Review: Arma Tactics13 Nov 2013 0
Arma Tactics is a sneaky game. That's its innovation, you see. In an increasingly crowded market for squad tactical games, Arma's point of difference is that your rough-and-tough gung-ho special forces chaps can shoot their many opponents in the face with a gun, or they can sneak around behind and stab them in the back.
Hey, I'm sold. Solid Snake meets John Wayne. But you know that saying about jacks of all trades, I'm sure.
Arma Tactics' story mode follows a four-man American special forces unit in a fictional, presumably Islamic, country in central Africa, where you lead them through a series of turn-based missions fighting (presumably Islamic) "terrorists". The opening scene works down the checklist and establishes, in tried-and-tested triple-A Call of Duty style, that your four generic macho men are scrappy underdogs fighting incredible odds with dire consequences if they should fail, before flashing back to the start of the storyline for the obligatory cringe-inducing witty banter and no-man-left-behind chest thumping.
The game’s fumbling mix of cutscenes and text dumps, and its random glam-cam shots only draw the eye to the ways the presentation falls short. The voice acting is terrible, the animations are stiff and the whole thing looks like a PS2 game with insipid art direction – competent enough, but no Infinity Blade.
Making a turn based-game feel like a kinetic, dramatic experience is very difficult – even XCOM: EU, with far greater resources behind it, only managed that intermittently. Arma's presentation is nowhere near that level of polish. Here, the militiamen cheerily idle-animation their way through getting shot at and guns are sometimes fired in the opposite direction to what they are aiming at yet still hit, and the whole thing ends up feeling stilted and ridiculous.
If the presentation is a few bullets short of a clip, then perhaps the gameplay will be deep enough to make us forget Arma's aesthetic shortcomings. Sadly, no. Functionally, it’s a straightforward squad level tactical TBS. Arma Tactics is a fairly stripped-down take on the genre in terms of options: your choice on a given turn is usually between move, shoot, use a medpac or use a grenade.
You can customise your loadout for each mission, but your options are limited to four different guns, some mines you’ll never use, some grenades and the medkit. That could have worked out fine; not every game needs to bury the player under options, and you get the sense this was a game that was intended to sell on polish and presentation rather than complexity. Given how that turned out, however, the lack of options, combined with straightforward level design, means that what’s initially an enjoyable if flawed romp starts to feel repetitive rather quickly. Even with the supposedly smarter AI of veteran mode turned on, I have yet to see the AI use a grenade or a medkit, have yet to see it retreat or lure you into a trap. Lacking potential for sudden, disastrous surprises, the game’s focus ends up being on meticulously sticking to cover and taking out the tangos as they you spot them – less about ingenuity or clever planning and more about going long enough without screwing up, like a bullet riddled, camo-clad game of darts.
Ropey presentation and bog standard tactical problems aside, nothing demonstrates Arma Tactics’ unfulfilled potential like its half-hearted stealth gameplay. The ability to insta-kill an enemy by sneaking up on him for an old fashioned backstab is something the game makes a big deal about in the tutorial, and the campaign does try to spice things up with the occasional stealth objective. As with a lot of other elements the game’s token effort here only draws attention to its shortcomings. Sprinting up to enemies’ backs while wearing combat boots does nothing to alert them, replacing tension with absurdity the moment you notice this.
The biggest blunder is that Arma gives you none of the information you need to effectively stealth it up – not only are you never sure if a soldier will see you or not, the game doesn’t even show you which parts of the map are under fog of war. The design of a typical level makes a stealth approach unrealistic as well, as the shoulder blades in which you'd most like to bury your knife (those of the snipers) are the most impractical to reach. The stealth element of the game boils down to waiting for a stealth objective to come up, working out what path the level designer intends you to take, and moving one guy along it. What could have been a selling point for the game ends up feeling like a chore.
There’s a laundry list of other niggles that add up over time. The game’s movement controls are over-sensitive and it’s far too easy to waste an action point by accident. On iOS at least, the game’s auto-save is buggy and unreliable, which is crippling in a mobile game, particularly given the unwieldy length of the story missions. The game includes an experience system and a choice of stats to level up, but unlike the nice chunky perks in XCOM: EU or Breach and Clear, the improvements feel insignificant for the price. The game’s story content is limited – two campaigns of five missions each – and the game attempts to pad out its content with the option to generate a random mission with an objective of your choice in a map you’ve already cleared. Ironically, a feature which the game pushed as an xp grinding exercise ended up being a bright spot. The shorter missions are better suited to the platform, and the player-chosen objectives – hold off enemy waves from a defensible position, say, or hunt down a specific terrorist – allow you to feel like you're really planning an operation, and give the game a bit of the focus its muddled campaign lacks.
Arma Tactics isn’t truly awful, and it’s perfectly possible to get some moderately challenging enjoyment out of it if you look past its flaws; particularly if you enjoy the genre and favour the generated missions over the overwrought story missions. The game’s problem is rather that it doesn’t excel at anything: it’s too clumsy to be polished, too finicky to be casual and too straightforward to be strategic.