Operation Flashpoint: Red River Hands-On Preview -- The First Few Brutal HoursBy Jake Gaskill - Posted Apr 04, 2011
What We Already Know: The last time we saw Operation Flashpoint: Red River, Codemasters’ latest installment in its long running tactical military shooter, we played through one of the game's four multiplayer, Firefight-inspired, co-op mode called Last Stand and went eyes-on with a couple of campaign missions. For our latest look, we were able to go hands-on with the game’s first five story missions (Act One plus the first mission of Act Two) and put our virtual military minds to the test.
What We’re Seeing Now: Red River follows a squad of marines stationed in Tajikistan along the Chinese border. Insurgents have capitalized on government instability in the region, and established a strong military presence in the process, forcing the United States to intervene in an attempt to suppress the insurgency. While the full plot of the game isn’t yet known, the first act sets up a narrative far less summer blockbuster-y then a typical military shooter, since it doesn’t, at least from the portion we’ve seen so far, center entirely around some lone evil figure acquiring weapons of mass destruction or plotting some massive attack on U.S. soil. It’s much more focused on presenting a believable and realistic portrayal of military conflicts in the middle east (even though the game does take place a couple years in the future) by way of a story that is very much grounded in the events of the day.
Having said that, the game’s presentation might end up causing a few heads to be scratched since it features a surprising amount of over-the-top profanity that doesn’t seem to fit with the series’ more grounded and “realistic” presentation and combat. This may be an attempt to attract the Battlefield: Bad Company and Call of Duty crowd who are currently counting the hours until Battlefield 3 and Modern Warfare 3 are released, since it livens up the game's simulation style approach, but it’s hard to say if this will be an attractive enough lure to get gamers to bite with such massive military shooters on the horizon.
The first few missions we played consisted of a nice mix of scenarios, from escorting a convoy of engineers to a dilapidated dam in order to repair it to pushing through a series of interconnected villages and providing cover for bomb disposal teams. One of the key features of Red River, and the Operation Flashpoint games in general, is the emphasis on traversing large expanses of land on foot, or, when you’re lucky, riding in the back of a truck. Because of this structure, the missions take on an almost Fallout-y feel as you traipse across miles of open territory, through canyons and across rocky desert terrain, moving from one skirmish to the next. One notable issue that came up several times during our playthrough was that checkpoints had a habit of being a bit too far apart, so dying, which you’ll do frequently because of the game’s emphasis on realism, would often mean having to travel long distances to get back into the fight.
While the game is designed to be played cooperatively with two other human players (there’s no competitive multiplayer to speak of), you can also play solo with the help of AI partners. You have three squads at your disposal at all times, and ordering them around the battlefield is a point and click affair. Holding down the right bumper pulls up the command screen, and from there you can tell your squads, individually or as one group, to move forward, provide suppressing fire, and clear buildings. Your squadmates are more than capable of handling themselves in battle, which is welcomed, especially since the enemy AI can be formidable, even if they do have a propensity to prefer firing from wide-open areas instead of from behind cover.
At the start of each mission, you select your soldier’s class (i.e. Rifleman, Auto-Rifleman, Scout and Grenedier). You gain experience points during missions that you can then put towards improving your character’s abilities like sprint speed and rifle control. As you level up, you’ll also gain access to better equipment and performance perks. Each mission has primary and secondary objectives, giving players the option to seek out more experience if they want or just stick to the mission at hand.
There are a couple smartly designed features worth mentioning at this time, because they perfectly illustrate and sum up the approach Codemasters is taking with Red River. For starters, there’s a heartbeat feature that kicks in whenever you sprint for long distances, and you’ll feel the thump-thump in your hands for a while after you stop running, simulating your character trying to catch his breath. Also, when you get shot, you lower your weapon and stagger slightly, preventing you from thinking you're a one man wrenching crew like many other shooters. You also have to bandage yourself to stop from bleeding out when you do get shot, and a secondary patch job is required in order to fully heal. And when you want to reload your rocket launcher, you’ll watch as your character places it on the ground and loads in a rocket, so make sure you reload behind plenty of cover since you’ll be fully exposed to enemy fire while doing this.
Based on our few hours with the game, Operation Flashpoint: Red River’s presentation looks to be on point, even if we did encounter a number of bugs and texture issues in our build, and the open-world-ish gameplay that’s a staple of the series definitely helps to set the game apart from other military shooters on the market and on the horizon. It’s not clear just yet how the hyper-vulgarity of the dialogue and the flashy, in your face design of the mission briefings with jibe with the game’s realistic approach to its depiction of war (which features some of the most brutal body damage we’ve seen in a while, including grenades tearing off enemy faces to reveal nothing but the mangled skull underneath) over the course of the entire game. Battlefield: Bad Company 2 caught some flack for a similar disconnect between its tone and gameplay, so we’ll see if Red River can avoid the same missteps when we get our hands on the full game this spring.