There’s always got to be one of these malcontent games, the one that strives for near-perfect realism. While Call of Duty goes for big, blockbuster epics and Battlefield fosters a more squad-oriented no man’s land, there’s always going to be Operation Flashpoint, sneaking along carefully and methodically, knowing full well that one stray bullet could end things for good. Codemasters’ latest in the series, subtitled Red River sticks to that established script. For all of its flaws and missteps, it is a much stronger experience than Dragon Rising before it, and even downright entertaining once you get past the frustrations.
A Perfect Mess
The story… has something to do with Tajikistan. A terrorist group operating in the country in the year 2013 launches an assault against United States forces, triggering the expected armed response. A series of skirmishes ensue and things seem to be going fine when all of a sudden the People’s Liberation Army of China steps into the mix. U.S. forces fight to repel the invasion while regrouping for a final push at the enemy.
Or something like that. It’s hard to tell because the narrative unfolds on three levels: (1) between missions with animated maps and hilariously bad voiceover, (2) your fireteam’s sergeant, a similarly hilarious mixture of stereotypes and ridiculously over-the-top voice acting and (3) the mission objectives themselves. Tellingly, that third one feeds you the most concise information about the narrative. This is not a story that wins awards, but it does provide a launchpad from which you can fire a range of deadly, beautifully rendered firearms at scores of enemy soldiers.
Army of One-ish
The whole idea of Operation Flashpoint, the one which runs counter to most other military (or not) first-person shooters out there, is that it is virtually impossible to be an army of one. You are the lead in a fireteam of four, one of three squads of four working together on the same battlefield at all times. Alpha and Charlie typically operate in other areas of the map, but the other three members of Bravo that you’re not in direct control of are always with you–until a stray bullet puts one of them out of commission that is.
Orders can be issued by using a radial menu that further breaks down into additional radial submenus. You can issue orders to the entire group or to individuals, anything from simple move and hold fire/engage enemy commands to more complex ones like defend/secure building or suppress. There are a few baffling absences, however. You can’t order someone to break out an explosive weapon and use that, which would be useful for those missions in which you have to take out something armored but don’t have a rocket handy.
Also, somewhat bafflingly, the action continues all around while these radials are open. The pace of the game is frequently slow enough to support that, but not always. Try cycling through multiple radials in the heat of battle. It completely disrupts any momentum, the frantic rush to find your desired command while your fireteam falls apart around you. It would have made much more sense to pause things when issuing orders, if only because the radials can be drilled down so far.
Of course, none of that matters when you account for the fact that your team members are roughly as intelligent as a lobotomized lab rat. They’ll rarely stay in one place when you tell them to and they seem at all times to have an allergic reaction to taking cover. That said, in an odd twist your soldiers are actually handy with their weapons. If you’re moving slowly and they’re moving with you, your fellow fireteam members will frequently beat you to the punch on taking out distant tangos.
Your best bet is to play co-op, if you can find enough willing participants. Both the campaign and the bite-sized Fireteam Engagements missions support cooperative play for up to four players online. Communication is essential, as it takes only a few bullets to take you down, so make sure whoever you’re playing with has a headset. Difficulty can be adjusted to make things even more challenging, stripping away everything from checkpoint markers to your basic radar… but none of you are that masochistic, are you?
War Is Hell… And Also Ugly
Visually, Red River is at its best when it’s showing you guns or wide-open vistas. The weapons don’t quite fall into the category of “gun porn” since there’s not a lot of visual flair to the customization menu, but whoever created those textures definitely put some time in. The world looks great too, from a distance. Zero in too close on any one thing — grass, rocks, buildings, the ground, etc. — and the illusion falls apart quickly.
The so-so graphics also have a detrimental impact on the gameplay. This is a quieter, slower-paced FPS than Call of Duty fans might be used to. You’re typically spotting your enemies from a great distance, and hopefully taking them down — at least a few of them — before they can draw a bead. This would be fine if you could actually see them the way your A.I. teammates can. Unfortunately, the black blobs are very often impossible to distinguish against the other blobs visible in the environment. Even using a scope can be a challenge, and just forget about sighting mortar strikes accurately. Half the time, you can’t even tell what your target is.
What’s more, you clearly don’t look like a hard-to-distinguish blob to your enemies. Unfriendly forces are crack shots, always. Stand out in the open for too long and you will get hit. Even if the opposition is 200 meters away and on the other side of a hill. Even if you’re peering through a slit of a window. You’re going to get hit, and maybe you’ll be incapacitated. At which point you have to call out for your teammates — you need to order them to revive you, they won’t do it automatically — and hope the stone dumb A.I. can make its way over to you in time.
Let’s also take a minute to talk about the load screens. How about two minutes? Three, even? You may well have that much time to talk about them while you stare at one of your own. Even installed on an Xbox 360 hard drive, this game is slooooooow to load.
The great shame of all this is that once you get past all of the many (manymanymany) flaws and questionable design choices, there’s actually a reasonably solid shooter to be found in here. It’s different compared to what you’re used to, with a different pace and feel to the action, but when it all comes together it works well. There’s even a dangling carrot, in the form of four classes that you can level up and unlock weapons for as well as an overall set of player stats that can be improved with experience.
Here’s the verdict: this isn’t a $60 game, but it frequently threatens to be a fun one. If you like shooters and you’re in the mood for something a little different, Operation Flashpoint: Red River will give you that, albeit with a few hard-to-miss frustrations.
Score: 7 out of 10
(This game was reviewed on the Xbox 360 on a copy provided by Codemasters)