You Know a Game is Special When it Changes How and What You Play for the Rest of Your Life.

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ArmA 2

This has been an interesting couple of months for me. I've had a lot of time on my hands lately, having lost both my job and my closest and dearest friend recently. I've needed a bit of a coping device, and turned to two things: my goals to join the Marine Corps and of course; video games.

Interestingly enough, I've managed to find an interesting intersection of preparing for the Marine Corps and playing video games. Which sounds a little silly, even know, but it really speaks volumes about how special and incredible what got me there is.

Many of you have probably heard of ARMA II as a complex and difficult to master military sandbox simulator. Which is sort of accurate. And most of you probably know it as one of the absolute most realistic combat experiences video games have to offer. This is less accurate, unfortunately.

It's a weird product on it's own, and one that in a lot of ways is pretty dated and messed up at this point in time. It takes a whole lot of power to render, the AI is awful, and the physics are pretty much non-existent. Some of the controls are clunky, and movement can be a right pain in the ass. And as for realism it tends to strive for scope rather than depth. Standard ArmA, even with all of the official addons, is about as big as the Pacific Ocean. But it's pretty shallow beyond that. The AI is incredibly unrealistic, not using many, if any tactics beyond unbelievably good reaction times, aim, and perception. Many of the more complex gears in the military system are not truly simulated (Artillery for example is fairly simple and basic).

But fear not! As with many games, ARMA II lives and dies by it's incredibly passionate and resourceful modification community. Luckily, ArmA is a really great starting point for a really crazy MilSim. It's huge, in more ways than one, it's got a good ballistics simulation, and it covers pretty much every aspect of warfare. It's not an Infantry simulator, it's a war simulator. It's pretty cool even with it's flaws.

But with the right mods, it becomes a completely different beast. It's even bigger, it's far more realistic, and in my opinion, down right magical with the right group of guys to sim with.

Arguably the biggest and most important mod in the community is ACE2 or Advanced Combat Environment 2. It's a fitting name for a game like ArmA, because that's exactly what it is. A combat environment. ACE is basically an overhaul of the entire game.

For one, It adds a ton of new weapons from various factions. It adds new vehicles with new functionality. It fills out the gaps in ArmA's gear, basically. As well as adding a lot of new toys to play with, it improves a lot of existing toys.

It adds a lot of new systems like a more complex medical module that requires different medical attention based on the condition of the patient. You will bleed out after being shot, and have to stop the bleeding with bandages. Pain will cause you a lot of trouble aiming and potentially cause you to lose consciousness, and you'll need morphine and epinephrine to dull the pain and keep you from passing out. Fatigue is also simulated, so no more sprinting up a mountain with an M240 Bravo, a SMAW, and 1200 rounds of ammunition. Based on your weight, as well as the speed and method of travel, you will become fatigued which results in decreased weapon control, reduced senses, and eventually unconsciousness.

A lot of things have tweaked and changed for increased realism, such as explosions throwing off shrapnel, extending the range of explosions and making cover essential during danger close fire missions, controlled detonations, and even the use of frag grenades and M203s.

To really give an idea of just how much this can mean, I'll have to give a specific example. In this case I'll use the operation of mortars, as I had to spend several days learning how they work with ACE and they are a totally different system without the simple Arty Computer you normally would have. The complex Arty (Artillery) system in ACE means firing a Mortar is much more involved than simply clicking where you want to put rounds.In fact, it's so much more involved that you generally should have at least a three man team to properly and efficiently operate a mortar.

First thing's first, you need to set up the mortar. It comes in two pieces: the business end, and the baseplate. They are extremely heavy (the M252 81mm Mortar system weights 91lbs total!) and as a result are carried by a pair. The first member of the team sets the baseplate down while the second quickly sets up the mortar tube on the baseplate. Then aiming sticks are placed where the optical sight is currently set towards. Once this is done, the mortar is ready to be aimed and fired.

The mortar itself isn't the only thing that requires preparation however. The mortars themselves have to be prepped with charges (the number of charges is how you control the force with which the round is fired and therefor the path the round takes and the time it takes to hit the target, keeping in mind the range to the target and any obstructions such as mountainous terrain between you and the target that the round will have to clear. As well as the number of charges, you also have several options, depending on the rounds you are using, on how the round will act upon impact. Some rounds can be set to airburst, or delay their detonation after impact; while others operate on a timer (such as illumination rounds, which are basically really bright flares). All of this prep work would, in an ideal situation, be done by the "ammo guy." No, there isn't really a fancy position title. He's just the Ammo Guy.

