October 27, 2009
The purpose of games has been a hotly debated topic in recent years. Some argue that they are created to provide fun times, whilst others argue they are created as an art form, or even to engage an emotional response. Operation Flashpoint falls somewhere in the grey area. A realistic shooter by trade, Codemasters’ latest addition to the popular franchise makes its way to consoles for the first time and it’s about to rape you... I mean seriously rape you. Lube up soldier.
Set on the gigantic island of Skira, Operation Flashpoint follows the “story” of the US Marines called into aid the Russians in a conflict with China over oil… so pretty realistic. It’s also realistic in the fact that it rarely delivers a story - well anything worth caring over - but you know what they say; there is no story in war. Unless you’re talking about the War of the Worlds, but that’s an entirely different and fictional story for a different review, and a bad one at that.
Realism is most certainly the name of the game and the pacing of Dragon Rising is a nice change of pace from your conventional shooters. Know this for one, this is not your average corridor shooter, instead, you’re thrust into a ginormous sandbox environment with a series of objectives to perform however you please. If it wasn’t for the game’s terribly dated and underwhelming visuals, the focus would fall more on the island’s sweeping vistas and muddy look of war, although sometimes, it’s a little too muddy and you’ll struggle to pick your opponents out of the mess. Codemasters have even failed to provide even the most basic animations when you’re applying dressing to wounds and such, which is a big immersion breaker.
There is no doubting that this is the most realistic - Jeez, how many times have I said realistic now! - shooter around, I mean, one carefully placed bullet can kill, but it does a lot to distance you from liking it too much with its shortcomings. Your foes may boast a morale system and you can effectively make them fear for their lives so they cut and run, but the rest of the AI borders on the absurd and ruins the immersion factor. If it’s not your squad AI refusing to heal you, their inability to stand in cover, or them walking in front of you when you’re using highly volatile explosive weapons, it’s the enemies being as dense as a doorpost and standing out in the open whilst you pump ten tons of ammo into their supremely thick skull. From a squad control perspective, it’s a bloody good job that the game boasts four player co-op and it’s only then when the frustration is relieved ever so slightly. However, because of technical limitations, the co-op is not drop in-drop out, and missions must be tackled from the beginning if you wish to play with friends, but that's no biggie.
The game doesn’t haven’t to be tackled with friends, although it is generally encouraged because of the shocking AI. If you choose to tackle it alone you’ll have a fairly in-depth squad command system which can be used quite effectively to change squad formations or command them to breach a building for instance. There are a few minor annoyances that can affect your enjoyment of the system that include things like ordering a medic to heal a squad member and him not returning to his previous formation or even the fact that the system seems so clunky and confusing. Many a time will your squad get left behind, or just totally disregard your orders. Other than that, it’s fairly responsive.
If you’re the fire team leader, you’ll also have access to a few different toys to aid your cause, including some pretty extensive air strikes and artillery barrages. Of course you can make use of all the weapons you’ll find dotted around the island – vehicles as well – but bear in mind the heavy duty rocket launchers do take an age to load, which falls in line with the game’s realism aspects. There are a ton of different rifles, sniper rifles, machine guns, and other weapons to use, but chances are unless you start with them, you’ll have to find them around the level stashed in ammo crates. As a matter of fact, if you don’t find them there, then you’ll struggle to pick them off dead bodies because for some reason – and it’s obviously not realism – they disappear or over time lose the weapons and equipment they were carrying. Why Codemasters also chose not to allow custom load outs before a mission is beyond me.
It’s hard to sit here and argue that Dragon Rising is a fun game to play, but that doesn’t mean that it’s boring, far from it. It offers a different type of experience, one that will keep you perched on the edge of your seat and your heart racing throughout. If you are to be successful in the title, you’ll need to be extremely tactical, run way more than we would have liked, get embroiled in some long distance combat and spend more time in cover than you ever thought possible. If you’re not doing one of those four, chances are you’re either scouting the area with the binoculars for potential enemies, or dying. It’s as simple as that. To say you die a lot in Dragon Rising is an understatement; it’s actually part of the whole experience. You literally come to fear for your digital life and don’t want to be forced to watch from the sidelines, because that’s not fun for anyone.
The death aspect usually isn’t too bad, well on the normal difficulties anyway, because you have checkpoints to make use of and if you’re in co-op, you’ll have a pool of respawns to use up. Switch the game to hardcore though and boy is it a challenge! I must say, it’s truly how the game should be played and experienced though. Sure it can be a rewarding experience, but it will not only be frustrating as you’ll die more than your fair share, but because hardcore has no checkpoints, you’ll be flung back to the start of the level to repeat the same beginning sequence you’ve done 1,000 times. The only difference between the three difficulty settings is the aids you receive as a soldier. In normal, you have checkpoints, ammo indicators, navigational assistance, but fire it up to hardcore and you get nothing. A truly exhilarating and terrifying experience if ever there was one.
