Arma III Alpha (PC), Preview

While a few of the new features fail to hit their mark in this unfinished version, the Arma III alpha offers a promising view of the realistic and strategic military combat that’s still to come.

Platform: PC

Developer: Bohemia Interactive

Category: Military simulation, tactical shooter

It’s been a few years since Bohemia Interactive’s Arma II came around to change the face of military simulation games and now the Czech developer is gearing up to let us in on another romp through a hyper-realistic, near-future warzone. While we’re still a few months away from the game’s official release, that hasn’t stopped Bohemia from letting Arma fans in on all the top-notch action before the official call to arms is placed. The Arma III alpha is one of 12 titles to debut on Steam’s Early Access program, which launched on the popular Valve client in the middle of last week. The Early Access program allows Steam users to purchase big, upcoming games months before their commercial release and play through a number of alpha and beta test phase: all leading up to the final, polished version. Arma III has a release window of Q3 2013 and as such, the game feels very much like its alpha version label: unfinished, unpolished and limited in scope.

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Arma III is set to follow a storyline that takes place in the mid-2030s, where NATO forces in Europe are tasked with fending off an invading Iranian military from the East. The actual story is mostly absent here in the alpha release, but the overall presentation and background narrative is likely to be much more in depth by the time the game’s final build is pulled out of the barracks. The alpha features four different single-player scenarios, each of which is meant to showcase a different gameplay element that will be heavily ingrained in the Arma III experience: Infantry, SCUBA, Vehicles, and Helicopters. While some of these showcases build incredible excitement for what is still to come, others are far less realized and when placed side by side like this, they work in disjunction to make the overall product feel more like a convoluted mess than a coherent gaming experience.

The first Infantry segment has you working with a squad of A.I. soldiers to take out an opposing troop of enemies in a windy valley setting. The game’s on-foot combat feels incredibly realistic; but of course, in striving for immaculate realism in the game, you run the risk of leaving out those slight exaggerations of reality that make video games so fun to play. One thing I couldn’t really get past in the Infantry segment was how your soldier can’t move and shoot at the same time. The recoil on most weapons is also so sensitive that after the first bullet leaves the chamber, my aiming gets so unpredictable that I’m lucky to land a second shot on someone standing 10 feet in front of me. But if these things didn’t bother you in Arma and Arma II, then it probably won’t be that much of an issue here either, for veterans of the series.

The underwater SCUBA mechanics are something new to the Arma franchise and allow players to scale the ocean floor for a more tactical breach of enemy shores. You can even fire some cool underwater-based weapons, which I thought was a really neat touch. The first section of the showcase tasks you with deactivating a number of underwater mines without being detected. But much like the other showcases in the Arma III alpha, the boring and mundane mission structure does little to get players excited about the new playing styles they are trying to incorporate. Swimming gets a little tedious before long and the sluggish, waterlogged combat isn’t as cool as it sounds on paper. There’s also this really weird animation of your soldier sticking his arm straight out in front of him when he’s nearing the surface, which just comes off as looking clunky and impractical.

The game runs on an improved version of the Real Virtuality 4.0 engine over Arma II and while the character motions all feel very fluid, the visuals leave much to be desired in their current alpha state. I found many of the textures to be fuzzed or blurred, even on the higher and ultra-settings and this was especially noticeable in the trees and shrubbery that pepper the game world. Every environment I encountered in my time with the game just felt uninspired and incredibly bare and there was never anything interesting to see while trekking from Point A to Point B. The underwater scenario remedied this tedium for a few minutes, until I swam a bit deeper into a repetitive and seemingly never ending field of blurry seaweed and brushed past the occasional poorly-rendered fish. I was actually excited to return to the surface and see a boat floating lazily on the water, because it gave me something different to look at after all that seaweed.

But it’s the vehicle-based combat that quickly becomes the shining achievement in the Arma III alpha: that is, once you actually figure out how to steal a jeep without instantly crumbling in a hail of enemy gunfire. Even slicker than the ground vehicle controls are when you are able to take to the sky in a robust and impressive helicopter, which I can already tell will be one of the biggest drawing points to Arma III. The helicopter controls are incredibly precise: so much so that the slightest lapse in focus or unintentional tilt of your mouse will send you plummeting to the ground faster than you can blink. I imagine the same would happen if you tried flying a helicopter in real life. I’m still trying to get a handle on it even after writing this review, but successfully being able to pilot that thing becomes incredibly rewarding and the tilt mechanics feel great and firing a mounted turret from your helicopter is a breeze. As with many other aspects of Arma III, it will likely take you several hours of struggling with the controls before you really fall into a groove and start to see what all the fuss is about.

Although there are only 12 weapons available in the alpha, there are going to be over 40 weapons to play with in the retail release.  There will also be more vehicles to play with; we are told that there will be over 20 vehicles at your disposure.  As well as customizable gear.

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In addition to the single-player mission scenarios, the Arma III alpha also features a return of the series’ trademark level editor, which allows anyone on the Arma III servers to create their own mission designs and multiplayer set-ups. One thing I noticed almost immediately is that Arma III is not exactly user-friendly for newcomers to the series. The complete absence of tutorials in the level editor screen left me clueless as to what I was supposed to be doing and the bland topography map of the editor felt flat and a sharp departure from other aspects of the game. But despite the level editor’s somewhat lackluster design, you can still do some pretty cool things with this feature. And combined with the in-house developer and user-created content of a highly dedicated fan community, the multiplayer component offers limitless possibilities to play with others online and there’s never a shortage of things to do or different game types to find in both cooperative and traditional death match designations.

So in the end, the Arma III alpha is a healthy sampling of what Bohemia Interactive has in store for Arma fans later on in 2013. The alpha did exactly what it was supposed to do; get us to want more!  While the selection of features is wide and diverse, not all of them work, which can result in a semi-disjointed experience at times. Nevertheless, the awesome helicopter-based combat and incredibly rich multiplayer components will be more than enough to keep tactical shooter fans busy until the game’s final release. The Arma III alpha is still an extremely early build of the game, and there’s no doubt in my mind that in subsequent beta testing and future title updates, we will see this engagingly real and responsive world brought to life even further.

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