While the Ammo Guy is prepping rounds, the other members of the team are getting grid references and fire missions from elements in the field. When they receive orders for a fire mission, they will be given a target (either a grid coordinate, hopefully 10 digit, or a landmark will do the trick, or potentially adjustments from previous impacts), desired type of fire (type, quantity, and pattern of rounds), and any pertinent information (such as if the fire mission is "Danger Close" meaning friendlies are potentially within range of the coordinates).

Using this data, the mortar team will measure the range to target, bearing (in mil radians) to the target and of the barrel, and get to work aiming the mortar tube. The mortar has a small adjustable sight attached to the tube that can be rotated to adjust for the difference of the bearing of the barrel (where it's pointed) and the bearing of the target (where the barrel NEEDS to be pointed). At this point, the sights are adjusted and all that is needed is to rotate the barrel until the sights once again line up with the target. With proper bearings however, you only have half of the picture. Yup, there's still more to do. The elevation of the barrel needs to be set so you don't shoot right past the target. Elevation is calculated based on two things: the range to the target and the number of charges on the round being fired. Then, a level is set to that elevation and the angle of the tube is adjusted until the level is, well, level again.

The mortar is aimed, the rounds prepped, and all that is left for the loader to load the rounds into the mortar and the gunner to fire the mortar. They work in tandem so that they can maintain a high rate of fire. If it takes 20 seconds between rounds, the targets may have time to scramble and avoid further casualties, which would be a waste of rounds and very much unappreciated by the guys that may be depending on an effective fire mission to get out in once piece.

So as you now hopefully know, ACE2 is a hell of an overhaul. It brings a whole new level of depth and realism to ArmA II's equipment and operations. It requires a whole new play style, and it's really really awesome. It seems silly, but having to cower behind a wall to avoid shrapnel from indirect fire or having to march to a destination instead of sprint there really enhances the experience of playing ArmA.

The next most important modification we use with our crew, and a very new addition to our play, is the ZUES AI overhaul. Because the AI in ArmA II is probably the biggest problem with the game, this modification is a real game changer. Enemies behave much more intelligently, more naturally, and their abilities are neither super-natural nor special-ed, which was about the mix of the original AI in ArmA. Where before the AI had a tendency to drop to prone with absolutely no interest in cover and start throwing accurate fire towards anyone shooting at it. Alarmingly accurate, really. Even at significant ranges, you'd have AI with ironsights out shooting our guys with RCOs. That was in part due to unusual accuracy, in part to uncanny reaction time, and in part to a complete lack of self preservation. As a result, things like suppressive fire did almost nothing to them, and to us would cause casualties, decrease our accuracy (something I always hated with a passion. bullets landing on the cover in front of you does not make you incapable of a stead shot, and it lead to a lot of them shooting first and preventing us from getting a good bead on them as a result), and force us to try and maneuver to cover. With ZUES, accuracy and reaction times were made to be more realistic, requiring the AI to take time to line up a shot. ZUES also solved the prone issue, making the AI much more intelligent about using cover, moving in combat and while under fire, even flanking and spreading out to search an area (especially awesome to see in an urban environment, where the enemy forces slowly move around the friendly fire team, and start firing at them from new positions in just about any direction.

This new AI system makes firefights feel freaking incredible. Enemy forces keep up the fire, use suppressive fire, move about even (by ArmA standards) difficult urban terrain in an intelligent way. The other night I was rolling as the Designated Marksman, and during the seizure of a large town I was pinned down on a rooftop overwatch position for about an hour while the rest of my mates were pinned down in a compound several hundred meters from my position.

Running back and forth between positions, setting up my rifle on the wall surrounding the rooftop to send rounds down range on targets that were moving in on my fire team was really awesome. It felt like the tales I've heard of a position being over-run in places like Baghdad with enemies on sides. I don't think anyone got out of that operation without being hit at least once. By the end of it, I was shaking with pain to the point I could barely make shots even with my rifle set up on my bipod, and we had already run two rescue operations at that point, because of downed vehicles.

It's hard not to feel a bit closer to the guys you're gaming alongside even when you're a part of something like this and you know the only way you all got out of it is because of every member of your fireteam working together.
It's hard not to feel a bit closer to the guys you're gaming alongside even when you're a part of something like this and you know the only way you all got out of it is because of every member of your fireteam working together.

