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First contact with Arma 3

As Bohemia waits to roll out the campaign, Paul Dean looks at what's there ahead of the review.

The battle is not yet joined. While Arma 3 is now available to buy, what you can download from Steam right now only represents an advance guard, a selection of showcase missions and equipment demonstrations. The main body is to follow, with the game's campaigns coming next month as a free add-on. There's the opportunity to join in multiplayer or download extra missions via Steam Workshop, but otherwise it's a slim offering and at the moment Arma 3 isn't a complete game. In lieu of a review, here are some first impressions.

If you're an Arma veteran, then welcome back to the war. Sure, the equipment's a little different and the terrain unfamiliar, but you know this conflict. You know it's unforgiving, you know it's long and you know it has its quirks. If this is your first taste of Arma's very particular flavour of war, then consider these showcase missions a dozen ways to die, some of them much easier than others.

Each of these missions highlights either a new addition to the series, or a staple that developers Bohemia Interactive have been busy trying to improve. The former includes a chance to go scuba diving or swoop helicopters across the game's bigger, broader islands, while the latter has you once again leading special forces teams into action or settling into the cramped commander's chair inside a main battle tank. All of them demand Arma's same mix of patience and pragmatism, plus a slight suspension of disbelief.

It looks so dry you can almost taste the dust in your mouth.

Take, for example, the role of a squad leader, tasked with defending a village from enemy attack. You have a few minutes to get your troops into position, issuing your orders via a system of nested menus that cover everything from where soldiers should head to what stance they need to adopt or even which direction to watch. Then, when the bullets start flying, you all instinctively fall prone, hard cover becoming your best friend, your enemies rarely more than a muzzle flash four hundred meters away.

Gunfights are peppered with the snap of high-velocity rounds flying past and consist of brief, furtive dashes and then intense readings of the land, an attempt to spot anything moving in the game's sometimes quite dense foliage. All about you your team call targets and, at your command, engage them or support one another. If you only face forward, focusing on the firefight, you can pretend not to notice their constant fidgeting and the mild confusion they display when confronted by a fence, dashing back and forth like a dog in a yard.

I can't knock them too much, because the AI has an almost preternatural ability to see through soft cover. While you won't know what's behind a bush or in long grass, it very often will, which makes team-mates a tremendous asset and enemy sharpshooters a curse. It's some small comfort that, on the standard difficulty level, everybody takes a remarkable amount of bullets to finish. I've been shot many times and walked away, something I've been grateful for, but I don't appreciate having to pump three, four, five rounds into someone only 30 meters away before they finally decide to expire. It doesn't suit a soldier sim.

"Arma 3 is exactly what I'd expect from the sequel to Arma 2: a tense, often unforgiving representation of 21st century combat whose steely features are unexpectedly freckled with eccentricities and embarrassing imperfections."

Helicopters are twitchy things, but practice makes perfect.

If you want to ditch your friends and go it alone then there's the opportunity to find yourself a pair of flippers and deactivate underwater mines or to set out on a nocturnal rampage with a trio of explosive charges. The odds are stacked against you in these solo missions and the importance of the element of surprise cannot be overstated. One soldier is quickly outflanked, outgunned and pinned down, so there's a singular thrill in taking such risks, along with a very high chance of failure. Not least because, like its predecessors, Arma 3 offers you one manual save, plus a few checkpoints.

Underwater Arma isn't itself a particularly exciting experience, being as slow and murky as you might very well expect from a game with realisim in its sights, but it's a welcome and very logical addition. It makes perfect sense for a special operations soldier to approach by way of the sea and it'll be interesting to see how the campaign makes use of this new environment. The game's loading screens boast that one island has over 200km of coastline, which will present plenty of opportunity for rubber people emerging from the waves.

Ah yes, those islands, bigger and better than ever, rolling into the distance sculpted into rolling hills, painted with thick forests and flecked with bare rock. Arma 3 is nothing if not pretty, though in a distinctly desolate way. It has a very parched tone throughout, so dry that you can almost taste the dust, while its towns are small and a little flat, rather lacking in detail or any real sense of life. It's the great wide wilderness, suffering under the relentless sun, that really impresses, because the Arma series has always been good at open spaces. It was an pleasure to bump up the detail settings and see the frame rate suffer a lot less than I expected, though playing at the highest settings will still demand a powerful GPU.

Such wide open spaces call to the chariots of war, but the ride is a rough one. Previous Arma games have always been generous with their tanks, typically putting you at the controls of metal monsters who take a real pounding before they fail, unlike the fragile mammal that is the infantry soldier, but here their tenacity is offset by an alarming stickiness and crew stupidity.

Once again, stealthy night operations present a singular challenge.

Being a tank commander is a lot like being a driving instructor, as your crew will display sudden and often quite slapstick lapses of ability, failing to track targets, failing to drive in a straight line to a place or even getting your vehicle stuck on terrain. For me, that terrain has included buildings, the tiniest of rocks or, on one occasion, a dumped washing machine. Yes, in the world of Arma 3, armoured cavalry can be halted by discarded white goods.

The showcase missions are over all too quickly, proving to be an interesting but mixed bunch. They're complimented by a few equipment exhibitions, which show off the game's new vehicles and weapons, but you can't have too much fun with the gear quite yet. Start shooting the place up with near-future firearms and it's game over, buster. Then it's off to the Steam Workshop to sort through a slowly growing body of user-made missions which, as is always the case, will grow in number and quality given time.

So far, Arma 3 is exactly what I'd expect from the sequel to Arma 2: a tense, often unforgiving representation of 21st century combat whose steely features are unexpectedly freckled with eccentricities and embarrassing imperfections. It's said that there's a very fine line between madness and genius. Rifle in hand, Arma 3 may well be straddling that line. We'll see exactly where it stands when its campaigns arrive.

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