ArmA 3's new 'Old Man' scenario turns this military shooter into an open world adventure14 Jan 2020 1
Just before the holiday break, Bohemia Interactive dropped a bit of a bombshell on us: they were putting the beta version of the upcoming Old Man scenario for Arma 3 on the Steam Workshop for anyone to try out. Admittedly, I had not been paying a lot of attention to the latest in Arma news since Contact came out in the summer, so Old Man came as a complete surprise. And it's continued to surprise me as I've played this huge scenario.
Old Man is a singleplayer scenario set on Tanoa, a fictional South Pacific island included with the Apex expansion. It pulls in elements of many of Arma 3's other DLCs, but it's doing something completely novel for an Arma 3 add-on. It feels somewhat surreal to say this, but some skunkworks project at Bohemia is creating the Arma 3 version of Far Cry, and it's going to be free for all players (as long as you own Apex, that is).
Here's the setup. You're a retired Legionnaire living out his golden years on Tanoa, some time after the events of The East Wind and Apex Protocol campaigns. Sadly, the island has been struck by a new and virulent form of malaria, which is sweeping through villages and causing a humanitarian crisis. The island is controlled by the local gendarmerie and CSAT forces, who are not distributing a vaccine that could save lives to the civilian population. As the scenario opens, you're standing in a cemetery near a small church on the coast, and your mobile phone rings. It's an old military pal, and he thinks something's up.
That's all the information you've got to go on when you arrive in Tanoa, when you pull up your inventory, you'll find that you're not holding a weapon - you've got the clothes on your back and a messenger bag. It's up to you to figure out where to go, what to do, and how to accomplish it.
Naturally, things get complicated pretty quickly. Before long, a friend asks you to take him to a mutual acquaintance's home, where he asks you to hide some plastic explosives. Soon after that, you'll encounter a doctor working in the mountains, trying to care for sick people in tiny, remote villages. And the scenario continues to open from there, layering on familiar triple-A, open-world gameplay in a way I've never seen Arma 3 attempt before.
Old Man adds in things like fast travel, saving your game and healing by uncovering safe houses, quest givers and factions with whom you can curry favour, discoverable side quests and objectives - the list goes on. I mentioned Far Cry above, and this 'scenario' really does feel like Far Cry 3 filtered through Arma 3's grungier lens, and without Far Cry's sugar rush of constant action.
While Old Man has a story it wants to tell, it's by far the most freewheeling Arma 3 scenario I've ever played. This really is a 'go anywhere, do anything' proposition, and once you've started unlocking safehouses you can zip around Tanoa as you please. For a more realistic experience, you can always hop in a truck or ATV and go overland, waiting to hear the geolocation device in your backpack start beeping to signal that you're near a secret weapons cache. Wherever I've gone, there's enough of the world actively happening around me that I've been able to improvise some way through, even when my initial plan goes pear-shaped.
A quick story from early on in my playthrough of the scenario to illustrate how this all comes together, if you'll permit. After speaking to the good doctor up in the mountains, I'm told there's a dangerous kind of guy a few farms over who might be able to help source medical supplies - as long as I'm willing to do him a favour of some kind. That favour turns out to be bombing a bungalow that the gendarmerie has occupied in a nearby village. My contact is a member of L'Ensemble, a rebel liberation group who doesn't care much for the occupying forces. Don't worry, they keep C4 at the local police station, so break in if you're short on explosives, he tells me. He also asks if I might liberate one of the comrades being held in the same station while I'm over there.
I approach in a 4x4 pickup I've creatively acquired from a sugar cane plantation on the other side of the mountain. Sneaking up to the police station is no problem, but they spot me as I'm hoofing it out the back door, C4 bindle in hand. Fortunately, I escape by breaking line of sight in the village, and while the police and local military guards are on high alert, I'm able to slip away to a nearby safehouse and wait until things blow over. Once the all-clear has sounded, I head back to town in my pickup, parking on a street a block or so away from the target bungalow. I approach the house nonchalantly, but have tragically forgotten to leave my 9mm SMG in the truck. This naturally draws the attention of the gendarmes, and once again I'm running, this time into the house I'm supposed to be bombing. There's another police officer inside, and I quickly dispatch him, placing a primed brick of C4 on the floor near the centre of the structure.
There are still guards and gendarmes yelling outside, but there's no time - I fire a couple rounds out the back windows to draw their attention, then dash out the front door toward the treeline. I take a couple rounds in the back on my way, but I make it - pausing only to touch off the bomb I've left inside the house. I'm running as fast as my old legs can take me up the hill so I can't see the explosion, but I certainly hear it. Mission accomplished - my L'Ensemble calls me on my mobile to congratulate me on a job well done and tells me he'll have more work for me in the future. I trudge north toward a safehouse to recover, and nearby I find a parked cargo truck - that's a solution to my vehicle problem, since I left my 4x4 back in town, and the doc needs a transport vehicle so he can move his patients somewhere safer. But now I have to get it back across a heavily-guarded checkpoint...
Granted, this is all very mainstream video-gamey, and it puts Old Man perhaps outside the preferential circle most wargamers draw around their hobby. But it's nonetheless fascinating to see a combined arms combat simulation used like this, and to have it accomplished more or less successfully.
There are some demerits worth noting, although with the caveat that Old Man is still in the beta phase, and the final version may well eliminate some or all of these complaints. That said, I found performance to be terrible - not so bad as to be unplayable, but I struggled to get Arma 3 to maintain 30 fps while I was playing Old Man. There are clearly some optimization issues going on, because I also found that the game would crash for me if I had any background Chrome windows open while playing (normally this is important for me, since I take notes on one monitor while playing on the other). Hardware wise, my PC is no slouch - since last fall I've been running an RTX 2070 Super graphics card in my box, which should be able to handle anything Arma 3 throws at it graphically. The probable bottleneck is my CPU, which is an aging i7-4790. Old Man may be a very triple-A, mainstream game approach to Arma 3, but it's still running all of Arma 3's complex simulations in the background. There's a lot going on in Old Man, and it's happening everywhere simultaneously, which may be why it's slowing my PC down.
So where does this all put Old Man? That depends a lot on what you're looking for. It's a very strong single-player experience, and one that isn't combat-first - a lot of the time you'll be sourcing supplies and trying to find mountain trails to avoid CSAT checkpoints, treating sick villagers, or gathering intelligence. I'm enjoying it more than the campaigns in Laws of War or Contact, and I found both of those entertaining enough in their own right. But I'm doubtful there's much here to interest an audience that's focused on strict wargaming or tactical simulation.
But Old Man certainly hints at exciting possibilities for Arma 3 going forward. We've already seen how the sandbox can handle massive-scale, multi-stage battles and campaigns, and the out-of-the-box campaigns show how there's space for narrative experiences within these. But those narrative threads have generally been fairly tightly constrained up to now, usually only ever presenting one or two branching choices at any time. What Old Man manages to pull of is to invest the player with as much choice and freedom as is allowed in a mass-market Ubisoft open-world game, and the freedom to explore and interact with the simulation however you see fit is a welcome innovation for the Armaverse - it seems no matter where I go on Tanoa now, there's something new to do. I'm excited to see what Old Man looks like when Bohemia releases it as DLC.
For now, you can download Old Man from the Steam Workshop.