Essential equipment for the survival-minded Takistani insurgent: AK-47, IED, IED transportation device (wheelbarrow), spade, foil firefighting suit. Without that last item Mr. Boom-Bastage is going to stick out like a sore thumb when up to nocturnal no-good. Thanks to the super-real thermal imaging that is one of this standalone expansion's most eye-catching features, doing dastardly things in the dark can actually be more dangerous than doing them in the daylight.
Instead of fudging FLIR tech with the help of a few greyscale filters, Bohemia Interactive has gone the whole hog, giving every unit in the game (including hogs) its own heat map. Exposed flesh shines like a lighthouse, as does wandering fauna.
With vehicles the effects are subtler. A truck or jeep parked up for some time is almost invisible. Once on the move, however, components like bonnets, wheels and axle boxes begin to give off a telltale glow. A helo hiding in a clearing may now be betrayed by its cooling rotor hub and exhaust ports, a sly hull-down tank by the shimmer of a hot gun barrel. Night battles - assuming you've got the fancy tech - just got that bit more interesting.
Obviously keen to show off the new system, the one campaign mission playable in our preview code puts a FLIR-equipped M110 sniper rifle in your hands, and sends you off to free hostages from a militia-held mining complex.
As ArmA or Operation Flashpoint missions go, it's not exactly stellar stuff. Short deserty ingress via Little Bird, charmless dialogue from comrades, brief firefight... everything but the twist at the end (details on request) feels awfully familiar. Fingers crossed the finished campaign will offer some fresher and longer excursions. Frankly, I'd be amazed if it didn't.
Bohemia is keeping details of the story mode close to its Czech czest at present, but all the signs are pointing to something more structured than ArmA II's ambitious but bug-riddled Red Harvest. We're still going to be devising our own tactics and fighting for Uncle Sam (surely it was someone else's turn?) but this time it will be in an army rather than a jarhead uniform, and the foot-slogging should be liberally sprinkled with vehicular action.
AFV aficionados are in for a treat, that's for sure. Though ArmA II workhorses like the LAV-25 and AAVP7A1 are sitting this one out, their places are taken by a swarm of sand-coloured substitutes. Strykers, an eight-wheeled IFV, come in six different flavours, the tracked Bradley in three.
In situations where speed is more important than security, you've now got a preposterous 10 Humvee variants to choose from. There's a SOV (the stripped-down spec-ops wagon) a GPK (the one where the top gunner gets a sniper-proof turret) a SCOW (the one with the remotely operated gun). The only version Bohemia has left out is the 99 (the one that sells ice-cream).
There's novelty in the ranks of the Takistan Army too. They field a range of ageing Warsaw Pact kit including the BTR-60 troop carrier, T-55 tank, and - if the editor is any guide - even the odd World War II-era T-34. T-72s and SCUD missile launchers add some much needed menace to their armoury.
Asymmetry extends to air power. Moving, supplying and supporting coalition forces (small Czech and German contingents will fight alongside the Yanks) are an impressive array of modern whirlybirds. The lumbering twin-rotored Chinook debuts, along with the high tech AH-64D and spooky pilotless AH-6X. Why risk aircrew on a dangerous recon or wild weasel sortie when a remotely-controlled Little Bird could do the deed? They can even lase targets for a Hellfire-equipped Apaches as you can see on YouTube.
For every new wheeled or winged toy in Arrowhead there's at least one small-arm. The M110, mentioned earlier, is sure to find favour amongst the ghillie suit set (as will the new sight adjustment ability). Not only does this long-distance liquidator let you see warm prey in the dark but it's semi-automatic and virtually kick-less, meaning you can take down multiple targets very swiftly.
More common and practical for everyday soldiering, the US Army's new modular assault rifle, the FN SCAR, is modelled in at least a dozen different configurations. Scanning Arrowhead's 100-slot gun rack for other incomers, the M32 grenade launcher, Uzi, METIS AT-13 (a modern Russian portable anti-tank system) and the Sa Vz.58 (a Czech AK-47 clone) all jump out.
It looks like Bohemia's tailors and milliners have been almost busy as their weaponers. Playing as OPFOR in the Armoury mode, I've gone into battle wearing an amazing range of pakol hats, turbans and salwar kameezes. Whatever the outcome of the campaign, the Mujahideen-style Takistani irregulars have the fashion war sewn up.
Takistan itself is similarly splendid. The biggest of the three maps representing the concocted Central Asian country, is 170 square kilometres of narrow cultivated valleys and rugged brown peaks. Vistas are frequently stunning. The roads that link the scattered villages, winding as they often do through deep passes, might have been made for ambushes. One well-positioned man with a MANPAD should be able to play havoc with a convoy or air bridge.
The second map has at its centre a sprawling town. Zargabad has to be Bohemia's best urban environment yet. Plausibly sited between two rivers, it's a mass of unplanned housing, shops and market squares. Arriving from the west aboard a helo, you fly in across an airfield littered with rusting war relics. The forlorn tank hulks and burnt-out fuselages testify to Takistan's turbulent past far more eloquently than any cut-scene. Rising from the heart of the city like a giant robin's egg is the dome of an elaborately-tiled mosque that just gets prettier the closer you get to it.
Put your helo down in any dusty street or yard, jump out, and you find yourself surrounded by threatening/inviting doors and windows. Unlike other ArmA metropoli such as Paraiso and Chernagorsk, Zargabad is full of explorable interiors. Shops littered with sacks and boxes, homes lavishly cushioned and carpeted... for the first time in the series history, Bohemia has managed to create something that feels more like a real town rather than a training area mock-up.
In the unlikely event skirmishing in the streets of the regional capital ever loses its appeal, hatching your own urban battlefield with the help of the editor and the third map (a desert venue empty apart from an oil pumping station) is ridiculously easy. Placing one of the new town-generation modules anywhere on a map spawns a random settlement of around fifty structures. Disconnected from road networks these instant burghs have a surreal ghost town air about them, but they're perfect for a quick spot of FIBUA action.
It will be interesting to see how AI forces cope with random streets riddled with useable apertures, ladders and stairs. My cursory experiments suggest they'll do just fine. Frame-rates in urban spaces certainly seem to have benefited from the touted LOD optimisations.
Sadly, there's no evidence of other rumoured enhancements like flashlights on weapons, improved damage models and passenger fire from vehicles. If the Czechs have backburnered such advances so as to put more effort into quality control, then I for one won't mind. Arrowhead's environments and materiel are looking fantastic, but if Bohemia intends to ship another mil-sim with a faulty campaign, they can expect a very hot LZ.
ArmA II: Operation Arrowhead is due out on 29th June worldwide.