Codemasters and I have a pretty rocky relationship. I was one of those cheat happy kids that rushed out and got a Game Genie when I was a kid, and to this day, I still have my Super Nintendo one buried away somewhere. Those hours of glitching my games out, the infinite lives, the messed up sprites - Pure fun. The games? Well, we didn't get on so well. Over the last 20 years, I've played bomb after bomb from the company, with the exception of the Colin McRae/DiRT franchise. The consensus? They make good racing games, but what else?
It was with a bit of hesitation when I got a request memo from XBoxAddict Towers asking me to review the new Operation Flashpoint game. For one, the last first person game I was asked to review (Serious Sam HD Second Encounter) was an absolute bust and I haven't played an FPS since. Secondly, well...it was Codemasters and it wasn't a racing game. Thirdly, the game was subtitled Red River. Any Canadian young or old having been through Boy Scouts will probably have memories of eating Red River on a camping trip, which may be the worst sludgy excuse for oatmeal on the planet. Still, I'm indebted to Codemasters for life for the Game Genie contribution to my childhood, so I graciously popped Flashpoint: Red River into my 360 and took it for a spin.
Upon loading the game, you're treated to a well done and hilarious intro video bringing you up to speed as to what's happening from the Reagan Administration until now. I wonder if the game's introduction was re-done following the death of Osama Bin Laden, as it glosses over the time between 9/11 and the focal point of the game, a fictional war taking place in Tajikistan. The game brings life to a fictional terrorist group called ETIM waging war on the Tajikistan/China border and mentions the killing of Chinese athletes at the Olympics "last year," meaning the game takes place in 2013. The video, which is rather light hearted and humourous should mean the game's got a very lighthearted tone too right? Wrong.
Aside from the wise-cracking squadron leader, the game launches you into some fairly serious business. Your in-game training lasts all of about 30 seconds and really just consists of crouching and shooting at dummy targets, so make sure you familiarize yourself with the controls early in the outlaying areas because once you finish your little training, off to war you go. You're a squadron leader in the US Marine Corps (referred to as the USMC from this point on,) and your job is to kill or be killed while leading your team into the call of war. The game seems to rely heavily upon the fact that you know what you're doing already, as the knowledge that I lead a squad and I'm not a shooting lackey would have been helpful as the game has me bark commands to my squadron. My experience with training missions is at least some form of calibration of my surroundings and what I'm doing out there, so this is a bit of a change. I do admit, however, I never read the instructions and just start playing. The game assumes every guy does that, and opts to teach you the secondary controls while you're playing.
Be ready to die a few times when you start out, and be ready to sit through a lot of loading time. The game seems to loads as much of the entire mission as possible to prevent mid-mission loading and stalling, and the wait times up front can be lengthy sometimes, especially when you consider the game does not just refresh reload the last checkpoint and get you going again. It will reload all sprites and characters, and the entire level and start from your last save point. Saving is all automatic, so you don't have to worry about losing your place and having to start half a level back because you forgot to save.
In continuing to play, it's important to note that this has been specifically built to cater to a specific demographic of gamer. This is not for the standard FPS player who spends hours playing deathmatches with his buddies online. In fact, there is no competitive multi-player at all to be found. None. The game is centered upon co-op missions, and full tactics. In fact, I would suffice to say this game is less of a first person shooter, and more of a clinic in how to be an effective team leader. It may seem quite overwhelming to begin with, especially in being thrown straight into a battle and trying to figure out how to get your troops to follow you, or attack, or defend their post. This is definitely a trial and error in the making, as you will have to learn to make many decisions on the fly while you're often running or being shot at, many of which times you'll find yourself running directly into a wall or an awaiting gunman. This sense of urgency is a good step into a what little realism you can get out of a simulated war, as it makes you accountable for your actions at all times. Think about all those games you've played in the past harboring the "Out of Sight, Out of Mind" philosophy. Rarely have I come across a game of this sort where AI drones came at me from multiple angles in multiple areas where I had no idea where gunfire was eminating. Often times, all enemies were established to be in front of you, and the only way you could get shot from the side or from behind was if you yourself turned away from the action. Red River will come at you from numerous angles, and will teach you how communication is key. Your comrades will be buzzing in your ear with directions, and you yourself must provide some back in turn.
The controls themselves are pretty responsive for the most part. A bit of frustration lays in little things, such as the fact that you click the left stick down to run, however, when you unclick, your player continues to run. You must physically let go of the left stick before he goes back to walking pace (or becomes exhausted - whichever comes first) which when you can slow down but are still in the line of fire becomes a bit awkward. Some of the controls don't always react with the same knee-jerk reaction time you need in the game either when you try to combine functions. I found running and diving into a concealed area to be a bit of challenge. Coming from, say, GTA IV or Mafia II where the characters will make fantastic leaps to dive behind something and crouch in dramatic fashion, the character here might duck behind an object but makes no bounds to conceal himself properly. I'm not sure whether that's up to me, but I couldn't find proper controls anywhere that properly accomplished this. Unfortunately, you get the feeling that perhaps this game was better geared to the whims of a PC keyboard. There is a lot that you can do and want to do, but getting compressed on a 360 controller seems to hinder its effectiveness at times. For example, you must push both left stick and pad if you wish to run into battle or cover and bark commands for your team to follow simultaneously. This would be easy for someone with 3 thumbs, but unfortunately, I've been slowed down by my ordinary genetics. Still, once you
A feature I do give a solid and unabashed thumbs up is the game's way of healing your character and his allies. I'm tired of playing countless first person shooters where the character gets shot and harnesses the magical healing powers of not getting shot at or standing still till he's at 100% health before trotting back to the battlefield without a scratch. Whoever invented and adapted that idea into video gaming deserves a punch to the groin. At least Duke Nukem and Commander Keen's grandpa from Wolfenstein 3D had to find medipaks to heal themselves with. If you get shot at, Red River makes you heal yourself by patching your wounds and then healing them right there on the battlefield. Granted, it's not terribly realistic, but it's still the best idea out there. Better than standing in a corner till your health meter mysteriously rises to prominence again anyway.
