Something tells me that a lot of people are going to be surprised by Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising. Codemasters has loudly proclaimed that their new game will take players "as close to war as they'll ever want to get," but secretly part of me doubts whether most gamers will know what they're getting into. Call me a cynic, but I suspect that more than a few people will pick up this up in the mistaken belief that it's an alternative to Modern Warfare 2. Anyone who does this is in for a rude awakening, that's for sure.
The reality of the situation will be all too clear to anyone who has played the original Operation Flashpoint - or indeed Bohemia Interactive's spiritual successor, the ArmA series. Like its forebears, Dragon Rising is a brutally tough endeavour - the kind of game that forces its users headfirst into a meat-grinder until they've learned the ropes. This is no run-and-gun FPS: welcome to the realm of the realistic military sim - a world in which your game can end abruptly with a single bullet to the head, fired by a near-invisible enemy from a bush in the far distance. For much of the time you'll be flat on your belly, slowly wriggling your way into a decent vantage point that will let you open fire on that tiny grey smudge on the horizon - the enemy soldier who's trying his hardest to kill you. Operation Flashpoint can be a frightening and disheartening experience, but if you can endure the many hardships you may find a special kind of thrill - one unlike anything on offer in other shooters.
In developing Dragon Rising, Codemasters faced two distinct challenges. First it had to continue the sterling work of Czech dev Bohemia Interactive Studios, the team who built the first Operation Flashpoint back in 2001. Last time around Codies was just the publisher, but since relations with BIS broke down, it opted to do the whole job internally. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, Codemasters had to make OpFlash accessible to console users - and by extension, to a broader, less hardcore gaming audience. I should state right now that this entire article is based upon the Xbox 360 version, since this was the code we were sent for review. It's worth underlining this for several reasons, but particularly due to the fact that ArmA 2 was released on the PC earlier this year. In other words, PC owners have a direct rival to consider when making their purchasing decisions. Console gamers, by contrast, do not.
The backdrop for Dragon Rising is set out through a stylish, if brief, intro sequence that depicts the history of Skira - a fictional island (albeit one based on real-world geography) located just off the coast of Japan. In a nutshell, the island belongs to Russia, but the Chinese have invaded it on the grounds that it used to belong to them in the distant past; both nations are eager to get their claws on the vast reserves of oil that have just been discovered there. While the player character switches back and forth between missions, you're always part of a US Marine force that's been sent to reclaim the island for America's friends, the dear old Ruskies. My, how times change.
The actual characters you control aren't given anything in the way of backstory, but this doesn't really matter. The bottom line is that you're always the leader in a four-man fireteam, undertaking missions that will help the US to conquer Skira and drive off the People's Liberation Army. On a superficial level the game controls like an FPS (thumbsticks for movement, trigger for aiming and firing), but due to the combination of open-world environments and realistic combat, it plays completely differently. Progress is generally made slowly and carefully. You stick to cover wherever possible, keep an eye on the horizon and make full use of your three team-mates. When you encounter hostiles, it's usually an idea to lay down suppressing fire while someone else flanks them to get a better angle of attack. Rushing the enemy is an extremely bad idea, one that will almost certainly result in death. So you take your time, squint down the cross hairs and fire off rounds at that distant blob in the tree line. Sometimes you'll be firing at the guys you can't see: on all but the hardest difficulty setting, enemy troops will show up as red dots on your compass. You'll learn to keep a close eye on this indicator, as more often than not it'll save your life.
You'll learn these lessons time and time again. Dragon Rising is a cruel teacher, and he always gives you extra pain for homework. When you take a bullet that doesn't kill you, you'll start bleeding; unless you patch yourself up, you'll leak to death - and even if you do survive, you may find that your aim or movement is hindered by a crippled arm or leg. In a surprise departure from the omnipresent realism, your team's medic is able to cure these wounds using a magic syringe that somehow fixes your mutilated limbs in a matter of seconds. It's not terribly realistic, but you'll certainly be grateful for the second chance. Unfortunately your Chinese foes have a habit of sniping your saviour, just as he comes running to your aid. It's a smart tactic, one that you'd do well to adopt yourself: plug one guy, then open up on his chums as they crawl in to help.
Every time you die you'll be sent back to the previous checkpoint - effectively erasing any progress you'd made up until that point. These setbacks are particularly grating in the early days when you're still learning the game, when every minor objective feels like a Herculean task. You'll curse, you'll bitch, and you'll wonder why on Earth Codemasters didn't let you save the game whenever you like. The three difficulty settings on offer merely alter the amount of assistance you get during play, so even if you're playing on normal - a mode which grants you waypoints to follow, respawning team-mates and plenty of help with spotting enemies - you'll still be as vulnerable as an egg in a mosh pit.