There’s some heavy irony involved in the fact that Arma 3 has released a new official game mode that’s catering to the more casual drop-in/drop-out sensibilities of the battle royale crowd. After all, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds began its life as a mod for a mod of Arma 2. Arma 3’s new Warlords mode isn’t battle royale, but it IS an attempt to create a big multiplayer experience that sends players straight into the action. As far as I can tell after spending some time with it this weekend, the results are… mixed.
As Joe pointed out last week, Warlords has actually been around for quite a while – it’s essentially the Capture the Island (CTI) mode from way back in the Operation Flashpoint: Cold War Crisis days, now bearing Bohemia’s official imprimatur. The idea is pretty simple: Defend your base while moving to capture your opponent’s. To do that, you’ll need to create a clear path from your base to theirs by capturing and holding strategic nodes around the map.
The more nodes you control, the faster you’ll accrue command points, which you can then use to request reinforcements in the form of AI-controlled troops or vehicles. Using this same menu, you can also fast travel to any node your side controls, taking you (in theory) straight to the front lines.
Bohemia has created five custom Warlords scenarios on the vanilla Arma 3 maps, and there are two more scenarios if you own Apex (which by now you should, if you’ve read our Arma 3 DLC buyer’s guide). You can play against another team, or as a team against AI, or even (in theory) play solo. To jump into a game, head to the server browser and set a filter for Warlords mode. I had to refresh a couple times for the game to start finding them, but after that first search, I’ve never had a problem finding at least a handful of open Warlords servers.
There are two important new commands to know: First, your map is where you’ll interact with the strategy layer, voting for the next objective and selecting where you’d like to fast travel. Second, holding down the [I] key will pull up your requisition menu, which is where you’ll spend command points on personnel and materiel. Depending on the options you select, your chosen reinforcements will appear via airdrop as soon as you’ve made your selection.
When it all comes together in a fully-populated server, Warlords is an awe-inspiring experience. Battles rage across multiple strategic points and villages, and even way back in the rear you can watch (and help) prepare columns of M2A1 Slammer tanks, HEMTT transports, helicopters, and artillery. Captured towns will be full of NPC soldiers quietly patrolling, while fighting at the front lines is loud, frantic, and deadly. This is great fun, and it provides an amazing feeling of participating in something really big…
… at least, when it works.
Other times, I’ve dropped into a server where command points have trickled in too slowly for me to requisition a vehicle, and I’ve had to trudge the 1.5 kilometers from my base to the next connected strategic point, hoping to help secure it. In real life, that’s not a bad little jaunt, but in a game where you’re trying to play at being soldiers, it’s an agonizingly boring ten-minute hump over terrain, during which you’re mostly just holding down the W key. If you happen to get shot when you arrive, you’ll respawn back at HQ and have to make the walk again. Tough luck, soldier – that’s what they issued you that pair of boots for.
Once you’ve captured a node, fortunately, you’ll be able to fast travel there at will. Your team will vote on where to head next – you’ll have to pick a point that’s adjacent to territory you already control. It’s a smart idea, and it helps keep everyone on roughly the same sheet of music strategically. In the meantime, reinforcements can be called in to any node your team controls.
There are ways in which Warlords still feels very much like a mod that’s still in development – although that still kind of applies to most of Arma’s multiplayer modes, really. NPC AI is still bafflingly dense at critical moments, and you’ll see whole platoons of them double-time into an alternate dimension on occasion. More than that though, there are balancing issues – I worry that because of how the Warlords economy works, falling behind in the strategic point race could be an insurmountable handicap. And of course, Arma 3 doesn’t do much to keep the sides equally populated with players.
But there really is something compelling about Warlords. It’s a chance to sidestep all the fiddly mission design and op planning that can sometimes make Arma 3 too much of a time commitment to play. The light strategic layer gives matches some structure, and that certainly helps sell the idea that you’re participating in a real conflict. I haven’t had much luck yet getting it to work as a solo experience and finding a server with a good group of people on it can be hit-or-miss.
Still, the couple of times that it’s really worked well have been compelling enough to make me want to spend a lot more time with Warlords. I’d like to learn its rhythm, figure out what works and what doesn’t on the strategy layer, and maybe find a team of humans to coordinate with over TeamSpeak or Discord. But on the other hand, I could always just hop in the gunner’s seat of someone’s Slammer and see how much havoc I can wreak. If nothing else, Warlords proves Arma 3 isn’t anywhere close to being dead yet.