The game has an interesting in-game soundtrack. Starting out with "Why Can't We Be Friends?" and its epic chorus line on loop in the intro video straight through to Cowboys from Hell by Pantera and Symphony of Destruction by Megadeth, the tracks are definitely meant to psyche you up and keep you energized in moving from checkpoint to checkpoint, but they fall a bit quiet in-game. Since this isn't a psychadelic Vietnam flashback in a box, we're spared the possible trite misuse of Gimme Shelter and Edwin Starr's War.
With everything in mind, realistically, there are two types of first person gamers that will like this: Those heavily vested in playing more tactical ops, and those who want to play missions with buddies online. The series loses a ton of potential gamers because of its lack of competitive multi-player, and as a result, it loses its "Pick up and Kill things" element that other first person shooters succeed so well at. This by no means is a bad title, nor is it one for the ages. This is a straight forward, average shooter where no one element of the game exceeds another.
Graphics: 6/10. These types of games are always hard to figure out graphically. Just because the approaching enemies blend into the background, does it mean they have effective camouflouge, or is the game glitching out and processing things correctly? What type of gun fires green lasers at you? Is modern machinery so advanced in 2013 that I'm led to believe chinese soldiers fire weapons out of Star Wars? All that aside, the graphics are average at best. The villages look as they should in remote Tajikistan, and capture the very primitive lifestyle of a country we as average citizens don't know a lot about. The backgrounds, their backdrops and all the unmoving objects look great. It's just a bit problematic with all the NPCs and vehicles, which look a bit choppy at best most times. Texturing isn't very clean on most things, from ally outfits to tire treads. There are times, to be honest, where I feel this game isn't any better graphically than a regular Xbox game.
Sound: 7/10. Nothing here is of anything worth note. Gunshots are gunshots. Running in the dirt is running in the dirt. Again, with the continued insistence this game appears to have on the idea that you're not playing an FPS so much as you are a leadership simulator, most of the emphasis in-game also falls on yelling and listening to commands and getting your teams on board with the mission objectives. You won't have time to listen to anything else, so treat the rest of the sound outside of that just as Codemasters did - auxillary filler. When you consider this, you may realize a lot of sound effects are left out when they should be (like creaking doors, splashing in water and such.) Still, the sound experience overall is good enough.
Control: 7/10. The controls are easy enough to follow along with, however, as I mentioned, the biggest problem lays in the fact that there's too much to do at times, and a good enough spread to do it in. At least with a PC keyboard, you've got one hand on the keyboard (or mouse) to control movement, and shooting and such, and the other's free to roam the buttons for other commands. Here, your left hand has to move and select commands. It's rare that you have to do both simultaneously, but you'll find the option is needed a few times throughout. The game doesn't do a good enough job getting you into the controls eithervia their attempted training stage, which is completely unnecessary considering the mapped buttons for those are the same as every other FPS 2005 and beyond. The game should have spent more time combing over what I consider to be the bread and butter of this game: Proper strategic p: 6/10. Let me continue to hammer this point home, and I ask Codemasters to please prove me wrong if I am. This is not primarily a first person shooter game. This is not a game where the objective is to rack up levels, kills and headshots in a thinly guised veil of a historic war. This is basically a tactical operations first person leadership style sim where you're looking more to guide your Marine Corp through a successful war campaign and nothing else. You better bring your A-Game. These truly are stupid drones who won't move until you tell them exactly what to do. Feel like engaging in war and letting your troops fall in to back you up? You'd better tell them to do so, otherwise, you're a one man army. Granted, it may reflect the disciplined belief of Marines that they wouldn't enter combat without their leader's approval, but come on guys - a little help here? The gameplay seems to fall consistently with the rest of the experience. It isn't terrible, but it's just nothing better than your average game.
I don't really know who to recommend this game to. All of the FPS players I know live and breathe by the Call of Duty and Halo series, and I can't see any of them enjoying this. Even some of my old PC gaming pals who used to have FPS clans for games like Unreal Tournament and Quake back in the day wouldn't like this, despite the team aspect of things. Fans of the old school War Room and Panzer General style games might find this a bit too hands on, but perhaps that's the demographic Codemasters is looking to capture here. It's too intriguing of a gameplay style not to at least rent, or borrow from a friend. If you've absolutely gotten fed up of those Black Ops types games and you love first person games and are looking for another challenge, this is definitely for you. As previously mentioned, this game is probably going to lose a lot of buys from the deathmatch seekers, because of the absence of a competitive multiplayer. One of the criticisms against the last Flashpoint game was how horrid the competitive multiplayer was. Rather than tweaking and improving, they dropped the idea altogether, which nowadays seems to be a death knell for a game in this genre. Co-Op multiplayer, however, is always good fun if you can find patient gamers looking to spend an afternoon hashing out strategies and taking down enemy forces with brains over brawn. For everybody else, however, seeking that goodtime first person shooter where you can cycle through co-op friendlies and every man for himself gunfights, move on. This isn't the game for you.