One phrase sticks in the mind from the presentation of Armed Assault II. One phrase makes you ponder briefly what's changed in PC gaming, and what's changed inside our heads. When Marek Spanel says "We don't try to provide just fun - it's a deeper, more sophisticated experience than that", it catches your ear. It's not often someone derides the notion of fun, in a games presentation. Fun and games, right? They're like... shits and giggles. But Bohemia Interactive have never been frivolous, petty or whimsical. It's their continuing mission to give you an incredibly real location in which to wage a war. Whether you like it or not.
We used to like it. With our most steamy, rose-tinted glasses on, it seems that PC games were once the very essence of exploration and discovery. Passionate, skilled, and unqualified mod-makers would be carried around the world on the shoulders of thankful gamers, and 3D Studio Max was as much a playground as Quake. We're stupider now, and games like ArmA feel like an anomaly. This shouldn't be the case; ArmA sold 400,000 copies without a global publisher, or even particularly glowing reviews. How brilliantly defiant is that? Let's get the basic stuff out of the way, first. ArmA2 takes the conflict out of the fictional Sahrani of ArmA, and lands it into the equally fictional Chernarus.
Set in the very near future - the future doesn't get much closer than 2009 - it's October in this post-Soviet land, and the colour palette is appropriately rusty. Chernarusty, if you like. The country occupies 225km2 of meticulously mapped land, with terrain built from real satellite maps, with around 50 towns and villages spread amongst the game's 326km of roads (for more statistical fun see 'That's Numberwang!').
You take control of Razor Squad, a team whose well-rounded character sheets are at slight odds with the current state of the robotic communication (the generated barks don't stitch together very well at the moment, leaving you talking to a robot with mood swings). The game's cutscenes see them in full character, though - potty mouths and all.
The engine is certainly looking better, although it's still a year or two behind the cutting-edge games which rely on bonfire night visuals to woo and confound. But visuals have never been where Bohemia have been cutting edge. A good example of this is the way they've declined to offer a DirectX 10 version of the game. Ninety percent of their community don't use it, and they're working for their community, not to an imaginary new standard that was only ever really about coercing a Windows upgrade. Or, as they put it, "We prefer users over the industry".
The advances are still there to be seen, though - dust clouds kick up from the back of trucks, helicopters form swirls of disturbed particles - it's a noticeable improvement over ArmA.
Talk of a role-playing element in the press materials might alarm some reality purists, but you might already have guessed that Bohemia aren't talking about levelling up. The role-playing here is in terms of keeping civilians happy - it's the battle for hearts and minds that the Americans kept forgetting about in Iraq. Keep the locals' trust and they'll co-operate, providing you with money. Be a gun-happy dick and they'll co-operate less, provide less money, and give information to the other side.
There'll also be multiple endings, depending on your decisions and failures. Just like previous games - and life - failing a mission doesn't end the game, it just affects events in the world.