In all honesty, I feel rather uncertain about the return of Operation Flashpoint. I'm still a massive fan of the original PC game - the austere military sim developed by Bohemia Interactive Studios at the turn of the millennium - but that's now a relic of the past. Some time ago Codemasters and Boehemia had their own little Cold War Crisis: BIS now makes the ARMA series, while the OpFlash name is handled by Codies. And while 2009's Dragon Rising wasn't a bad game, it certainly wasn't a storming success either.
Most of the key problems with Dragon Rising can be attributed to a shell-shocked crisis of identity. Codemasters loudly trumpeted that they were going to bring the OpFlash experience to a new generation of console gamers, replete with all the hardcore trimmings: painstaking detail, open-ended gameplay, and a realistic difficulty curve - i.e. one that would chew you up and spit you out like a wad of wiffy tobacco. But while the end product certainly delivered in terms of one-hit-and-you’re-dead terror, the rest of the game lacked coherence. It was buggy, the command interface was often clunky, and the massive environment felt barely used. Sure, the firefights had you pooping in your khakis, but it was ultimately everything else that smelt a bit funny.
Now Codemasters is taking a second stab at making a military simulation that works on consoles. Except they're not: this time the team is adopting a more accessible, newcomer-friendly approach, to the extent that they're refusing to use the word "sim" at all. Among other things, Dragon Rising was criticised for occasionally abandoning its realistic philosophy - particularly when it came to your teammates' miraculous healing skills (think "Jesus does Reiki"). Rather than eliminating or refining these anomalies, Codemasters has amplified them. In military terms, this is roughly equivalent to a daylight frontal assault. Through a minefield. Accompanied by a brass band.
The crazy thing is, it could work. There's obviously a risk that this strategy will piss off the few OpFlash followers who stuck around after Dragon Rising, but I can't deny that I really quite liked what I played of the game last week. The terse firefights retain their intensity, and while the presentation still takes itself very seriously, you're rarely punished with immediate death when things go wrong. Every player, regardless of class, is able to heal their own minor wounds, and over time it's possible to return to "normal" health. If you get severely shot up, your chums will usually have a decent chance to save you. And even if the Grim Reaper does show up to say hi, it's possible to - whisper it - respawn.
While Dragon Rising was set on the fictional island of Skira, Red River's story unfolds in Tajikistan. No, I didn't know it was real either; Wikipedia says that it exports a lot of aluminium (yay!) and that it's been hit pretty hard by the banana skin slip-up of the global economy. Now the poor Tajiks have to put up with being cast as the bad guys in a video game. As the righteous US Marines, you'll gun down a lot of Tajik insurgents - although it seems that the Chinese PLA will once again be the main antagonist force in the re-imagined-history plot.
It's business as usual as far as game narratives go (rowdy American jarheads versus vague-but-sinister Johnny Foreigners), but in terms of imagery, Codemasters seem to be plundering decent sources. The designers have taken cues from the likes of HBO's Generation Kill and the Oscar-nominated documentary Restrepro, resulting in a gritty, dusty look. Troop models display the wear-and-tear of extensive time in the field, showing off customised weapons and equipment bound with duct tape. For its part, we're told that Tajikistan will offer a varied environment than Skira, with your surroundings changing as the campaign ferries you across the country and closer to the Chinese border.
Aside from the shift towards accessibility, co-op play is another of Red River's big focal points. You'll be able to battle through the main campaign with up to three other buddies, with each player heading up their own four-man fireteam, and on top of that there's a dedicated set of co-op missions to play through, wherein everyone joins the same quartet. I sampled three of these joint assignments at last week's showcase event, allowing me to test my combat skillsin a variety of situations (particularly those that involve bleeding and rolling about in the dirt).