Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising
Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising has no time for beginners. Within minutes of my first play-through my squad and I had trekked in completely the wrong direction, I’d nearly slumped dead while taking cover shortly thereafter and surprisingly found myself on the wrong side of the map to rendezvous with our evac-helicopter. Clearly, I lacked one vital prerequisite to succeed in the realm of squad-based shooters – common sense. Codemasters latest builds on the plaudits of the previous Flashpoint incarnation (Bohemia’s 2001 PC/Xbox subtitled Cold War Crisis) that provides gamers weaned on today’s narrative-heavy military shooters an introduction to real war.
Although not produced by the same developers as its forbears (touchy subject, as Bohemia has denied any connection to the title) hardcore gamers will be pleased to hear Dragon Rising still packs the same unforgivable gameplay that enticed PC gamers years ago. Of course these days, even the lucrative Rainbow Six series has taken a backseat in the military gaming stakes to the all-conquering behemoth that is the Call of Duty franchise. Returning to the high-stakes, meticulous design of squad based shooters in a diminished market can be a shock to the system, and Dragon Rising has no qualms in punishing you time and time again.
Set on the fictional island of Skira (based on the actual Alaskan island of Kiska), Flashpoint begins with an eye-catching, The Kingdom-inspired opening cinematic detailing the fictional history and future of an armed conflict between China and Russia over the island’s oil and gas reserves, in which you assist the Ruskies as part of the U.S Marines. Skira itself is a huge playground, with players free to traverse the landscape at their will, with a wide variety of vehicles and weapons to make you feel at home, complete with reassuringly realistic handling and ballistics.
What is most impressive from an initial play-through of Flashpoint is that for once, the gamer is simply a cog in the military machine, rather than cast as a gung-ho hero. Admirable restraint is shown in the scenarios and events that transpire whilst the player is in most cases given free rein to complete objectives in an order of their choosing, rather led through endless respawning enemies down a straight path. Whilst this means missions (eleven in all) may lack the high intensity of more linear experiences, this is made up for in the sheer tension that develops through your actions, be it crossing enemies lines too quickly, hearing bullets whiz past you as you scamper for cover or meticulously planning and ensuring the survival of your squad members.
During missions, everything from your squad members behaviour, tactics and formation can be commanded, which ensures that levels can be approached from a variety of different angles. At first glance, the complexity of the command system and initial lack of signposting for mission objectives is an intimidating prospect, though it steadily becomes second nature. Unfortunately however, the command feature can expose dubious A.I, with squad members sometimes unable to scale small rocks and fences, particularly at the most crucial of times. For a series in which you die as often as Flashpoint, it’s even more infuriating when it genuinely isn’t your fault.
On the plus side Flashpoint boasts superb sound design and lighting. Even if the title comes up short graphically (don’t ever look at your squad-mates’ faces up close, it’s quite painful), there is a certain joy to be found stomping wounded up a hill with the sun peeking over the Alaskan horizon. Visual effects, be it smoke, dust or calling in an air strike are all uniformly excellent.
Once you’re ready to embarrass yourself in the real world, you have to option to now get killed over and over with friends and strangers in a 4-player co-op mode. Here the AI issues from single player become non-existent and when paired with a skilled team (not often), the realism and sense immersion of Flashpoint are really upped a notch as you start to get a genuine sense of how the game should be played and tactics built. The same cannot be said for the pure multiplayer modes Annihilation (essentially team death match) and Infiltration (similar to capture the flag) which are somewhat limited in scope and would’ve been boosted by the presence of much larger squads.
Ultimately then, Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising is a challenge. It will challenge your perceptions of today’s shooters, challenge your ingrained behaviour but also challenge your patience. Codemasters should be commended for their ultra-realistic approach to modern warfare, which is a much needed break from the theatrical shenanigans gamers are growing accustomed to. Yet despite these best intentions, the developers haven’t seized the opportunity to open up this niche to newcomers which is a shame. However, it is by no means a wasted effort – there is plenty of gameplay to be unearthed if you’re ready to soldier on.
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