Review: Operation Flashpoint: Red River
June 21, 2011, Author: Andy Corrigan
I remember a time when there were plenty of realistic and punishing shooters available on the market (it wasn’t that long ago either, even for consoles!), but in times when even Ubisoft are taking Ghost Recon in a faster-paced, action route, the hardcore market is looking remarkably bare. To me, it’s a great shame that while the Call of Dutys’ seemingly rule the market, those after something a tad more cerebral have to lose out. Defiantly, Codemasters are back with Red River, another entry into the Operation Flashpoint series; a squad-based shooter that’s well known for its brutally punishing nature and requirement for tactical foresight.
In spite of its flaws, I have to admit that to being a fan of the previous game, Dragon Rising. It was tense, challenging and absolutely thrilling from start to finish (former Staff Writer, Brian, agreed in his review), so you can probably imagine how I must have been eagerly awaiting the new game something chronic. So, did it make the grade?
Welcome to Tajikistan…
Thanks to the opening movie, you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d accidentally placed a Bad Company game into your disk drive. A number of soldiers talk light-heartedly over a surprisingly stylish intro that’s full of comedic remarks and general discussion on some major real-life conflicts over the last few decades. This somehow eventually takes you to the entirely fictional circumstances that lead to your troop’s deployment into the real-life country of Tajikistan.
To be honest, the set-up is still rather dry despite the attempt to add some style with this short movie, as following it you’ll find yourself in a game that focuses more on the military operations than any overarching storyline. While this direction functions, you’ll find yourself just wanting to crack on with the missions rather than caring why you’re stationed there. There are a few twists and turns along the way, but it’s never truly involving and that feeling of grinding generic mission after mission never really left me. In some ways that’s okay; we don’t see it delve into Modern Warfare 2 levels of ridiculousness, but it would have been nice to see some of the fresh energy promised in the intro brought into the rest of the game.
The biggest change to be found in Red River is that single player and co-op are pretty much the same beast, and the co-op gets a heavy focus. Each pre-mission option screen is essentially a pre-game lobby, where up to four friends can join you for the ensuing carnage. This can be a tad unsettling to largely unsociable gamers like myself, but you can change the settings and conditions as to who can join you and when, so it’s not a big deal. It’s here where you can change your character class between Rifleman, Grenadier, Scout and Automatic Rifleman before jumping into one of the ten missions.
If no players join you, though, you take in three A.I. characters by the names of Taylor, Soto, and Balletto, who you can direct throughout by pointing at something, holding down RB and selecting your choice from the radial menu. So, as in the previous game, you can point them towards cover, ask them to clear buildings, hold fire, suppress or be aggressive, or even just to defend an area. It’s nothing that other games haven’t done before, but tactical thought will play a major part in the success of missions. If you’re playing this right, you’ll be using your team to cover angles and you’ll scope out situations before jumping in with both feet. It’s all about quick thinking and careful positioning, and at times you might find yourself playing more as the squad leader that you’re portrayed than firing at the enemy yourself. There are some major problems with your squad, though.
Unfortunately, the game is plagued with a number of issues when it comes to friendly A.I., and the easiest way to break it to you is that they possess about as as much combined intelligence and tactical awareness as Sloth from the Goonies. What point made me doubt their effectiveness most? The number of times when they got stuck against each other next to a wall, rapidly turning back and forth before freeing themselves long after I’d had enough and persevered on my lonesome? How about the times we were defending an area and their constant (and pointless) movement kept pushing me out of cover into direct heavy fire? My absolute favourite, however, was when, after spending a good couple of minutes patching the three of them up after one of the above moments of stupidity, they all decided to walk right under the front of a slow-moving friendly truck, undoing all the healing I’d just done. Brilliant!
Thankfully, the saving grace is that when it does work, it works brilliantly. The slower, thoughtful controls put a heavy emphasis on taking your time and scoping out the situations before running in with guns blazing. Listening to the orders of your superiors before commanding your own team and thinking your moves through before an altercation are key components, and there’s a lot of joy to be found in the strategy that Red River encourages. That’s not to say that it’s always a slower paced game. It’ll regularly test your speed of thought by putting you into situations where you have to act fast but tactically to nullify threats effectively. Those used to charging headfirst into combat will die an awful lot here, and if the last couple of games you played were action titles, you might struggle at first to get into the groove.
