Games like ArmA II Operation Arrowhead and those that would enthusiastically shake the hand of everyone at developer Bohemia Interactive’s offices, including the receptionist. If you aren’t open to the idea of spending days getting accustomed to a control scheme, understanding the layout and functionality of complex communication menus, and partaking in a style of gameplay that rewards patience, planning, and perseverance, then it’s not very likely you’re going to enjoy the intricate product Bohemia’s created. If, on the other hand, you’ve either played and had a good time with ArmA before or have always been curious about what this franchise is about, then Operation Arrowhead is worth picking up, even if it still has issues with AI and performance optimization.
Operation Arrowhead is a standalone expansion to last year’s ArmA II, and comes with a new story campaign, a number of standalone missions, and a big chunk of improvements and additional units and features to make for a more complete war experience. The action this time takes place around the fictional setting of Takistan, where you’ll tangle with hostile forces while infiltrating facilities, eliminating guard patrols, and hopping into tanks and helicopters to power past enemy roadblocks and knock out convoys. In case you’ve never played a game like this before, all I can say is before you bother checking out any of the content included here, play through all of the tutorials. This isn’t a product that allows you to jump right in and feel at home with the flight, vehicle, and on-foot controls. There’s a lot to consider with each mode of transportation and combat, and a specific procedure for doing everything from telling your squad to stay put in a location to ordering missile strikes from your AH-64 Apache by way of a ULB helicopter’s laser targeting system. That’s not meant as a knock against the game, instead just a fair warning to anyone unfamiliar with the product.
Once you’re comfortable with the way all the systems work and interact, it’s much easier to appreciate what Bohemia has accomplished here. The joy of the game is getting to play around with a huge range of vehicles and weapons that you never otherwise could, like if, as a kid, your parents came home and dropped onto the floor all the impossibly expensive toys you always wanted. There’s ample opportunity to gorge on this feeling by heading into Showcase scenarios for US Army, Takistani, and Allied Forces, amongst others, where you’re dropped into a base and a spread of every vehicle type is laid out before you. Do you hop onto dirt bikes and ATVs or climb into A-10s and C-130Js on the US side, or maybe drop into the driver’s seat of UN-branded BMP-2 tanks and M113 armored transports? Those looking for a little more structure can open up the Armory and select unlocked machines or play around with the new thermal imaging. While testing them, you can opt to accept random missions that pop up during play and give you more of a reason to put all those devastating weapons systems to use.
Before digging into that kind of content, however, there’s always the new scripted campaign to check out. Bohemia’s leaning towards a realistic wartime environment means you won’t be able to sprint around enemy territory firing from the hip and expect to do anything but get very quickly killed. The gameplay is slow, methodical, and ultimately a rewarding experience when your tactics and careful advancement across a battlefield pay off. Yet like the products that preceded it, it’s a tough balancing act Bohemia must perform by trying to offer mission goals and action setups that feel authentic without losing the element of fun. While many of the game’s fans appreciate how Bohemia respects the player’s intelligence when devising ways to complete missions, in some cases it can go too far, resulting in more frustration than entertainment.
Mission goals throughout the campaign are generally set up well, designed to show off the various gameplay systems at work. Things start off simple with a small scale infantry push against entrenched enemy forces, but the scope expands quickly as you’re soon hopping into a tank and commanding other armor units around giant maps to eliminate enemy defenses. Mission progression isn’t always straightforward, which can make things more exciting. There’ll be a set of overarching goals laid down at the beginning, but it’s possible that once you and your squad approach an enemy facility it’s discovered that the whole place is wired to blow, and there’s only a limited time to defuse everything and get out alive. Other optional mission goals pop up during play as well, tasking you with blasting convoys to bits from attack choppers, lending a sense of unpredictability to the scene. The campaign branches in a few parts too, depending on how you fare in certain missions, which results in different styles of missions on a playthrough. While this and the dynamic objectives help keep things interesting, there are a number of issues that add frustration.
To start, the artificial intelligence governing enemies and your squadmates is still problematic. Try to give a group of tanks a move command and you’ll see what I mean as they repeatedly bump into each other and generally seem to have a very difficult time properly navigating to the designated location without micromanagement and babysitting. Enemies aren’t especially bright either, with some not recognizing they’re in a fight as their comrades fall around them, while machine gun operators spin lazily in circles as they’re sprayed with bullets despite their compatriots having already surrendered. It’s not always an issue – sometimes your squadmates readily respond and enemies will pick you off from a mountainside hundreds of meters away. It’s great when all the systems are working properly, but it detracts from the feeling of realism when elements like these so noticeably malfunction.