For those of us that like our games khaki and complex, 2009 has to go down as a bit of an Annus Mirablis. We trundled about the Ukrainian countryside in splendid steel coffins courtesy of the best WW2 tank sim since Panzer Elite. We hovered with intent behind Georgian tower blocks in the most detailed fake helo ever fashioned. We foxed Fokkers and forswore parachutes in a great Great War aviation recreation. I could have GOTY-ed any of these gems, but instead ArmA II, the clear victor in this year's battle of the soldier sims, gets the nod.
It prevails because it's been surprising, challenging and absorbing me for six months now and shows no sign of stopping. I know we're not supposed to revere size and replayablity these days (New Games Journalism Edict XIV) but blimey, you have to respect a game that produces pleasure like the Magic Porridge Pot produces nourishing oaty gruel.
A lot of ArmA II's wondrous bulk has been added post-release by industrious fans. I challenge any red-blooded warmonger to wander the download halls of a site like Armaholic and emerge empty-handed. New weapons, armour, planes, lands, missions, campaigns, play modes... a feast of high-quality DLC and all free. The other evening I dropped in for a new machine gun and left with a SCUD missile launcher and an island in the Arabian Sea. The rest of the night was spent hunting insurgents through oil refineries, and sitting on blustery mountaintops watching cities perish beneath broiling mushroom clouds.
If you only grab one ArmA II adjunct it has to be the ACE2 (Advanced Combat Environment 2) multi-mod. Recently released in beta form, this colossal team effort shovels grit into an already gritty sim. Survive the convoluted install procedure and you find yourself in a world where you can prop weapons on scenery and vehicles for extra stability, move heavy machine guns by stripping them down down to their component parts, tune sniper rifle sights, and suffer pain in myriad previously unmodelled ways.
New excuses for friendly fire include, 'Sorry, I was momentarily disorientated by the muzzle blast of that effing tank' and, 'Oops, had tear gas in my eyes'. New epitaphs include, 'The pillock walked into a tail rotor', 'Collapsed after running several miles on a hot day carrying a M240 plus ammo' and, 'Didn't realise he was leaving a blood trail for his pursuers to follow'. More grenade throwing styles, weapon overheating, wind effects, fast-roping, better rocket ballistics, HuntIR rounds... immersion-enhancing advances are everywhere.
Lesser games don't get this sort of TLC from their users. They also don't come with irresistible editors. A fair portion of my ArmA II time over the past half year has been spent fabricating little scenarios for my own amusement. Four or five minutes of clicking and I'm a downed fighter pilot fending off gangs of armed locals while a rescue chopper speeds to my position; I'm a freedom-fighter infiltrating an airbase to plant a crucial dictator-slaying runway-side IED; I'm an armed-to-the-teeth ALF mentalist setting out to spring some shampoo-blinded sheep from a fortified lab. Endless fun.
Even if you don't fancy exploring the somewhat scary world of scripting (necessary for serious mission design, but trickier than it should be thanks to the lack of an integrated manual/help system) much can be done with simple off-the-shelf editor features. When I'm feeling lazy I just slap down an ambient combat and 'sec-ops' generator and go enjoy the randomness. The former device periodically adds friendlies and foes to the battlespace, the latter generates a stream of optional side tasks such as POW rescues, escort duties, and arms cache searches. Any fool can create rich, unpredictable combat situations with gizmos like these.
Multiplayer has also been important in keeping my ArmA II relationship strong and spicy. While there's no shortage of shooters offering intense communal combat, none I know of can match this game's scope, variety and resonance. In modes like Domination and Warfare you aren't just scrapping for some paltry bridge or hamlet, you're fighting for entire regions and doing it alongside dozens of sentient soldiers.
Almost every session involves scurrying through a corner of vast, gorgeous Chernarus you haven't scurried through before, and witnessing scenes that feel reportage-real. War's cruel seesaw is beautifully evoked. One minute you're punching the air as friendly Harriers dump laser-guided death on a troublesome target in the village below, the next you're hugging the dirt as a fusillade of shots arrive from an unexpected quarter and comrades slump cursing to the ground.
For more intimate MP engagements it's usually not difficult to find smaller co-op games with slots to fill. ArmA II handles low headcount covert ops as brilliantly as it handles massive company-sized combined-arms assaults, indeed in some of my sweetest memories I'm crouching nervously behind walls on rainy nights while chattering hostiles pass by oblivious on the other side, or laying hidden in treelines observing enemy positions through scopes or binoculars.
I even find myself visiting Chernarus in those small 10-minute-sized play windows that usually don't suit serious sims. While the armoury mode's skeet shooting, obstacle courses and hunting challenges became tiresome long ago, I still enjoy a quick dose of assassination, thievery or kill-house sharp-shooting. Trying to steal a guarded M1A1 tank armed only with a shotgun and smoke grenades, or perform a clinical hit with an RPG-7... that's entertainment.
With tempting unofficial and official expansions on the horizon, and a patch incorporating performance boosts, bug fixes, and a new mini-campaign due at the end of the month, I can't see myself deserting Bohemia Interactive's behemoth any time soon. Hell, if Silent Hunter 5 and Oleg Maddox's Storm of War: Battle of Britain fall short, I may even be back here this time next year praising the same sumptuous soldier sim.
Check out the Editor's blog to find out more about our Games of 2009.