Part of that will be down to the sluggish nature of the controls. The button layout is pretty much the same as any other shooter these days but even so, at first it might feel a bit clumsy. I personally had to set the sensitivity to the quickest possible setting just to be able to shoot effectively. That’s fine though, the slower pace makes that manageable and sensible, without it being anywhere near as user-friendly as some of the big hitting shooters. The one complaint I did have about the controls is that the commands could have been mapped better, to the directional pad for example, which is wasted in letting you select individual soldiers. It gets a little more fiddly when you’re also trying to call in air-strikes and artillery support at certain periods. When you get used to it (and it might take a while), though, shooting and utilising your squad starts to feel natural and fluid, and when that A.I. is behaving itself, it’s an absolute joy.
The health system is something that’s been made a little more forgiving this time. Usually in this franchise, you’d expect one bullet to equate to instant death, but that only applies if you take one to the face. If you or your squad take a critical hit anywhere, you’ll be required to patch up before bleeding out, done by holding the A button to quell the bleeding. Once that’s done you can take it another step to heal completely. This can become a complete pain the arse in the midst of firefights, and it looks a little dumb too, as without any animations for this process, your character just holds a health-pack out in front of the camera for a couple of seconds. If you lose one of your men in battle, fear not, as at the next checkpoint they’ll be resurrected, which, for me at least, felt like part of the hardcore element had been lost.
Another element that might detract from the hardcore feel for some is the fact that you earn experience and add perks to your soldier’s progress. I asked the question about the authenticity of this aspect in a recent interview with the game’s executive producer, Adam Parsons. He explained that it was similar to how rookies (which is exactly what you’ll start out as in the game) gained combat experience in the field; naturally their abilities improve as they see more action. Well played, Adam, well played. I see his point now that I’ve had my hands on the game, and authentic, hardcore or whatever; it at least adds a bit of development along the way.
In the end, what Red River really does well is making you feel that you’re a very small part of a greater machine, clawing back a lot of the intended authenticity. You’re not an all-conquering hero like in CoD, you’re not the focal point, you’re simply a grunt; only there to do your tiny job in bigger, well orchestrated operations. While you’re fulfilling the bosses expectations, there are two other teams in different parts of the map also following their own orders, and you have no control over that. This I like, though there is one final issue I have to raise.
The game’s pacing is terrible. You’ll find times where you’ll have fired your last bullet of a level, then be forced to sit in the back of a jeep or chopper for ten minutes listening to generically barked orders in what is essentially an unskippable cut-scene. Why? I’ve done my bit, you’ve told me I’ve finished it, Flashpoint, put me back in there!
There are more examples of poor pacing too. Hands up anyone who didn’t expect a mission where your extraction chopper gets blown up as it’s coming in to land? That’s fine, we expect that sort of thing in these types of games, but the problem is that it strings four or five of these ‘fake’ mission endings at the end of one sodding level:
‘Look our chopper is here! Oh no, it’s got blown to shit! Look, there are some abandoned Humvees! Wait, they’re broken and we need to hold the area while we fix them. Yay! They’re now working! Though now we need to drive to the new extraction point! We’re here! Thanks Sarge, I agree, we did really well, so we’re moving on to our next mission now? What? We’re being attacked again and still can’t end this operation until we’ve protected the area? Yus! We held them off again! Oh wait, we’re just falling back to hold them off once more…’
It was around here I started rolling my eyes because the game was representing a real chore at this point, and made it a struggle for me to carry on playing. It’s a massive shame too, because this poor pacing in conjunction with the other flaws really hurt a game that, in the moments at its absolute best, is able to create tense, edge-of-your-seat combat.
