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.
As an added kick in the teeth, the checkpoint system will occasionally fail to kick in if you do something untoward. One mission tasks you with capturing a tower on an airfield, and it was only with hindsight that I realised that I was denied a save-point because I had entered the building in an unusual way - climbing up a side staircase and clearing it from the top down (hey, that's how I roll). On the whole, Dragon Rising is infinitely more stable and reliable than BIS' ArmA 2, but a bug such as this is undeniably concerning. More to the point, it would have been avoided if the player had been able to dictate their own saves. It's acceptable to limit saving at higher difficulty levels in a game like this, but do we really need to punish the newbies this way?
Indeed, one of Dragon Rising's biggest problems is that it really doesn't offer much help to newcomers. This game doesn't just throw you in at the deep end - it ties a rock to your foot, chucks you in the deep end, and then throws a jellyfish at you. Unbelievably, Codemasters has neglected to throw in a proper tutorial mode. Sure, there are a couple of bare-bones tips in the first mission - and we're talking Calista Flockhart bare-bones, here - but aside from that you're expected to work things out for yourself. The first time I used a SAM (surface-to-air missile launcher), I thought that the game was bugging because it wouldn't fire. As it turns out you need to hold your target in view for a long time, about 15 seconds or so, until you automatically get a lock-on. There's no indicator for this, and no-one explains this to you - you're just expected to know. On nocturnal missions you'll often be issued with IR Strobe grenades. These are clearly used for some form of communication, but I'm buggered if I know what, exactly. Clearly I didn't get the memo.
This same problem extends to the system used for commanding your troops. By holding the right bumper, you'll summon a radial menu that can be used for ordering about the rest of your squad, using the d-pad to skip several sub-menus. Here you can do everything from changing their formation to setting the team's rules of engagement (i.e. how and when they fire). Again, no-one ever walks you through any of this, so if you think that "combat spread" is some form of army-issue jam, you're probably never going to make the most of half the options.
Okay, let's cut the moaning for a second. From what I've written so far, you'd be forgiven for thinking that I dislike Dragon Rising, or that it's a bad game. This simply isn't the case. The truth is that I think it's extremely hard to make a military sim work on a console, but that Codemasters has given it a damn good shot. For my money, some things will always work better on a PC: when you're trying to take precise aim at a tiny enemy in the distance, a mouse is more useful than a pair of analogue sticks. When you're trying to issue complex commands to multiple troopers, it's useful to have a keyboard system where each soldier is assigned their own function key. While Dragon Rising's order system gets easier with practice, it's never up to the complex but infinitely flexible standards of ArmA. The contextual commands simply don't work: to order your men to target a specific enemy, you need to be staring right at him - which is kind of tricky if he's crouching in a forest 400 meters away. You'll soon learn that the map is your best friend when it comes to issuing orders, since here alone you get a decent overview of the situation. Even here there are a few problems - notably the fact that you can't order in artillery strikes while you're looking at the map, despite that clearly being the most sensible tactic.
So yes, Dragon Rising has problems. However, and this is one very big however, it also does an awful lot right. The atmosphere is brilliant: it may not be the prettiest game you've ever seen, particularly when you get close to certain textures, but the draw distance is impressive. When you stumble across a decent sight - a massive battle with smoking wrecks, perhaps, or the white outline of an enemy troop as you observe them through an infra-red scope - it's hard not to get sucked in. Your movement is far more restricted than in many other military sims - if you wander too far from the action, you'll fail the level - but the missions themselves are generally very well thought-out. I would also have liked to have seen more vehicles to use, since you're largely limited to the occasional Humvee or something a bit heavier. Unlike the original OpFlash (and ArmA), you can't commandeer any vehicle you find - so there's no riding into battle on a tractor, sadly.
Still, the GTA-style ability to ride in anything was always a bit far-fetched. The important point is that the infantry-based action here is largely excellent, provided that you have the will-power to endure countless defeats. Death is never far away in Dragon Rising, and if you've not played a game like this before there's a good chance you'll love the lashings of tension that accompany each and every mission. I'd also wager that the game will work brilliantly in online co-op play (splitcreen isn't supported). You can work through the entire campaign with up to three other mates, or just attempt one of the eleven missions; the game will force you to stay within 275m of each other - so you can't snipe while a chum rushes a village - but even with this concession, I suspect that the game will gain a lot from being played in this way. (I say "suspect" because I've been unable to test this aspect of the game, nor the competitive multiplayer, since I'm playing pre-release and there's no-one to join me). In any case, know that the PC version supports 16 versus 16 matches, while consoles get four versus four matches with each player supported by three AI troops.
Dragon Rising will not be for everyone. Many gamers will try it and be put off by the relentless hardness; a few may be put off by the ways it deviates from the previous game, or by strange concessions that deviate from realism. Still, plenty of others will love what they find, and there's certainly a chance that this game will completely open up what has long been a niche genre. For all its stumbling blocks, much of the core Operation Flashpoint experience has survived the transition from PC to console. For this achievement alone, Codemasters deserves our respect.