In the moments when they're not busy fabricating the follow-up to the world's most realistic soldier sim the staff of Bohemia Interactive Studio like nothing better than stroking kittens. It's true, I've seen it with my own eyes. Bohemia's surprisingly rural base of operations is home to a couple of cute black felines called Lock and Load (okay, I didn't actually get round to finding out their names, but it's probably something along those lines). On the day of my visit, these two moggies are stroked at least three times an hour.
What can we conclude from all this cat coddling? Is the team that brought us gritty war recreations Operation Flashpoint and ArmA going soft in their middle age? At first glance the answer appears to be 'yes'.
One of the unlikeliest new features in the upcoming ArmA sequel is that traditional crutch of the namby-pamby FPS, first aid. No longer is a bullet in the guts a one-way ticket to Golgotha. No longer do wounded soldiers have to crawl about the countryside like pythons that have eaten one too many pygmy hippos at an all-you-can-eat jungle buffet. Players can now carry or drag injured comrades to safety before reviving them with life-saving medk... err, 'wound dressings'.
Studio head Marek Spanel acknowledges the gameiness: "It's not totally realistic, but we needed something like this. Co-op is really important in ArmA 2. In our previous games, teams were often just a bunch of individuals running and shooting. Now, they have to work together because if you get hit you can bleed to death within a minute."
A little later something else is said that suggests softy backsliding. Marek again: "ArmA 2 isn't just about fighting. There are dynamic conversations with NPCs and a lot of narrative in the game. We want it to be cinematic." Conversations, narrative, cinema? Treachery, surely. Should hardcore fans be worried?
In a word, no. While it's obvious Bohemia is trying to broaden the appeal of the series with the help of a more interesting/unpredictable campaign (set in the fictional Caucasian country of Cernarus) and more characterful comrades (your three brothers-in-arms are a Queen's Gambit-style USMC Special Forces group) there's plenty of evidence ArmA 2 is going to be as honest and uncompromising as ever.
Take the dynamic conversations for example. There's even a realism angle to those. Lose the linguist on your team, and communicating with Russian or Cernarussian-speaking locals will be hard if not impossible. It's a similar story with road-signs. Some poor intern has spent weeks hand-placing 1900 of the things at appropriate locations on the 225 km2 map. If you're looking for a particular town or village you just follow the signs. Well, you do if you can understand the Cyrillic alphabet they're written in.
More chat and campaign colour doesn't mean Bohemia's forgotten about firefight fundamentals either. The new 'Micro AI' is looking and sounding fantastic. As Marek puts it: "In our previous titles the AI was designed primarily for larger scale combat in open fields. This time enemies are capable of finding cover with centimetre precision. They will use trees and buildings. They will lean and crouch-strafe. They will act as a team, one soldier providing suppressive fire, while the others advance."
Even if you duck out of sight you can expect storms of speculative lead to be sent in your direction. What's the point of that? Bullets that fail to find flesh can still cause fear. What was an incidental byproduct of combat in ArmA is now a potential killer. Rounds whistling past your head or kicking-up dirt at your feet cause your crosshairs to wander and spread. The lesson: "If you want to get home in one piece don't get pinned-down by a gang of angry slavs with AK-74s."
You'll have noticed that I haven't actually identified ArmA 2's foes yet. That's because it's not immediately obvious who the bad guys are. Unlike past outings where the bogeymen were the chaps with the Warsaw Pact gear, in this instalment things are far more complicated. Team Razor - your tight-knit Special Forces team - are part of a NATO force sent into Cernarus to keep various ethnic and nationalist faction from cleansing each other. Whose side you end up on depends a lot on the people you choose to kill and the things you choose to say during the course of the campaign. Character-switching (you can jump between Team Razor members) a branching plot, unscripted AI, and full co-op compatibility means that campaign should stand at least half a dozen play-throughs.
If you do exhaust the story there's always the peerless multiplayer - enhanced by new hand signals and the first aiding - to wallow in, or Warfare - the freeform territorial conquest mode that blends RTS base-building with familiar FPS soldiering. Added to ArmA via a patch, the latter is one of several fan-made mods adopted and refined by Bohemia for ArmA2. The new particle effects and HALO parachute insertions also started out as community ingenuity.
Frustratingly, there isn't time to toy with many of the 167 vehicles or 70+ weapons that will grace the game. Hind and Venom gunships are clattering around raining death during a couple of the demonstrations, but there's no sign of new exotica like the VTOL V-22 Osprey and F-35 Lightning. Playing Warfare, I'm squashed by an APC that may or may not have been one of the slew of new Russian troop taxis. Slightly worryingly, the day passes without any mention of tractors.
So, to recap: Bohemia likes cats, but isn't going all soppy on us. If you crave combat games that are plausible, atmospheric, and awash with tactical options, ArmA 2 should be at the very top of your list.
ArmA 2 is due out for PC in Q1 2009.