Operation Flashpoint: Red River Review

As a self-styled military sim, the Operation Flashpoint series has always helped in serving as a sobering lesson that the life of a soldier on the frontline is a dangerous business, not that you should ever need reminding of that fact. It's pretty obvious really. A single bullet can kill, and the same goes for Operation Flashpoint: Red River, except when you get shot in the game, you can always reload your checkpoint. You might get annoyed or frustrated, but that's about it. The worst thing that could happen to you playing Op Flash is choking on a popcorn kernel or getting chocolate lodged in your nasal passages or perhaps a maddening tantrum will make you jump out of the nearest window, because Codemasters' second bite of the cherry with Red River demands the patience of a saint.

"Ain't no sunshine when it's gone..."

Taking place in Tajikistan 2013, you and your fireteam start out fighting insurgents in a dustbowl valley where a threat can emerge from any direction waving an AK-47. It's a setting that's incredibly topical given its proximity to Afghanistan and China, making perfect sense within the context of its narrative. Red River is a chatty game too and your commanding officer, Staff Sergeant Knox doesn't shut up in the game's cut-scenes barking his rules and catchphrases at you with irritating regularity. Forget skipping these bits though, as these are unskippable in-game sequences that are clearly trying to do the Generation Kill thing with their sweary dialogue and US Marine lingo. Instead, they're overly verbose, annoying and slightly ham-fisted, especially in the game's intro, which looks like Sky or Fox news with its flashy graphics making light of a serious situation.

Nonetheless, kudos should still go to Codies for trying to shake up the game's presentation and it’s certainly a step forward from Dragon Rising's comparatively sombre style. Just be warned, there's a lot of 'oorah!' and inane chatter going on in Red River, and some of it may drive you to distraction during the game's campaign, such as Alpha or Charlie team screaming, “I'm being shot at!” No shit, Sherlock. The FPS mechanics of the game itself remain largely unchanged from those found in Dragon Rising however, so you'll be able to intuitively pick things up. Red River does say a big hello though to an overhauled menu system, which is a neat evolution of the previous game's command issuing radial menu.

Red River has been through a fair bit of streamlining for this iteration though, making certain actions less of a headache, so patching up wounds and healing yourself and your teammates is mapped to the A button rather than asking that you faff around with fiddly inventories. Overall, the game feels tighter and more polished too, with far superior visuals to its predecessor, including some of the most dramatic skies you'll see in a game. That said, Dragon Rising's real issues lay in its skittish team AI and sadly, Red River sees the same kind of problems persisting, with some questionable actions being performed by your fireteam.

"Superman's put a bit of weight on..."

Notable instances of the AI going mad included one of our team running in front of our friendly US convoy, being knocked to the ground and ran over, countless instances of a teammate running across our line of fire, troops spinning on the spot and allies running into gunfire on a suicidal one-man Rambo mission. The AI might be a slight improvement over Dragon Rising's, but when you've got a marauding army of tooled up and aggressive Chinese PLA troops bearing down on you, the last thing you need is your team throwing themselves into bullets and then rolling around on the floor, bleeding to death. This isn't such a problem on the game's default ‘normal’ difficulty setting, which returns your team to full strength after each checkpoint during a mission, but in the ‘experienced’ and ‘hardcore’ modes, you'll be wanting to enlist the help of human players in co-op.

And that's where Operation Flashpoint: Red River really comes into its own, when you're co-ordinating manoeuvres with three other friends over a headset, playing the game like it's supposed to be played. Each member of your four-man fireteam is also assigned a class and each has its own set of expertise and equipment specialisations, which you can customise before being deployed into your next mission. Some of the campaign missions can go on for at least an hour too, so choosing your loadout is important, especially on the harder difficulties.

Outside the campaign, there are compartmentalised objective-based co-op game modes known as 'Fireteam Engagements' to play too, including Last Stand, which pits you and your team against wave after wave of PLA enemies before you decide to call in a helicopter extraction; Rolling Thunder, where you must protect your convoy; CSAR, which involves rescuing a downed chopper pilot with enemies closing in around you; and Combat Sweep that has you systematically clearing out an area of hostiles and destroying their supply caches. There is, however, no competitive multiplayer this time around.

"Orange sky at night... Wait, that's not right..."

There's no lack of things to do in Red River then and you can tailor the entire gameplay experience to suit your own play style and skill level. Military sim purists can switch off all of the on-screen furniture on the HUD and revel in the sadism of ‘hardcore’ with no checkpoints or safety nets if they want to, whereas regular FPS players can cut their teeth in Normal mode, with the aid of a compass with enemy markers and the usual ammo counters and so on. Those looking for a happy medium between the two can have their cake and eat it in ‘experienced’ mode. Normal is still immensely challenging though, meaning that more casual gamers aren't really catered for in Red River. Some will see this as a good thing, in a series that should pride itself on punishing realism and tactical play, but anyone seeking an easy ride will find themselves dying face down in the dirt with alarming regularity.

Thank goodness then that Red River's achievements don't require mastery of the tougher difficulty levels this time, making the list one that can conceivably be completed by any player with a modicum of skill playing shooters. The majority of achievements revolve around simply completing the campaign and none require that you do it at a harder difficulty than the standard normal setting. Others ask that you survive Last Stand, Rolling Thunder, CSAR and Combat Sweep, while some ask only that you complete tasks like shooting down an enemy helo with a rocket launcher. It's an accessible, welcoming list in all.

Operation Flashpoint: Red River is a marked improvement over Dragon Rising in a number of areas, most noticeably the visuals and the audio, even in spite of the incessant sub-Generation Kill chatter. The AI is an incremental upgrade, but there's still a whole lot of room for making your fireteam buddies smarter and more battlefield-savvy. It's a big booted step in the right direction for Operation Flashpoint then, but not quite the huge stride we were hoping for.

Gun sound effects are satisfyingly loud and impactful, while the score is pretty decent. It's the interminable, repetitive chatter of your support teams and Sergeant Knox that really lets the side down though.

A massive leap forward from Dragon Rising, the environments are remarkably pretty and the draw distance is admirable. Some textures are pretty low-res close-up, but that's never really much of an issue.

Red River is a tough game, but the core game mechanics are easy enough to grasp. Getting the AI to actually make intelligent decisions can be a challenge however, meaning you'll need to rope in some friends to play with you. The shooting is tight, but you'll more often than not find yourself squinting at tiny targets in the middle distance, which can grow tiresome.

The campaign – playable in single-player and co-op – is huge and the Fireteam Engagements offer potentially endless longevity with leaderboard support and plenty of scope for a quick blast of solo or co-op team play. Red River's presentation is also excellent, even if the flashy graphics in the mission intros will have you stabbing the skip button in no time.

A surprisingly straightforward and welcoming achievement list that covers all of the bases, from playing and beating each Fireteam Engagement and completing the campaign. In-game tasks are perhaps a little too easy and lacking in creativity, but at least it's something extra to do.

Operation Flashpoint: Red River will please fans of the last game, but will still leave players of the PC originals out in the cold. It's the best military sim on consoles yet, as far as we're concerned, but in the time since Dragon Rising launched, we expected a bit more from the sequel.

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