If Codemasters is going to have a big hit on its hands with Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising the game's going to have to sell to more than just the hardcore military fans. While sales up there with Halo and Call of Duty is probably out of the question, a big multi-format project like this will need to sell millions of units to be classed as a success. With this in mind I donned my Call of Duty helmet and Halo battle armour to check out a few levels of Codies' war sim in order to find out if normal people will be able to last more than five seconds in Operation Flashpoint's brutal battlefield.
To give you the answer you probably didn't want: yes and no. Chances are that anyone groomed on the likes of Call of Duty, Halo, Resistance, Gears of War and Killzone will run up the first hill they encounter during Dragon Rising's tutorial level and be gunned down before they even get a whiff of any danger, let alone see it. This will then be repeated a few times, with a man hiding behind a small wall at the top of the hill taking you out over and over again until it becomes quite obvious that you're doing it wrong. This is not that open world Call of Duty you've dreamt of for years. This is a completely different take on the military first-person shooter, and you're going to have to learn the hard way.
Most of the time you'll be fighting against enemies that you can't even see, taking cover from tracer fire originating from a position only clearly visible through binoculars. Fire from that range isn't too accurate, but it's still dangerous to be walking about in the open. In order to move from position to position you'll need to get your squad mates to lay down suppressive fire on the enemy's location and then leg it to a new cover spot, repeating the procedure every time you move. It makes for a hugely tense experience, always knowing that your next step might be your last, but it's also not something that'll please everyone.
Part of what makes video games so enjoyable is how you can lose yourself in the experience, but in Dragon Rising you're constantly being taken out of it to take a look at the 'restart from last checkpoint' screen. It's part and parcel of the military sim experience, but that doesn't mean it's good fun and will be jarring to many gamers until they've come to terms with how the game needs to be played. Using your squad mates correctly, issuing orders to set defensive or offensive positions, and sending them to locations on the map all needs to be done if you're going to have any chance of completing a mission.
One shot to the head can be instant death, as you'd expect it to be, but you can do some running repairs to yourself and squad mates while out in the field. By equipping bandages you're able to patch up wounds to stop the bleeding, keeping you alive but not acting as a miracle health pack. There's also none of the usual 'keep out of trouble for a few moments to replenish your health' - you can hide, but you might bleed to death if you sit there doing nothing.
Back to that hill that caused so much trouble early on then. After taking out the single man ducking behind a small wall the view from the summit reveals an early warning radar - a device your squad has been tasked with destroying. It'll only take a single remote charge to blow it to smithereens, but getting there, down a steep hill that leaves you perilously open to enemy fire, isn't easy. As soon as you peek out over the peak bullets start raining in on your position, hitting the soft ground and sending dirt into your eyes, temporarily worsening your vision.
No doubt there are countless ways to tackle such a problem, but the most obvious seemed for me to lay down some fire on the enemy's position while the rest of my squad flanked them down the right of the hill. It worked, and soon enough a charge had been placed and the radar was no longer in working order. Next up came the most exciting part of the two levels on offer. An order came in to send in an air strike on an enemy-held village at the bottom of the valley on the other side of the hill. With binoculars equipped you're able to target a location and then send in a hail of howitzers. It would have been more exciting still had the work in progress Xbox 360 build actually shown the destruction as more than buildings popping out of view (presumably a glitch that won't be present in the final game), but it was fun all the same.
It was a sprint across the island to the chopper's LZ next, mopping up any enemies along the way, including a few nipping about in jeeps. Something that really needs a special mention is the audio work. With a good surround sound set-up I dare say Dragon Rising could have the most immersive audio of any FPS ever created. Jeeps growl, enemies rustle in bushes, helicopters thunder overhead, and bullets whiz past as if only millimetres from your virtual face. It really is hugely impressive and even manages to better the impressive, if somewhat glitchy open-world environment.
By the second mission - a small-scale assault starting on a beach - you'll likely feel more comfortable with the controls, but any confidence is short lived. My squad had been tasked with taking out the spotters at the top of a hill (there are lots of hills in Dragon Rising), but no sooner had one of my guys informed me of their position (issued with handy information on their compass direction and distance from you) had the three of them been shot dead. I won't lie: mission two proved too much for my simple FPS mind to take, with a later section involving a fairly heavily guarded village too tricky for my wannabe marines.
After countless failures, restarts and head scratching I'm still nowhere near to being up to speed with Dragon Rising's rules of combat. Getting your head around the slow pace, the orders menu, the reliance on cover and instant death is something that a lot of people simply won't have the patience for, and that's surely a concern for Codemasters. Easier difficulty settings don't really make the game simpler in the traditional way, instead offering more assistance in the way of highlighted enemies on your compass and illuminated bullets, and a RV system shows you where you've got to go. Only time will tell if all that is enough to give arcade action gamers a real chance of success.
Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising is due for release on Xbox 360, PS3 and PC on October 9.