Operation Flashpoint: Red River
This is going to sound rather odd, but we enjoy Operation Flashpoint: Red River for the exact same reasons why we don’t. We admire Codemasters for sticking to their well-simulated, one-hit-kill guns as opposed to venturing down the road which so many first person shooters seem to be going nowadays, that which we call the ‘One Man Army Syndrome’. Sure, it’s only natural that games deliver a sense of empowerment to the player, as that is one of their core functions, and will remain so. What is getting a bit out of hand, however, is how the pacing of shooters must remain at a white-hot breakneck dash through dozens – no, hundreds and hundreds – of enemies. Of course, they always lump you with idiot AI to make it look as though you’re all in it together – a la Killzone 3, Homefront and Bulletstorm – but the reality is that it is you alone who is the grand deliverer of the pain. Who is to blame for this surge of bombast, this explosion of…well big explosions, we cannot say, but it’s oddly refreshing to play a game like Red River. Here, it is constantly reinforced that – beyond any doubt – you and your squad cannot change the world, but instead are part of a well-oiled machine. One that shouts, swears and is generally a bit racist around you. A lot.
The ‘machine’ here is usually a thoroughly dispassionate sort, full of the Americana oo-rah motif which begins to grate within minutes. It’s here that, upon playing the opening missions, you get the feeling that the game is just trying too hard in this respect. Even by moving the action to a real world location – Tajikistan, as opposed to the fictional territory of Skira from its predecessor – it becomes difficult to sympathise with anything or anyone around you. Indeed, moving proceedings into the realm of reality in an attempt to provoke more empathy from the player has the opposite effect – history is painted in huge garish strokes in the game’s opinion dividing opening sequence, and the results throughout are decidedly mixed. The helmet is tipped at a jaunty angle when Fun Loving Criminals are blasting out of your transport radio with your no-mark friends wooping about how much they love the Corp, but the gameplay is serious business.
Being able to be downed by a single bullet makes the action incredibly tense, with players required to examine battlegrounds for cover, opportunities to flank, as well as commanding your three squad mates. Such directions have been somewhat streamlined since the games predecessor, but at times can still feel cumbersome and overly convoluted. What makes it all the more irksome is that friendly AI is wildly inconsistent, veering recklessly from being crack shot marksmen in one instance, to be simply unable to take cover on your command in others. And when your companions are as fragile to high velocity munitions as you are, missions can often become a case of continuously having to revive your squad. Gameplay, then, does not become a war of attrition per se, but having to be continuously meticulous in weapon selection, team orders, and terrain navigation for fear of sudden death becomes somewhat draining.
Having to tip-toe through the levels is tense enough, but what Red River lacks is a sense of spectacle. Whilst we’re not implying that we pine for a return to our Call of Duty-esque funnelled waves of bad guys being torn asunder, what we were hoping for was for something genuinely exciting, if only occasionally. Yes, it is a rush when you’re ambushed in another identikit dusty village in the middle of nowhere, but this starts to wane after the 10th time of being so. Potential for some excellent set pieces are rife, and the opportunities here are remarkably obvious, but the game has a habit of asking you to do something much less interesting instead. It is abundantly clear that obtaining a balance between authenticity and entertainment can be difficult, but there must be a compromise struck in order to keep the game from becoming too much of a grind.
Whilst the game falters in this regard, one of the stronger aspects is – somewhat oddly – the more fantastical addition (in the context of such a realistic shooter, at least) of a strong levelling system. Over the course of the campaign the player accumulates experience points for completing primary and secondary objectives, such as calling in air strikes or repelling waves of enemy soldiers. On top of this, each mission has a ranking system where the player is graded on factors such as the number of player deaths, the application of your squad and the time taken. Experience points can be used to further improve your basic abilities such as sprint speed (and duration), accuracy with weapons, and other essential items of equipment such as binoculars – only in Operation Flashpoint is a pair of binoculars as useful as an assault rifle. A ranking system such as this encourages replay of the sprawling campaign, either alone or in online co-op.
The first person shooter genre in particular has been taking major strides over the last few years, but one can’t help but feel that it is in danger of stagnating. It is arguable that recent titles such as Killzone 3 and Crysis 2 are moulding their core hallmarks in an attempt to appeal to as many gamers as possible, by which we mean the streamlining of their more tactical elements. In Operation Flashpoint: Red River, tactics are everything – the best plans are those which are indeed well laid, from the range of your weaponry, to the reconnaissance of the terrain to the actions of each individual squad member. It is frequently nail-biting but falls short of being consistently engrossing, but Codemasters have stayed true to their ethos of simulation – at the cost of spectacle – which is worth examining if you tire of being an one man army.
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