Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Review: Operation Flashpoint Red River

The year is 2013. The place, Tajikistan (yes, it is a real place – we looked it up! FYI it's bordered by Afghanistan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and China). Operation Flashpoint Red River sees you, a US marine, and your AI-controlled comrades trudging through this vast mountainous region to take on insurgents and, eventually, the might of the Chinese army.

While it sounds like a run of the mill shooter, Red River is far from it. There are no elaborate plots here, no radio controlled car bombs or zombies. This new release is all about realism. Gamers are a forever calling for authenticity and accuracy these days, be it with racers sporting accurately modelled cars and components, or the sports sims that feature every club, competition and player right down to their unique skills and shoesize. In a similar vein, Codemasters has answered the call for gritty FPS realism with its Operation Flashpoint games. While 2009's Dragon Rising may have been criticised for being a little too lifelike, Red River is much more forgiving - and ultimately, more enjoyable.

There's clearly a fine line between accuracy and fun. Fortunately, Red River gets the balance about right. Numerous assists can be turned on or off depending on a) how hardcore you are and b) how frequently you want to die. On its hardest difficulty, this game is an absolute beast - unforgiving and cruel. The fact is that you will die many, many times while leading your four-strong team. You'll be minding your own business one minute and happily wandering along the dusty track, only to have your head blown off seconds later by some distant, previously unseen assailant. And therein lies the rub. No matter how much you try, and how well you employ your tactical nouse, the enemy's ability to snuff you out from a great distance will see you shoved back to the previous checkpoint quicker than you can say "duck".

The maps are nice and big, and there are three hefty campaigns, each with a raft of varied objectives from sweeping an enemy camp to escorting a convoy through the treacherous terrain. Sadly though, each mission is interspersed with unskippable cut scenes, which typically involve lots of order giving and oo-rahing by the bad-ass Staff Sergeant Knox. Still, it helps to structure the narrative and helps to outline the plot that takes you and your cohorts into the depths of conflict. Before each mission you can pick from the four different classes: rifleman, scout, grenadier and automatic rifleman. We'd definitely advise picking the scout as he comes complete with a super-useful sniper rifle that may give you a bit more of a sporting chance...

The controls are pretty easy to grasp – although one noticeable omission when controlling your solider is his inability to jump or climb over even some of the tiniest obstacles. Besides the usual buttons to fire, reload, switch weapons and so on, the right bumper brings up an extensive control wheel that allows you to bark orders at your subordinates. Anything from following, holding fire, flanking or suppressing provide enough tactical variety to add to the feel of being in charge of your team. Stuck behind a wall and under heavy fire? Not a problem, order your team to sneak up on the enemy and eliminate the threat.

Or that’s what is supposed to happen.
For some reason, the developers forgot to instil any common sense in the AI – a factor that does frustrate after a while. More often than not, your colleagues prove incredibly dumb and think nothing of wandering in front of you while firing, or not getting under cover when the enemy is attacking. It’s fun enough playing a single player game, but the temperamental AI does diminish your enjoyment somewhat. Find a few friends and play co-operatively, however, and things are much improved.

Another minor irritation is the ridiculously long time it takes to patch yourself up when you’ve taken a bullet. An indicator at the bottom of the screen highlights the area of your body that’s been hit and you’re expected – in the midst of a firefight – to spend best part of a minute completely stationary while bandaging up your wounds before you bleed out. What makes this even more annoying is the fact that while you’re a sitting duck, the enemy can wander up and finish you off, sending you all the way back to the previous checkpoint!

Looks-wise, the graphics are nice enough but nothing to write home about - and they lack the sheen of some of the other FPS games out there. From a distance, the vista can be quite stunning – attractive mountain landscapes, dusty pathways with brush to either side, sunlight beaming down and casting shadows all around... Take a closer look, however, and the textures and detail becomes a little less attractive and a little too reminiscent of a last gen title. Saying that though, if you opt for Red River, appearance won't be your primary concern - this is a game all about tactics, strategy and team play.

Similarly, the sound effects and speech is decent enough but is never going to take your breath away. Perhaps the most notable aspect soundwise is the torrent of expletives uttered by Knox and your compatriots. No doubt it’s very authentic in times of conflict but after a while it grates a little.

Ultimately, Red River is a marked improvement over its predecessor. Sure, there are a few grievances but nothing that should seriously impact your enjoyment of the game. If you’re new to the series, the first few missions may seem a little daunting – especially getting used to the fact that you can be shot dead within seconds of poking your head up to see what’s going on. Call of Duty diehards may not be convinced but for a slightly more cerebral take on modern warfare, Operation Flashpoint is well worth a try. Perhaps rent it before you buy.

*Reviewed on Xbox 360