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Hands on with ARMA III and DayZ, PC gaming's E3 vanguards

In a conference awash with cross-platform games, Bohemia Interactive's highly anticipated shooters stand as the PC's champion.

E3 has never been a bastion of PC gaming, but the pickings are incredibly slim at this year's show. Sure, there's a virtual cornucopia of console titles destined to land on PCs as part of a cross-platform push, and yeah, Sega is showing off the PC-exclusive Rome: Total War II, but after walking the floor for a couple of hours, it's clear that pure PC gaming is pretty much relegated to two locations at E3: The IndieCade and the Bohemia Interactive booth.

I'll be checking out the IndieCade later, but I jumped at the opportunity to visit Bohemia Interactive as soon as the show started. Bohemia is showing off new iterations of its two crown gems at E3: ARMA III, and the standalone version of the post-apocalyptic zombie survival game DayZ.

Both games were available for hands-on testing, and they're looking pretty darned awesome, if a wee bit "the same, but better"-ish. Then again, the gameplay at the heart of both games is so solid that a fresh coat of paint and some minor additions are welcome changes indeed.

ARMA III

An alpha version of this tactical military shooter has been available since early March, offering both a single-player mode and some multiplayer action. The early stuff was focused primarily on straightforward infantry battle aside from the occasional truck tossed in for good measure. The beta version playable at E3 (and available through Steam on July 25) lays down the wood.

"In the beta, we're adding heavier firepower--artillery strikes, helicopters, and so on--as well as logistics, like transport vehicles," says Jiri Zlatohlavek, a game designer for ARMA III.

Zlatohlavek played through several short missions to show me some of the new elements of the game. In the first, he played as part of a larger force comprised of multiple helicopters and several squads of soldiers, assaulting a heavily fortified enemy base in unison. At one point, he got a bit ahead of his team and began getting lit up with gunfire. He hastily fell back and took cover.

"ARMA is not about heroes," he told me with a faint smile. "If I go forward without the team, I'm going to die." That kind of dedication to realism is part of the reason the series is such a hit with fans, though it's admittedly more popular overseas.

Zlatohlavek demoed three other brief missions. In one, he played a sniper--sniper rifles were added to the alpha build in the past week--coordinating an assault on a base, sending in troops, helicopters, and artillery strikes as needed. Another showcased the usage of a troop transport, while the final demo saw the designer wreaking havoc in the dead of night, demonstrating ARMA III's improved darkness and fog elements.

The graphics looked crisp despite being in a beta state, and the controls were nice and responsive. Speaking of which, ARMA II's ...intimidating control setup has led to the game's having a reputation for being for the hardcore only. (Okay, the realistic military gameplay may have something to do with it, too.) Zlatohlavek says Bohemia Interactive is striving to make ARMA III, well, slightly more accessible.

"We have various presets, to make it easier to pick up ARMA III after playing other games," he says. ARMA III also has a new Fire Drills mode--basically, a training mode based on military training courses. He showed off one of those as well, darting from plywood cover to plywood cover, leaning out to pop targets while the time ticked onward relentlessly. Players will be able to create Fire Drill courses of their own and upload them to Steam Workshop, as well.

Talking about the last tidbit prompted Zlatohlavek to pause and stare me in the eyes.

"We like building for the PC here at Bohemia," he says. "ARMA III is PC-only. What the PC can do that the consoles simply can't is community and modding... We already allow people to mod in the alpha version to get them going and familiar with things before the full game launches."

Preach on, preacher man.

DayZ

Speaking of mods, one of the greatest mods in PC history was built atop ARMA II: The astounding DayZ, an MMO game that drops players in a vast, open-world Russian city populated by zombies and scores of other players--some friendly, others, not so much. The mod wound up being so popular that Bohemia Interactive hired its designer, Dean Hall, to create a standalone DayZ game.

The title was playable at E3, and Dean Hall himself walked me through it, explaining the tweaks and changes.

"We're basically trying to clean up most of the more basics flaws in the mod," he said, before dropping his character to the ground to show an item under a bed. He opened the inventory screen, showing a new ability to grab found items in your immediate vicinity through that interface. "Stuff like that: The little things."

Other little things improved in the DayZ mod includes a revamped crafting system, complete with a Minecraft-style item bar at the bottom of the inventory screen; the ability to easily drag clothes on and off your character; scavengeable vehicles; more fluid animations, which are most notable when you're struck by a zombie; and the ability to find map fragments and combine them into something greater.

The standalone version of DayZ is also getting full books and journals in Elder Scrolls-esque fashion. Some are in other languages. (Hall showed me one in Czech.) Books will, for the most part, be useless additions, added to bolster the environment. When I asked if books will ever be more than a nifty extra, Hall grinned and got a mischievous twinkle in his eye.

Hmmmm....loot spawn?

"We've been toying with the idea of loot spawn controlled by a central server," he said. "That could set up some really interesting situations, like a Book of Eli-type scenario where only one copy of this ultra-rare book is available across all servers, and everyone is looking for it."

Now that just sounds cool.

That would be possible thanks to a tweak Hall's team made to the DayZ game engine. Originally, the standalone version of DayZ was built using the backbone of Take On Helicopters (another Bohemia game), but late last year, the DayZ team decided to overhaul the system to make it more akin to a traditional MMO, with most of the action occurring on the game servers rather than locally.

"To be honest, we looked fucked in December," Hall said. "But early this year, everything just kind of came together and clicked. We're looking a lot better now."

To that end, Hall says the commercial release of the standalone version of DayZ is "imminent," though he wouldn't hammer down a date. The game's certainly looking good, and it already runs more seamlessly than the popular DayZ mod, mostly thanks to its interface tweaks. Here's hoping we'll be able to get our grubby little paws on DayZ sooner, rather than later.


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