It will surprise you to hear that the game is actually built on Codemasters’ infamous EGO engine – a racing engine that has had critical success with its Dirt and Grid franchises. Why should it surprise you? Well simply because the handling of the vehicles in the game is just plain awful. Jump in any sort of land vehicle and you’ll find it reminiscent to driving a bus through quicksand whilst attached to a bungee cord and being repeatedly punched in the head by an Australian boxing kangaroo. It’s something that after a while, you think to yourself, “sod this, I’m walking.”
Dragon Rising doesn’t just boast a 4 player co-op experience, oh no, there is also a competitive online mode as well... like there is with any other shooter. There are two modes to keep you amused; Annihilation and Infiltration, which are actually a whole lot of fun... you know, if you like that tactical, shitting bricks aspect of war. Annihilation is simply a team deathmatch-esque war zone where two teams battle against one another for a set time period, or to a certain score. Infiltration on the other hand pits off two unevenly balanced teams in a more objective type scenario; a large team of PLA who have to defend a point on the map, against a smaller team of spec ops, with advanced weaponry and all the tools of the trade. Same rules apply from the campaign online. Our only qualm is, whilst the PC version puts up 32 players, Xbox Live only offers 4 on 4’s, with the same stupid single player AI filling the gaps. Hardly ideal. Otherwise, it’s a breath of fresh area from the usual corridor deathmatches you’ll see in most other shooters and hopefully it can maintain a healthy community in the coming months.
The achievements in Dragon Rising are actually really solid. The list plays to the game's strengths – namely rewarding players massively for rocking through it on hardcore – but it also does a lot to steer you off the main path to sample a few other delights. These other delights include completing some tricky secondary objectives, which gives you another purpose in every mission and using some of the more potent weapons to bring down a series of choppers and APCs. It’s rather disappointing that they only used 36 instead of the full 50 achievements, but other than that, it's a great list. No multiplayer achievements as well, how good is that!?
Simply put, Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising is a brutal, unforgiving and frustrating, but equally as exhilarating, enthralling and rewarding experience. It certainly is a game of two halves if ever there was one. On the one hand your heart will be racing throughout and you’ll be co-ordinating critical military manoeuvres in order to be successful, but then on the other hand you’ll be cursing the squad AI, the random glitchy deaths and the rest of its shortcomings. The simple fact is though, that despite those potential roadblocks, Dragon Rising offers an experience like no other and if you’ve got the patience of a saint, or want a total change in pace, then this is the game for you.
The sound of Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising is pretty well delivered. From its Mandarin menu music, to its general sounds of war. If you close your eyes, you could just imagine being there... although chances are if you do that, you’ll end up with a bullet lodged in your digital skull.
Codemasters tagged the title with “war, as seen through the lens” pre-release. Well yeah, that’s right, if you’ve just dragged the lens through a cesspool of dirty rotten sewerage that is. It doesn’t look bad, it’s just very muddy and for a game that relies on long distance combat, it’s not ideal as everything blurs together.
From a control standpoint, the game doesn’t do much wrong. It controls like your average shooter but puts more emphasis on tactics and long distance combat, which is by no means a bad thing.
Wide open missions and a real terrifying experience make up the game’s strengths. Terrible squad and enemy AI, random deaths, and some terrible vehicle handling make up its weaknesses. With a vastly improved AI, the game could be shooting for the 80’s easily. One for the sequel we hope.
The Codemasters team really understood what achievements were all about in most respects with this list. Some are challenging, there are good progression achievements, and some encourage you to step away from the main mission and do something you may not have usually done. This is by no means an easy 1,000, far from it. It’s challenging and there seems to be some thought thrown into them. Call me a fan if you would. Disappointing they didn’t use all 50, but other than that, touché.
If you like your Hollywood arcade shooters, Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising may not appeal to you at all. It offers a totally different and unique experience and one that I thoroughly enjoyed. If you can get past the game’s faults – namely it’s rather dated visuals, the horrible AI and its fair share of glitches – it’s a great experience. The multiplayer like the single player offers a different experience, but with two modes you have to question whether it has the legs to keep it in your graces for too long. That aside, the game’s truly saving grace is its 4 player co-op campaign and is definitely worth a try, but expect doses and doses of extreme frustration. It’s kind of worth it though.