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).
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.