Operation Flashpoint has had a rather long and interesting history. What began as a PC-exclusive military simulator, developed by Bohemia Interactive Studio, that juggled infantry roles with vehicular mobility/combat, has evolved to a multiplatform infantry simulator with original publisher Codemasters taking on dev duties. While many fans of the genre and/or series may swear that Bohemia’s ARMA series is now the true progression of the Operation Flashpoint spirit, there’s no denying that the Flashpoint brand name still holds some weight.
Unfortunately, the last outing, Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising, was a rather messy attempt at rounding off the often unforgivingly sharp edges of the tactical shooter genre and giving it to the masses in a multiplatform offering. It was ugly, it was buggy, the AI on both sides of the fence were the equivalent of whatever the opposite of Deep Blue is and it was frustratingly finicky to control without the use of a keyboard and mouse. I reviewed it on Xbox 360 and, as history would have it, I also had the opportunity to review the follow-up, Operation Flashpoint: Red River, on the same console.
This is, in truth, a real shame as Red River is a mishmash of flaws and interesting potentiality that would have been better enjoyed on a PC than on a console. I have it on good authority that the PC version looks a whole lot prettier than the console versions; not Crysis 2, but prettier. And, of course, the precision of a mouse is hard to ignore; particularly when we’re talking about a military simulator that can have you dead in a couple of well-placed shots. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The plot of Red River is set in the not-so-distant future and revolves around a fictional conflict in the fictional-sounding-but-very-real locale of Tajikistan. AK-47-wielding insurgents are upsetting the local populace, the People’s Liberation Army of China is eyeing the territory, and so it’s time for Team America to come in and save the day.
For anyone who’s followed the developer diaries that have been released in the lead-up to Red River’s on-sale date, you’ll know that Codemasters has injected some personality into the series by giving the core soldiers distinct appearances, voices and a sense of history. This takes more than a couple of ingredients out of the Bad Company formula, but it also really works. The introduction to the game alone does a fantastic job of establishing characters, tension and the humour of the game with a combination of effective jokes, hilarious imagery and the ‘Why can’t we be friends?’ backing track that stands at ends with the subject matter that’s being discussed.
This humour and playful banter continue throughout the game, mostly from harshly hilarious Staff Sergeant Damien Knox, and helps to ground the potential grating effect of the otherwise ‘America! Fuck yeah!’ approach to the Marines. There is a lot of radio chatter throughout the course of the game and Codemasters does an admirable job of moving between crucial information and entertaining hilarity.
It also goes a long way to helping the player tolerate Red River’s flaws; of which there are many. The game is straight up ugly for a current-gen console title. Couple this with long loading times (or ‘buffering’ times as the game calls them), clipping woes and some rather heinous texture rendering issues and prettiness is definitely not one of Red River’s assets. The good side of this is the massive world you get to play in that isn’t broken up by loading zones throughout a mission. Yes, the initial level load time is a pain in the arse, but once it’s done, you’re set to play until you finish the mission or quit.
Missions range in length from about 20 minutes to over an hour, depending on your tact, skill and how many times you have to revisit the last checkpoint. Even on the default difficulty (Normal) you will find yourself challenged by the often accurate fire of the otherwise dumb AI. When it only takes a well-placed headshot to put you out of the battle entirely, you’ll have to move between cover and pick your moments; otherwise you’ll spend an awfully long time healing yourself and your teammates.
The problem with the usually lengthy missions is that you’ll notice a lot of your time is spent running between waypoints, which essentially artificially lengthens each level. From a series that used to take a Battlefield approach to balancing out on-foot combat with a range of vehicles to get you around the sizeable locales, this is a glaring omission. You will get carted around the battlefield in the back of a Humvee and there are some player-controlled driving moments, but it’s just a shame that you aren’t able to jump into an insurgent truck (whose occupants you recently decimated) to boot it to the next objective. You and your teammates also apparently have to teleport into the back of vehicles, which stands as a stark contrast to the rest of the player animations that are quite impressive.
Fans of the original PC-exclusive game may also be scratching their heads over two other core omissions: competitive multiplayer and a map editor. While Codemasters may be able to get away with the lack of a map editor because of Red River’s multiplatform design, the lack of competitive multiplayer does seem to be a missed opportunity. There is a ‘Fireteam Engagements’ play mode that lets you fight alone or with three buddies against waves of enemies where you can chock up high scores and try your hand at topping the global leaderboards, but that’s as ‘competitive’ as it gets.
Interestingly, Red River is an infinitely more engaging experience when played cooperatively with friends, and Codemasters has clearly put a lot of attention into this side of things. The greatest feature of the co-op mode is the drop-in/drop-out that lets you join games in progress (private or public) or have other players join in on your campaign experience. This removes the onus of responsibility on you as a fireteam leader in control of often disobedient AI teammates, and lets you plan more coordinated attacks with human-controlled friendlies. Better still, it also gives the option of redeploying on your squad if you happen to buy the farm, allowing for more aggressive play styles without the worry of reloading your nearest checkpoint.
Red River includes a levelling system across the four squad classes (Rifleman, Grenadier, Scout and Auto Rifleman) that can be alternated between as you progress through the campaign. It’s wiser to stick to a class so you can unlock the various weapons, kit options and class mods/specials, but the option is there and it offers a genuine reason to replay the game. Best of all, you can continue to level up your classes as you play with others cooperatively, which offers further incentive to play with others.
Perhaps the most disappointing thing about Operation Flashpoint: Red River is how it could have been a more recommendable title with a little bit more spit and polish. Momentum can all too often be broken in crucial moments when low walls choose to be picky as to whether they are able to be vaulted and the hit detection is blatantly off at times. Unfortunately, the genuinely entertaining humour, strong cooperative play and a surprisingly great soundtrack of familiar tracks do more to make me wonder about what could have been than push Red River into ‘must-buy’ territory.