Platforms: Xbox 360 (tested), PlayStation 3, PC
If games were soldiers, the Call of Duty series would be a brash mercenary, a slick soldier of fortune with a million-dollar smile. The ArmA series would be a commando, patiently waiting, hours if necessary, for the perfect moment to strike. Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter would be sitting somewhere between them both, a grunt, dependable but not too flash and not too dull. So where does that leave Codemasters’ latest recruit, Operation Flashpoint: Red River?
The previous game in the series, Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising, tried to capture the "realistic” warfare elements of Bohemia’s original Operation Flashpoint. By and large, Codemasters achieved what it set out to do. Dragon Rising gave the player a vast, open environment, plenty of modern-combat hardware, a semi-competent AI squad and lethal enemies (with bionic vision equipped with weapons capable of killing you with one shot). Great if you have the time and patience to meticulously plan your assault. Dragon Rising was a great real-war experience for the player in it for the long haul, but no good for us out for a bit of light escapism. And that, I believe, is exactly what Codemasters thought as well.
To be honest, if you need an ultra-serious, real-war simulator, you go play Bohemia’s ArmA 2, and you play it on a PC. With Operation Flashpoint: Red River, Codemasters has made the decision to step away from the brand’s legacy and take the series in a slightly different direction.
This time around, the flashpoint is set during 2013 in a small country called Tajikistan, situated between Afghanistan and China. US forces are up against local insurgents fighting a guerrilla campaign and the invading might of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. You are part of a four-man US Marine fire team caught in between the two very different opponents.
Red River veers, ever so slightly, towards the Call of Duty FPS style of gameplay. Red River hasn’t gone entirely for the balls-to-the-wall interactive Jerry Bruckheimer experience; it still preserves the more grounded feel of a "proper” theatre of war, but more accessible than a combat simulator.
Gone is that open-world feel of the last game; stray too far from the objective and the screen flickers until... boom. Players are left to negotiate a tight and well-defined corridor that’ll lead to each objective in turn. To help, there are little flags on the HUD overlay, like breadcrumbs to ensure that you don’t wander into the "boom” areas. Yes, Red River is a bit on the scripted side of things, complete with A-to-B objectives and carefully positioned action-trigger points. Don’t hold this against it; the extra control afforded to the developer has allowed them to better sculpt the experience around the players.
The game has a campaign mode and some stand-alone, fire-team missions. All of the missions in the game can be played in single-player or four-player co-op. And co-op, my friends, is where it is at. It’s clear that the developers want you to be part of a four-man, human-controlled fire team, choosing from one of four classes: rifleman, grenadier, scout and automatic rifleman.
The mission types are quite varied and neatly broken down with checkpoints to prevent silly mistakes from sending you back to the start. You and your team will clear villages, call air support, rescue downed pilots and many other activities too numerous to mention. Suffice to say, the game’s content never gets boring or tedious.
During battles, experience points level up the soldiers and unlock extra equipment and abilities. Experience is gained no matter whether you’re playing online or single-player. As is fashionable with FPS games at the moment, each player’s class is levelled up independently, providing the opportunity for multiple playthroughs to max out each class.
Maybe I’m spoilt by my PC, but I’m convinced that console graphic are deteriorating rather than improving. Perhaps developers are just trying to move too much on the screen at once. In any case, Operation Flashpoint: Red River is not going to win any awards for crisp graphics. Blurry visuals make it very difficult to see were the hail of bullets is coming from. By comparison, I dusted off my copy of Ghost Recon: Advanced Warfighter 2, and while the environments are not as detailed, at least the visuals are crisp enough that you can see the blighter shooting at you.
A squad-based combat game will succeed or fail on the strength of the command system. Red River’s Quick Command Radial is pretty much the same as the last game. A tap of the shoulder button reveals an HUD that, via the D-pad, allows you to bark orders such as "follow”, "suppressing fire”, "flank”, etc. It’s tricky at first, but OK once you get used to it.
Despite your orders, your AI squad mates really don’t give much thought to self preservation, often getting cut to ribbons as they haplessly stand in the enemy’s line of fire. While they’ll patch you up if you are wounded, they don’t seem to do the same for themselves. Perhaps the reason for their cavalier attitude to health and safety is that even if they die, they don’t stay dead for long. It is quite startling to observe your fallen comrades reanimate at each mission checkpoint.
I don’t usually go on about bugs unless they're deal breakers, but this one is worth a mention. Red River suffers from a bug known as the "no weapons bug”, whereby your character wanders about hands out as if pretending to hold a gun. It reminded me of when I used to play war at primary school, peppering my peers with pretend bullets from my pretend Tommy gun. The internet lists many esoteric and downright dodgy ways of sorting it out. I fixed it by deleting the save game and installing the game on my Xbox 360’s hard drive. Whether you come across the bug or not, I recommend installing the game to your hard drive, as Red River takes an absolute age to load.
I really hope that Codemasters doesn’t cut the cord too prematurely with this one, like it did with Dragon Rising. The game needs extended support to allow it to find its feet. This is a new dawn for the franchise, which may lead to the Operation Flashpoint series finding a niche in the horrendously oversaturated modern combat FPS genre. While there are niggles aplenty, overall the game is worth a go, bringing a decent taste of "real” combat to the masses without being overly complex.
Lasting Appeal: 8.0/10
Overall Score: 7.5/10