Have you noticed how you'll quite often see really great looking women going out with the ugliest and dumpiest of men? For example: Michelle Yeoh (from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) going out with Jean Todt (manager of the Ferrari Formula One team). I still can't quite see the sense in that one. Nor anyone at all going out with Johnny Vegas (and his wife is a total fox). It defies all known logic. Is it the money? Is it the car? Is it (God forbid) the sense of humour? I don't know. It's one of life's little mysteries. This all occurred to me when I was playing Operation Flashpoint: Elite, because (and there's no possible way of putting this delicately) it's uglier than Jean Todt and Johnny Vegas's love child, yet I can't quite take my hands off it.
If you've been a gaming devotee for the last five years or so, you should already know that the original version of Operation Flashpoint was one of the PC's most highly acclaimed titles of 2001. So then, you may be wondering why it's taken the best part of half a decade to bring it to the Xbox. It's a fair question, because it's hard to see that many changes to the game from the PC version. The most obvious improvement is to the voiceover track, which was awful in the original. Unfortunately, things haven't improved that much: quite a few of the voiceovers are still rather flat, and don't have a great sense of timing. Graphically, Bohemia Interactive have made a few tweaks, improving the poly-count of the soldier models, refining a few textures, adding motion blur effects and the like, but if anything, it somehow manages to look worse than the PC version. It's no exaggeration to say that it's retina-piercingly ugly. If the rather bland landscape textures weren't bad enough, it's hard to contain a snigger when you lie prone pointing inwards to the bottom of a valley and you can see the wispy grass textures hanging in mid-air, completely detached from the slope. Blur effects are overused in cutscenes and you're often left pulling at your eyelids in bemusement, thinking that you can't possibly have drunk that much, things become so unfocussed...
There is also a more serious drawback to the limitations of implementing such a sprawling graphics engine on the relatively underpowered Xbox. Typical levels encompass several square kilometres of fully rendered terrain, including towns, fields, forests and even the odd rampaging Massey-Ferguson tractor. In order to cram all this detail into the Xbox's measly 64MB of memory, plus maintain an acceptable frame rate, a few sacrifices have been made. The player's first-person point of view has been narrowed down to around 90 degrees, which feels very claustrophobic for a game where you're so dependent upon your peripheral vision. This is exacerbated when using the iron sights of your weapon, as this narrows your view even further, leaving you very vulnerable to being flanked by enemies.
The PC version of Operation Flashpoint was infamously unforgiving with its AI, not hesitating to punish a player for even the most momentary of lapses in concentration. Things are somewhat different on the Xbox, with the two difficulty levels of the original version being split into four: Recruit, Regular, Veteran and Mercenary. Unless you've extensively played the PC version, I recommend that you play on Regular difficulty, which has had the AI sufficiently dumbed down to compensate for the lower screen resolution and narrower field of view. Veteran difficulty level is equivalent to the PC version's Cadet difficulty level, which (despite the name) was fiendishly hard, whilst Mercenary difficulty equates to the PC's Veteran skill level, where you need to rely on your orienteering ability with a map and compass (or sticking close to your squad mates) to know where to go next.
If you're now thinking "oh no, not another dodgy port", I'm now going to explain why I don't give a damn about the sub-standard graphics and why, even over four years on from the original release, this game's still as good as it gets in the soldier sim genre. You see, Operation Flashpoint was never about good looks. Neither was it ever about running through corridors, chewing lead and chucking grenades. Flashpoint isn't your common or garden FPS. No, Flashpoint's about leaning over, putting your hand into a pile of goo and finding that it was your best friend's face (to quote The Simpsons).
It's about camaraderie, the horror and brutality of war and the duty of putting your body in harm's way for your friends. Make no mistake: this is no Medal of Honor or Call of Duty game. Try and shoot on the move and you'll just waste precious ammo. Shoot without using the iron sights and the only thing you'll hit beyond twenty metres is the ground. Stay still for too long, and the first indication you'll have that you've been spotted is the grenade exploding next to your corpse. Flashpoint is the most unforgiving of mistresses, but also the most rewarding, once you get used to her capricious whims.