Not much call for EGOtism
I’m also afraid to say that despite using the same (and utterly gorgeous) EGO engine from DiRT 3, Red River suffers from some bland visuals. While not ugly, it’s clear that the sheer size of the game is both a benefit and a curse. To a degree, you expect it to look ropier than the more mainstream titles, simply because the map used is incomparably huge and is entirely loaded no matter where you are in the game. What goes against it here is that Dragon Rising looked crisper in my opinion, and if I’m honest, I remember it performing better, flaws and all. It seems a pointless move too. In the original, you could drive from one side of the island to the other, even if you didn’t need to. In Red River, you get blown up or killed if you wander outside the mission area, so it makes you wonder why they didn’t just try to make more focused, better looking levels.
There’s just a lack of polish all round, with visual glitches everywhere you look. For example, the polygons of distant mountains flicker when viewed through scopes, and there’s a level where you’re clearly not meant to look in a certain direction as an entire dam draws itself in before your very eyes. Soldiers jerk around badly when clipping or trapping each other, and their general animation isn’t too hot either, looking a little too robotic in their movements and it’s probably best not to mention the lip syncing… None of these issues are deal breakers to be fair. There’s nothing that will distract you all that much, but all these little things make the rough edges stand out all the more, preventing you from losing yourself completely to the game.
Going into games like this, you expect guns to sound like guns, explosions to be powerful, and you expect the mindless, chatter of marines. As usual, all are pretty well done here, if at a lower quality to more focused shooters. The voice acting is done decently, although it’s all dreary ‘I’ve-heard-this-a-million-times’ macho bullshit chatter that after a while you’ll just start zoning out. As with the rest of the game, there is a lack of polish with the audio, and you’ll find some of the mid-combat lines starting to repeat themselves before they’ve finished, giving a delayed echo effect.
What I didn’t expect going into this was a semi-decent licensed soundtrack that mostly features as you’re travelling between missions. It adds a lot of atmosphere going into battle to the ironic melodies of ‘Why can’t we be friends?’ by War, ‘Lapdance’ by N.E.R.D, or the metal themes of bands like Pantera or Disturbed. True, it’s just background noise, but it’s a little detail that makes everything seem a little more believable.
“…we happy few, we band of brothers…”
Okay, so I slated the friendly A.I., but the saving grace is that the entire campaign is playable in co-op, which completely removes that as an issue. As I said before, the single player and co-op mode are one and the same, thanks in part to a nicely implemented drop in/drop out system. Once you have some human team-mates on board, the game becomes fairly painless to play, providing that you communicate well as a team.
This type of game is obviously far better played with friends and people you trust, however, playing with team players or not, Red River does at least help things along by providing decent waypoints and clearly highlighting your objectives. For those playing with online mutes, the team command menu becomes a nifty little communication tool, as you navigate it to ask for help or try to move your team in the right direction.
In a couple of the levels I played, I did find some lag, and I’ll be honest I was expecting a little given how expansive and massive these levels are. Rather than skipping about, the game tends to restrict this to button lag more than anything, so I found times where hitting reload didn’t action until a couple of moments later. There were times when an enemy would stay standing after taking a few rounds before exploding into a mist of red seconds later after I’d start firing at someone else. At one point, the next objective wouldn’t trigger after completing the last one, leaving my team in an eternal shootout at either side of bridge that we weren’t allowed to go across yet. The only way I could get out was to quit.
Luckily, all this only happened when I encountered lag with randoms. Those moments aside, it works pretty well overall, and it should be abundantly clear to anyone that this is how the game has been designed to be played. Just note that there’s no competitive multiplayer, so keep that in mind before fronting up the cash if that’s what you’re interested in.
Has the river run dry?
I have to admit that as a fan of the hardcore shooter, I had my share of fun with Red River, but it’s hounded by some notable flaws that seemed to come to light every time I was about to start really enjoying myself. What was telling about my experience with the game, though, was that I had times where just the thought of jumping back in filled me with hesitation to pick up the pad, with the pacing problems in particular making it feel more chore than pleasure. This is from someone whose OCD demands that he finishes most games before moving on to the next, so that is never a good sign. Still, though, it’s at least worth a look if you prefer a more intelligent type of shooter, but there are better games available that are more deserving of your money at the moment.
Platforms: PC, PS3, Xbox 360 | Tagged co-op, Codemasters, Dragon Rising, FPS, Operation Flashpoint, Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising, Operation Flashpoint: Red River, Red River, Tactical, Tactics, Team work