Codemasters' Operation Flashpoint series of first person shooters have always concentrated on delivering a more authentic portrayal of war than your standard game, with realistic distances, squad commands and damage that may see you dropping to the floor simply by sticking your head out too far.
The second iteration of the franchise on current generation platforms, Operation Flashpoint: Red River, improves on its predecessor, Dragon Rising, in many departments. Once again players are faced with a much harsher but more lifelike combat experience, so if true-to-life military simulations is your thing, Red River should make for a fun experience.
Of course no game today can capture the true realities and horrors of war, but Red River definitely makes a valiant attempt, introducing not only highly lethal rounds but also carving much closer cooperation between you and your squad, which can consist of either AI or human partners.
In Red River we follow the story of a squad of US marines deployed to combat insurgents that fled from occupied Afghanistan to neighbouring Tajikistan. At first the whole mission seems fairly straightforward, but things quickly go haywire when bordering China sends People's Liberation Army forces into the country to also take on the insurgents, who have been attacking sites on the Chinese border. As the two superpowers start beating their chests at each other, neither side refuses to back down, resulting in a conflict which may hold far reaching consequences for the rest of the world.
During the game we take on the role of the leader of the four man fireteam Bravo, fighting alongside the larger marine detachment in some highly realistic firefights.
Apart from a couple of lines here and there our squad didn't say much though, with most of the in-game narrative being undertaken by Staff Sergeant Knox, who's never-ending jargon and swear filled banter are prone to causing some annoyance.
In this game, going for the Rambo route and storming the enemy Call of Duty style will unfortunately not yield the results you're looking for, trust us, we tried.
The first time we entered into a combat situation we tried applying some COD skills just to see what would happen, sprinting forward and zig-zagging to try and get closer to the enemy. We were on the ground before we could aim down the sight.
Instead players will need to constantly be aware of their environment, always seeking out the next cover spot and not blindly sprinting around corners. For the most part battles also take place at much more realistic distances (up to hundreds of metres), with soldiers exchanging fire and ducking back into cover. One of the first things you learn from Red River is that without cover you're basically a dead man walking.
To prevail in these more demanding situations players must not only apply a bit more common sense to the task, they also need to make smart use of their squad, as in real war, you're not in this alone. As leader of fireteam Bravo the player has three AI controlled squad mates which they can order around. By pressing RB and utilising the D-pad players bring up a command menu through which orders can be issued.
This can include basic commands such as holding position or regrouping, in addition to more advanced combat tactics such as ordering your squad to flank the enemy from one side while you creep up on them. The squad commands give players a lot more say as to how a specific engagement is handled, whether you want to take cover and pick off advancing enemies one by one, or move forward to put pressure on their positions.
A couple of minor issues did pop up, such as the controls being a tad clumsy, especially in the heat of some of the more intense battles. On more than one occasion we were killed while fiddling around with the order menu. This however is not nearly as much of an issue as the intelligence of the AI themselves, which will sometimes simply loiter around waiting to get shot if not given explicit orders.
At times we got so engrossed in staying alive that we forgot to reissue orders to the AI, suddenly realising they're still sitting huddled in a hovel hundreds of metres back while we were undergoing AK-47 administered surgery. So we die and try again, this time making sure to keep our squad close.
As we sprint forward to utilise a piece of cover we order our squad to follow, with each member conveniently blocking our aim as they run up to you like lost puppies. When you finally do get them in position the AI doesn't fair too badly, generally shooting accurately while keeping their heads down enough to stay alive.
During one early mission we and the rest of the marines actually cleared out a village and proceeded back to our convoy, only for us to reach our humvee and realise our squad was still sitting around (presumably playing charades) in an outhouse hundreds of metres back. The player literally needs to play the role of sheepdog with the AI in this game.
A bit of an improved following mechanic would've done wonders, as sometimes they seemed completely oblivious of what's going on on the battlefield.
Getting shot in Red River is also a much more painful experience than in other games. Instead of simply giving your screen a temporary red overlay, in Red River players are either killed outright or they're reduced to having to heal themselves using a slow first aid kit. If not injured too grievously players can administer this aid themselves, but for serious wounds your squad needs to come bail you out, something which is achieved much easier when playing with humans.
Co-op is the way to go
The Red River experience is much improved when playing with real humans, and this is also how the game was intended to be played. Capable of drop-in-drop-out co-op with up to four players, you and your friends can create a much deadlier fireteam Bravo than the AI ever can.
Working together takes on a whole new meaning when you can communicate with receptive humans, and Red River really becomes a highly enjoyable experience if tackled together. Playing as one of four different classes, each players’ abilities enhances the effectiveness of the squad, with the rifleman, autogunner, grenadier and scout classes available for play.
These are fairly self explanatory, with the all-rounder rifleman, the autogunner utilising machine guns to lay down covering fire, the grenadier flushing out enemies with under-barrel grenade launchers and the scout taking out enemies from afar with high precision rifles.
In addition to being able to play through the main campaign, you and your friends can also take on a series of challenging missions called fireteam engagements. These bonus missions serves to really challenge your teamwork, usually involving race against the clock scenarios which builds up the intensity considerably. As with all missions, players earn experience points for these battles, while fireteam engagements also feature an online leaderboard.
These experience points can be used to level up your character, with players able to purchase new weapons, attachments and mods (which function much like perks in COD) as well as spending points to upgrade aspects such as endurance, accuracy and faster sprinting. This experience also applies across all game modes, allowing you to show off that new sniper rifle to your friends when you play tomorrow, even though you earned it playing with the AI.
The game's emphasis on teamwork and co-operative play is a mainstay, which unfortunately means that there is no competitive multiplayer option.
The game's EGO engine does a very good job of rendering the large view distances associated with the series, creating open and expansive battlefields. Environmental detail also looks really nice, with things like stars appearing near dusk and great atmospheric effects improving the sense of realism, with the sweeping mountainous backgrounds of the game also looking great.
At times we found some of the finer details to be a bit lacking though, such as facial effects and the rendering of enemies, although overall the game sports impressive visuals.
An issue that gamers on the consoles might experience though is simply not being able to identify enemies clearly. As we've mentioned before lots of firefights take place over somewhat considerable distances, so if you're sitting on a couch a couple of metres from the TV it might take a while to identify the insurgent shooting at you from a crack in a wall on the other side of a ravine. This can be a good thing though, as it increases your sense of realism, as you really have to keep your head down to survive.
Operation Flashpoint: Red River delivered a solid and realistic combat experience, although it can benefit from some added polish, especially in the AI department.
The title offers gamers a slick modern warfare experience, together with all the weapons and equipment you've grown to know and love, except this time around players need to utilise a bit of tactical sense to come out on top. Definitely a recommended title if you enjoy your soldier simulators.