play or wish to play this games, but better safe than sorry I suppose. Consider this your warning for the rest of the post.
As the UN inspection team investigates Takistan’s weapons program, it becomes clear that outside forces are supplying local militia groups with information about the UN and PMC. This leads to many run-ins with local militia, portions of the National Takistan Army, and another privately supplied armed force. After much speculation (and heavy casualties for Ion’s squadron), it is revealed that China is responsible for supplying the Takistan weapons program with fissile materials: essentially, a starter kit for nuclear weapons.
Your team’s handler, Reynolds (codenamed Stranger), instructs you to set up an ambush attack on the same inspection team you’ve been protecting during the campaign. The materials will be disposed of, China (a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council) will not be implicated in the weapons program, and local militia groups will end up taking the fall. Needless to say, this option is horrifying, but it’s presented as the only option which can maintain the delicate stability of world diplomacy.
The other option, as presented by your squadmate Dixon, is to betray the PMC. A small team can storm the Ion base, recover the fissile materials themselves, and deliver them to the UN. This option brings the truth of Chinese involvement in the weapons program to light, and is the honest option. However, it will undoubtedly lead to an international incident, resulting in worse conflict down the road.
Neither one of these options is the morally right choice. They both suck. It is simply too large a decision for any one person to make on your own. In Mission 10: Escalation, you have to make that choice for yourself and your team. Betray the UN investigators, or betray Ion? Protect a secret, or protect your integrity? Not only is the choice significant, but way the game has you make that choice matters too.
Games will often let the player make decisions in an impersonal way, like pressing a button during a cutscene, or selecting an option from a dropdown menu. By using a different mechanic, or presenting it in a game-like manner, it allows players to distance themselves from their decisions.
In Mission 10: Escalation, you don’t get a dropdown menu. You have to choose: Kill Dixon, who intends to go rogue, or get in the car with him. If one pulls the trigger on Dixon, they do it the same way they have for anyone else they’ve opened fire on during the campaign. If one gets in the SUV, it’s the same motion they’ve used to get in any other vehicle. I won’t tell you what choice I made, but I will tell you that the mechanics didn’t let me distance myself from the choice.
All in all, Arma 2 – PMC benefits from some clever writing that suffers from poor voice-acting. It benefits from having shorter, more focused missions that suffer under the same overly complex control scheme as the other Arma games. It benefits from having choices the matter, but suffers from maybe not taking its analysis far enough. PMC was certainly more rewarding than Operation Arrowhead, even if it still featured some of the poor design decisions that hampered the first.
It’s moments like this that make the Full Steam Ahead series worthwhile in my head. I’m fairly certain that I never would have played Arma 2 – PMC without some reason, and I certainly wouldn’t have played it after playing Operation Arrowhead. Full Steam Ahead doesn’t let me choose: I have to play them all. I doubt I’ll enjoy all of them. Chances are, there are plenty more games like Operation Arrowhead lurking in the depths of my Steam library. However, there may also be a few PMCs.
Next Episode: Bioshock