I’ve been playing around on the Arma 3 alpha for a good week or so, and while I’ve only scratched the suface on the deep and complex campaign design tools included in the game, I think that I’ve seen enough of the single player missions that I can offer an opinion. Obviously, all impressions are based on alpha code, so you can expect changes between now and the final release later this year.
Firstly, the alpha is rather limited, consisting of four showcase missions and a handful of weapons and vehicles. The content is more focused on delivering a taste of the mechanics to come and access to the mission creation tools, and it does just that.
The Arma series is known for bringing a complex and comprehensive military simulation experience to PC screens. Arma 3 is the latest iteration on the combat sim theme, and it takes a significant step to provide an accessible experience for those interested, while not eschewing the existing systemic complexity the series is known for.
Now, before hardcore Arma fans cry foul at the mention of “accessible”, let me say that Arma 3 loses no unwanted complexity. All the deep simulation elements are still there: ballistics, zeroing, squad commands, damage modelling, vehicle controls – everything and then some. What Arma 3 does is cut some of the unwanted corners to streamline the end-user interaction. Gone is the excessive and obtuse inventory screen, replaced with a much friendlier option that also manages more gear customisation. Gear is now sorted into a number of pack options, such as uniform, webbing, and backpack. The type of container you have equipped to a slot dictates the capacity available to each area. Items take up a certain amount of space dependent on type, providing the effective item type limit. This system is significantly friendlier and more intuitive than Arma 2’s obtuse UI.
A pleasant new addition is equip slots for armour and weapons. On top of the uniform, webbing, and pack, you can also change your helmet, eyewear, night vision, and binocular slots. There are dedicated map, gps, radio, watch, and compass slots as before. The biggest change is perhaps in the weapon system. You can equip a primary, sidearm, and launcher – the ammo for which is stowed in your gear. Each weapon has a variety of rail slots to which you can add attachments to. At the moment you can change your sights, your laser, and your suppressor, although the alpha only has a very limited number of these available right now. As in Arma 2, a variety of ammunition types are available, and you can change your equipped type either through the inventory screen or the returning active context menu.
Arma 3 brings a few new movement options to the simulated battlefield. First up is swimming. Arma 2 players will remember with horror the disappearing item “feature” that kicked in when swimming. That’s gone from 3. As foretold, swimming has been significantly expanded, allowing for underwater scuba navigation and combat. By equipping a rebreather to the webbing slot, you can scuba around the island. You can shoot underwater using one specific weapon and ammunition combination, although there is currently no need to do so in the alpha.
The second addition is a tweaking of the crouch system from 2. In addition to the standing/crouched/prone combinations, there are now modified stance options. Each key standing state has three options – standard, and the high or low modified stances. You can also modify your lean length in a similar way. It’s a great way to get around the issue of irregular sized cover and to change your profile.
The most immediately noticeable upgrade to Arma 3, however, is the most superficial one – the graphics. Arma 3 is gorgeous. It is a clear improvement on the already rather pretty Arma 2, with the most noticeable aspect being the draw distance – if your machine is capable of handling it. Long, clear vistas await you on the island of Stratis – the smaller of two islands available in the final release of the game, and the only playable area in the alpha: still, 20 square kilometers is nothing to sneeze at. Performance is great too, surprisingly. Where Arma 2 crippled my rather capable machine at the higher settings, Arma 3 is slightly more forgiving – even taking the noticeable visual enhancements into account. Currently, I can run slightly higher settings at roughly the same framerate as 2, provided I don’t go crazy with the draw distance or AA. Sound has also been tweaked, with distant rifle cracks and bullets whizzing by your ear creating aural directional awareness and a dangerous soundscape.
There are only four missions playable right now – an infantry assault, an aquatic base infiltration, a ground vehicle hijack and asset destruction, and a helicopter flight. Each mission is self-contained, offering a bite-sized portion of themed gameplay. They are enough to demonstrate the distinct gameplay styles that are available, and provide an overview of what’s to come. The aquatic mission is probably the most interesting, tasking you with disarming some underwater mines, infiltrating an enemy installation, acquiring a launcher, destroying a helicopter, and exfiltrating. It’s very open, enabling a variety of approaches to accomplish your tasks. Hopefully, the campaign missions will offer greater complexity and an interesting story, but the complex gameplay will be enough for many. Arma 3 also has more openable doors.
One last thing: bugs. Arma 2 was famous for being plagued with bugs. I personally couldn’t get past the halfway point of Arma 2 due to one of its game-breaking scripting errors. Arma 3, even in its early alpha stage, is much more stable. I did encounter one or two minor issues, but nothing on the scale of Arma 2. The engine also seems more stable so far. This bodes well for the future final release, but nothing is certain.
Arma 3 feels like a perfected version of Arma 2, and that’s a very good thing. Those who liked Arma 2 will love Arma 3 for its sheer mechanical and simming depth. While we don’t know yet what the story missions will be like, we do know this – the building blocks we’ve seen so far in the Alpha will provide a solid foundation for whatever comes next.