The first map I tried, Last Stand, was a now-familiar riff on Gears of War 2's Horde setup. My co-op chums and I were tasked with defending a hillside compound from increasing waves of hostile troops, holding out as long as we could before bailing to the evac point. Both the campaign and these co-op missions are tied into a single XP system that lets you upgrade your skills and load-outs, which in turn feed into the four classes available. As a result, there's a genuine incentive to score high and to escape before the going gets tough. Death may not be permanent here, but it carries a significant score penalty.
The prospect of XP-based rewards may offer additional encouragement, but even without it I was impressed by how well the Horde model fitted with Red River's ambiance. The one-against-many setup is rarely anything less than engaging, but the mode seems to really benefit from a combat model grounded in reality, or something at least closer to it than the average FPS. As with previous OpFlash titles, you have to take down your foes with careful precision, leading your shots and keeping a calm head when things get heavy. Often the opposition seem to be little more than blobs on the horizon, but you still get a pang of terror when a whole cluster of them appear at once.
Since I was playing with three human team-mates, I didn't get much of a feel for the changes to the radial command menu. It seems to have been simplified and consolidated in a smart way, but until I'm put in charge of my own AI fireteam, it remains to be seen how workable the new system is. That said, there's a very neat command that you can use to draw attention to areas of interest. In the campaign, this will force your team to check out whatever you're looking at (usually a bush full of pissed-off, gun-toting Tajiks); this marker also shows up on other players' screens, along with an indicator to show who placed it. It's a lot more useful than simply screaming, "Oh God! There's lots of them by that tree! Quick, shoot them!" although you'll probably still do that anyway.
While Last Stand keeps players fixed to one location, the other missions I tried, Combat Sweep and Search and Rescue, forced the team to fight across expansive maps. Dragon Rising forced co-op players to remain relatively close together, and while there's apparently still some form of invisible tether, it seems to be an extremely generous one. It's now perfectly viable to have a one player sniping from an elevated position while the others move in for a close-up assault, for example - although there's still a strong argument for keeping the team close together at all times.
I still think there's a slight clash of ideals going on with Codemaster's take on Operation Flashpoint. On the one hand, the attention to detail is still evident: the last three rounds of a rifle's clip will emerge with tracers, alerting you to the need to switch over, and if you ignore wounded fighters they'll heal and resume shooting at you. At the same time, the further concessions towards "gaminess" (to use a horrible term) mean that it's more tempting to ignore the more realistic elements. In the past, running about like Rambo in OpFlash would get you killed, more or less instantly. Now it's a semi-viable tactic, because if you survive the invariable counter-attack, you can easily patch yourself up.
A hardcore difficulty mode will be available for those who want it, but Codemasters' apparent change of focus may discourage the intended beneficiaries from picking up the game in the first place. If the developers are so keen to move away from the "military simulation" label, you have to ask why they're still using the Operation Flashpoint brand at all. It's a harsh question that needs to be posed, and yet Red River may provide a worthy answer. The cold truth is that I had a good time with the game last week, despite my initial reservations. If the redesign ultimately results in a more enjoyable experience, perhaps that's all the justification that Codemasters needs.
Operation Flashpoint: Red River is due for release on PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 on April 21.