Over the past five or so years, there’s been a noticeable move away from the traditional expansion pack; developer’s instead favouring the stripped down, console-friendly, “DLC” approach. This term has often polarized attitudes. Where some are prone to snapping up every dribble of new content, others will stay well clear of so-called ‘needless money-grabbing’. I myself miss the age of the expansion pack – a reasonably priced bundle of game-changing new content that often far extended the life of my original purchase. Loved them. Sadly, downloadable content is a far more muddled affair. These days, you need to be very careful with what you buy. It’s too often that a bonus campaign comes in at the same price as a “NEW HAT + 3 TRACTORS MEGA DELUXE PACK”.
Now that I’ve completed their second DLC release, I’m happy to say that one of my favourite developers, Bohemia Interactive, seems to have the right idea. Arma 2: Private Military Company (PMC) costs around eight quid – it’s a relatively small sum, and for that you’ll be getting a lot. Certainly more than a slightly faster machine gun with accompanying Zebra-print lounge chairs. Still, five heart attacks aren’t necessarily better than one. There’s a lot of content here, but is it any good?
I wouldn’t blame you for not being familiar with the Arma series. It’s a particularly special-interest sort of first person shooter that you’ll either love or hate. Being based on an actual combat simulator used by actual armed forces, these games place an intense emphasis on realism and uncompromising difficulty. To give you an idea: if you’ve been sprinting, your soldier will be out of breath, increasing the shakiness of his aim. It’s rare that you’ll survive more than three hits, and taking one to the leg can mean being forced to crawl. It’s very hard, and at the core, PMC is much the same. Patience and planning are the order of the day, and if that isn’t for you, then neither is this DLC.
Similarities aside, PMC can be called the furthest departure from the Arma series so far. It follows the story of former British soldier, Poet (so called because he talks like a wanker), who has signed on with a shady team of private contractors. For Arma veterans, the war-torn Iraq-cum-Afghanistan setting of Takistan will be familiar; the mercenary perspective does however offer an interesting new spin. This heavily translates into the layout of the campaign. Gone are the traditional “take the town” infantry combat missions, in favour of a focused, cinematic experience.
Bohemia seems to have enjoyed the chance to work beyond the restrictions of military representation, opting for a more vibrant narrative. The campaign itself kicks off right in the centre of a ruined city, artillery fire getting closer and closer as you struggle to find what’s left of the team. You’ll make your way down the dust-storm remains of a dead street, occasionally picking off stragglers from the now fractured local forces. For Arma, this is cinematic enough, however an eerie piano music kicks in as ethereal typography of developer’s names fades into the background. Atmospherically, it’s a huge shift, and the action-movie pace thankfully refuses to relent.
The context of private contracting gives way to something of a cliché, when PMC begins to present you with moral decisions. Typically, this would have my eyes rolling, however their integration with the storyline made it hard to complain. A highlight was when the team attempts to enter an area of the country that the US Army designates as off-limits. You have the option of dealing with this through official channels; however you’re warned it may take hours. I ended up spraying mini-gun fire over the guard’s head, my car speeding past as he dived for cover. Given the super-realism backdrop, Bohemia skillfully reinforces the potential dodgyness of your actions without the need of glowing red eyes or a pitchfork. This graceful handling culminates in a truly ambiguous multiple-ending situation – but I won’t ruin that.
As said, there’s a tangible pace to the campaign, and this is largely due to an excellent sense of variety. Where other Arma titles tend to centre on standard infantry combat, PMC constantly switches things up. You’ll defend convoys, sneak through long grass, and run like hell. Often, there’ll be a particularly gimmick to focus the action, and while fans of the series may find this a little restrictive, it does ensure the tension. A good example is during a helicopter sequence, when a scripted missile completely disables your rear rotor. You’ll be put into a constant, sickening spin, tasked with desperately trying to regain control and limp the broken thing to safety. The private contracting element also allows for some particularly unique scenarios, such as a mission where you’re tiny force must fend off a huge assault wave – relying only on tactics and superior technology.
I feel I must say, though, that PMC retains the unique feel of an Arma game. There’s a lot of flash here, but the existing fan-base shouldn’t feel alienated. We’re not dealing with a budget CoD. Indeed, one of the longest and most enjoyable missions of the campaign exemplifies the essence of the series. You lead a two-man team, tasked with removing hostile armoured vehicles scattered across a large, open space. Instead of rockets, you’ll be using an anti-material sniper rifle with thermal sights – locate the tanks’ engines and disable them from afar. Amazing piece of kit aside, you’re seriously outnumbered, and must evade the many infantry patrols in order to survive. You have a starting point, an objective, and a huge open space to take whichever approach you like. It’s simple and it’s amazingly complex. It’s beautiful. It’s Arma.
As you can probably tell, I’m pretty happy with Bohemia’s latest offering. There is, however, one notable deficiency that left me disappointed. You see, part of Arma’s charm is the… anorak appeal. You see it with those train simulators, where a new DLC featuring a particular stretch of track or a diesel engine will pop up frequently. Arma is much the same, in that I can’t get enough of the military hardware on offer. Where a typical shooter features the M16, Arma has about 15 different versions, offering all manner of scope, camo, and attachment combinations. When an expansion comes out, I’ll typically leave the campaign for later, instead opting to play with all my news toys in the powerful editor mode. The developer seems to be aware of this appeal. The last full expansion featured “showcase missions” for each of the numerous forces, lining up all their unique vehicles and armaments to be sampled at your leisure. PMC sadly lacks this feature, as well as no context-free single missions, like those of the previous DLC. This feels like a missed opportunity, as there’s a number of new additions I’d like to have seen more of – the armed unmanned drones particularly come to mind.
In addition to this, PMC fails to address the various issues that have long-plagued Arma. AI is still quirky and unpredictable, and you’ll need to keep looking over your shoulder to make sure squad mates are still there. Scripted mission triggers feel unresponsive, and it’s a real immersion-killer having to watch the game closely for signs that something’s gone wrong. As ever, you’ll need a forgiving attitude to get the most out of it. This is particularly true when considering the voice acting, which epitomises the term “semi-professional”. In fairness, Bohemia is reliable on multiple fronts. Where it never fails to deliver on bugs, you can also be sure of some absolutely stunning visuals. The new character models are immensely detailed (despite the soulless faces), and PMC happens to ship with the best-looking map yet. It’s a S.T.A.L.K.E.R. -esque abandoned military proving grounds – a mixture of derelict, overgrown buildings and beautifully autumnal marshland. Though smaller than usual, the tone is bang-on, and I can’t wait to see what life the thriving mod community will inject.
Despite a consistently upper-medium difficulty curve, PMC is a very approachable addition to the “Armaversum”. That doesn’t actually mean much, though, as it will probably appeal almost exclusively to fans. Still, I know a fair few Arma-owners who liked the idea of the game, but found the actual task of playing it a little daunting. If you’re in that position, then I’d say the highly focused nature of this campaign makes it a good starting point – that is, if you can deal with the difficulty. For existing fans, PMC will be a fresh spin on what you know and love: a strong campaign that lays the foundations for even more home-made carnage.