The high level of realism in the ballistics model is by far one of the game's strongest features. You can't simply point and shoot, even on the rare occasions when you have rifles with scoped optics. Practice is needed to learn how to lead moving targets, account for wind, gravity and distance. For your first couple of missions, you may find yourself struggling to keep up with the AI, but once you find your soldier's feet, you'll derive no small satisfaction from being able to nail Russians from 300m with a quick double tap from your M-16. Equally important is the ability to find cover and use the terrain, as is being able to resist the temptation to break away from your squad and try and do everything yourself. Flashpoint's very much a team game: being impulsive generally results in you going home in a body bag.
Later in the game, you'll be given command of a squad, your mission performance being judged on how many casualties your squad takes. The transition from grunt to squad leader is one of the seminal moments in the game: the weight of responsibility comes crushing down on your shoulders when you realise that the consequences of the orders you give have lives attached to them. Lose your anti-armour team in an early infantry engagement, and a chance encounter with a BMP could mean the annihilation of your entire squad. You'll soon become very protective of your LAW troops and medics, especially when you realise that they're often the first people the enemy will go for. There's nothing quite like ordering your squad to creep up on an enemy position, ambush thirty troops, blast a couple of T-80 tanks with LAW rockets and totally clean house without a single casualty. It takes careful planning, timing and no small measure of luck, but there's no experience in gaming that matches that sense of exhilaration: not just being victorious, but having your whole squad cheat death and beat the odds.
Genuine command ability and situational awareness is needed for the unlockable Resistance campaign, where you're tasked to fight a Soviet invasion force with very little in the way of equipment or personnel, and simple survival is as critical as fulfilling your mission objectives. Squad and radio orders are given using the D-pad, and you need to be able to keep your eyes both on the enemy and your own people, which is no mean task. The Resistance missions are significantly harder than the Cold War Crisis campaign; if squad command isn't your strong point, you would be well advised to persist with the first campaign before tackling Resistance (which is unlocked after a dozen or so missions) - if only to save yourself a lot of unnecessary restarts.
Flashpoint's a game that requires patience, commitment and a soldiering mindset; not the fastest trigger finger in the West. Murphy's First Law of Combat is "You are not a superman." That's something well worth remembering: fight like a one-man army, and you'll die like a one-man army. It's this fundamental shift in the game design away from making you feel powerful and instead reinforcing your feeling of vulnerability that makes the game so unique. It's not about cheap thrills; it's about crawling from cover to cover for an hour to reach the perfect sniping position and getting accidentally run over by a BMP that didn't even know you were there; it's about springing ambushes on armoured columns, knowing that if you don't get the attack right first time, you're all dead; it's about using your head instead of your weapon when being hunted through the woods by Spetsnaz. Even after a full four and a half years since the game was first released, the gameplay still stands up: within the soldier sim genre it's genuinely peerless in its scope, atmosphere, accuracy and execution. Okay, so the graphics suck, and it's slightly disappointing not to have the Soviet Red Hammer campaign included as part of the package given that it contained some outstanding missions, but Flashpoint remains a fabulous title.
Of course, if you already have the PC version, I can't honestly recommend that you purchase the game again. The PC version is technically superior, has a huge modding community and is available for just a tenner with all three Flashpoint campaigns. However, if you don't have a PC and have never played the game, then it's an essential purchase. With a bundled mission editor and Live support, the game has months of longevity, even without the Red Hammer campaign. Operation Flashpoint is the Aristotle Onassis of videogames. It may not be the best looking Sugar Daddy in the world, but it still is The Daddy: an experience that's rich, powerful and with more boys' toys than you can shake a stick at: guns, tanks, helicopters, jet fighters... As such, it'll keep managing to attract the beautiful people: the people who know that beauty isn't just skin deep.