It was exciting, thrilling, exhilarating, and as with every operation we've done with our set of modifications recently, an awesome bonding experience for our squad.

But the modifications don't stop there! This next one is the "mission" that we play within: Multi-Session Operations or MSO for short. Basically what MSO does is simulate being in country and having to do things like patrol enemy controlled villages and towns, perform reconnaissance, and even go on EOD operations. It's pretty incredible because it's all dynamic. It spawns civilians, insurgents, IEDs, and fills the map with them in a very natural way, which leads to a lot of really cool firefights.

But the reason that MSO really shines for us is the map we play on. Called Clafghan, it is a 20 square kilometer chunk of Afghan valleys with a large population center to the north. Clafghan is based on the infamous Korengal valley, which was once one of the deadliest places on the planet for American forces. It's clear why it's such a formidable place to wage war, especially against a guerrilla force. The terrain is about as difficult as it gets. Rocky, steep, and jagged, the valley's make moving around incredibly difficult, especially in vehicles. And the elevation of surrounding valley ridges means no place is safe from ambush. In every position, there is always a bigger ridge that enemy forces can fire down on you from. And to make matters worse, the valleys are covered in vegetation, making enemy firing positions hell to pinpoint, especially when they keep on the move.

Clafghan does an excellent job emulating this terrain. As we patrolled down roads and through cities, we were constantly ambushed by enemy elements along the valley walls. Because of the terrain, we had to travel along the foot of the valleys most of the time, especially when we were performing mounted patrols. And there is no worse tactical situation than being smack dab in the middle of a big ass valley. The elevation makes it much easier for the enemy to get effective fire on your position than for you to do the same on their position. It also means that crossfire is only a problem for you, enemy forces can attack you from 4 different directions without worrying about friendly fire. And spotting 4 insurgents 800 meters up a valley wall hiding in some bushes is hard enough when you aren't staring up a hill.

It's a scary place to operate, but that makes it pretty awesome. When you take contact, you usually don't know where it's coming from, and the teamwork it takes to find those targets is incredibly rewarding. There's nothing quite like having your grenadier finally getting eyes on an enemy fireteam, giving you a bearing, and giving you a chance to set up your rifle, zero in, and start sniping the son of a bitch trying to kill you from the top of a distant ridge. It's rewarding for the whole fire team, and whenever you contribute to the success of the unit it feels awesome, even if it's just spotting an elusive gunman.

The Aftermath

The most interesting thing about my recent experiences with a fairly serious simulation crowd in ArmA is how it's changed the way I play other games though. Even with things that I already knew about (I've studied shooting theory and tactics from military field manuals and literature), actually putting them to use in ArmA has reinforced their use and I'm using them in other games as well.

I finally managed to get into Far Cry 3 after significant technical issues (which have since been somewhat alleviated though nowhere near as well as they should be considering my PC's specs) near the game's launch prevented me from playing more than a few hours. Giving the game another chance, I started having a lot of fun with it. And I noticed myself doing a lot of the things I did in ArmA to ensure my success in a firefight. For one, whenever I go to check my map or take a moment to plan out my next move, I 'take a knee' while I'm doing so. Which is actually kind of useful because keeping low in Far Cry 3 helps you keep from being spotted by roaming baddies, or shot in the face when they do detect you.

And when a firefight does find me, I find myself using things like suppressive fire (granted, it's only partially effective, as I don't believe the enemy does much reacting to fire) on obstructed enemies, or give myself some covering fire when changing position.

It's changed the way I play games in some pretty interesting ways and it's made me want, for lack of a better way of putting it, "a little more" from my games.

That's not to say games like Far Cry 3 aren't enjoyable (not as enjoyable as it has been for other people, unfortunately) and that I didn't really really enjoy Black Ops 2. But it's fun to play little meta games on top of the core mechanics of games, and in some interesting ways, there have been actual perks. Suppressive fire is more than just a distraction, it also occasionally snags one of those red thugs in the ass.

As a result, ArmA 2 has changed the way I look at games, and is giving me reason to explore more about how I play them and what they can do to change my behavior. It's been an interesting experience, and it's been, forgive the cheesiness, kind of eye opening.

Sorry for the massive ass wall of text! If you read it all, let me know if you've had any similar experiences that have shifted or altered or shaped the way you play games.