If you're the kind of shooter fan that bemoans the hyper-realism and stodgy pace of Modern Warfare, then Bohemia's ArmA II: Operation Arrowhead definitely isn't for you. But if you're the kind of gamer who takes notes on the factual inaccuracies of the History Channel's "Top Snipers of the Russian Army" on the back of a well-thumbed issue of "Soldier of Fortune"...well then, we have a match.
Operation Arrowhead is a stand-alone expansion for Bohemia's ArmA II, a sequel to 2007's ArmA (i.e. Armed Assault), a progeny in all but name to the Czech developer's Operation: Flashpoint series of realistic “military simulators.” All of these games attempt to model weapons, tactics, and environments as realistically as possible, and all—including Operation Arrowhead—share some of the same annoying defects: plummeting frame rates on all but the most powerful PCs, bugs, crashes, and lack of personality and story.
This time around you are part of a US-led coalition called Task Force Knight, whose job is to topple the evil regime of Colonel Taziz in the barely fictional country of Takistan. Through six story mission and seven short side missions you'll get to toy with a big box warehouse full of cool military hardware, rescue hostages, fly helicopters, and command tanks. While the single-player campaign is short—at least in terms of its story arc—it's anything but on-rails and there is a dizzying variety of tactics available to complete the missions. Each of the side missions focus on a specific weapon, such as unmanned drones, laser-assisted targeting, or super-weapon sniper rifles. Added to the package is a mission editor and robust multiplayer mode.
While the degree of realism—from modeled bullet trajectories to high-tech laser targeting systems—might be off the charts, there is a pretty high barrier of entry to actually enjoying this game. The learning curve, beginning with a lengthy tutorial and a two-sided keyboard shortcut card with dozens of keystroke commands, is prohibitively steep for anyone used to shoot-from-the hip, run-and-gun titles like Call of Duty. For all its focus on the myriad weapons of death and destruction, this is a cold-blooded game without much personality and a story entirely lacking in real drama, humor, surprise, pathos, or passion...you know, all those things that turn a game into something more than a series of tasks and objectives.
Speaking of conflicts, it feels like years since the battle between GPU cards and bleeding-edge graphics nudged us into updating our hardware every few months, but then a game like Operation: Arrowhead comes along to remind us the truce is a delicate one and that maybe its time to invest in more RAM and hand over our credit card to Nvidia. With the settings maxed out, this is a great looking game, with incredible detail all around and beautifully realized landscapes and lighting effects. Unfortunately, with anything less than a monster rig, the game suffers from hiccups and slowdowns; and, played with everything dialed back it loses a lot of the gritty, Takistany reality.
The music, an unsurprising grab-bag of machismo orchestral cues, is mixed so far back as to become aurally insignificant and since there is little story or character, the voice work doesn't add or detract much either. Weapon sounds, however, are pitch-perfect and obviously received a lot of love.
If you've got a powerful computer, a fair bit of OCD when it comes to military realism, and a lot of time and patience, then Bohemia's ArmA II: Operation Arrowhead will scratch your itch in ways that Modern Warfare or Battlefield: Bad Company can't. Its anemic story and characters, daunting learning curve and rough-around-the-edges performance are a little off-putting but this is still a high-caliber military simulation, if that's your thing. For the rest of us, Operation Arrowhead will take a backseat to more accessible—if less reality obsessed—shooters.
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