Operation Flashpoint: Red River is billed as being the latest authentic battle experience for fans of first person shooters. Not your typical Rambo shoot-and-scoot game, this is a thinking man’s game that has been designed with co-operative play in mind. Who better, then, to take up the challenge than the husband and wife duo of Team Gunn?
Mike: Ah, Tajikistan. Sounds the ideal place to soak up some Middle Eastern culture, doesn’t it? Nestled in between Afghanistan and China, it has a rich ethnicity and rugged landscape that is ideal to relax the mind and body
Micky: Who are you kidding? Any country ending in “stan” is always going to be a basket case, and a quick check on Wikipedia reveals just that. Although this game revolves around a fictitious terrorist incursion, the country is very real and the game designers have leant heavily on actual maps and landscapes. That’s the last time I let you book a family holiday!
Mike: Ok, not my best choice of holiday destination then, but we get to take guns and kill the locals, so it looks to be a relaxing holiday… Well I thought so. You know the formula: first person shooter, compact designed maps and mission, run around playing Rambo and generally trashing the local scenic attractions, right? Wrong!
I should have realised this was going to be different when, instead of the gentile ‘tourist guide’ tutorial, we got a sergeant who immediately launched into a tirade liberally sprinkled with expletives, anatomically impossible references to animals, and comments about dating my mum. We are in the army, and I and the other three team members of Bravo Squad are the fresh meat in-country.
Micky: I thought the creative and prolific cussing was a bit extreme at times, but the in-game language is all part of the atmosphere. You do feel like you are in a front line camp as you’re hurried along to the obligatory tutorial section to try out your weapons and some of your stances. Just to ensure you don't get lost, there’s a helpful trail of waypoints to follow. Weapons use is your standard ‘point and shoot’, left trigger to zoom in, reload button and in hand item change button.
Mike: Enough of the tutorial stuff; let’s go and listen to the standard long winded briefing, where you are told you are here to save rock and roll, the Osmonds and Apple pie! “Whompff!” You must be kidding… no briefing, because the base is being mortared and we are straight into the first mission, no mucking about. I like it!
The Sarge screams for us to mount up in trucks and Humvees, and we set off to track down the location of the mortars. Racing through a dusty track, you are immediately amazed by the vast mission areas, and also at how your sergeant can deliver a mission briefing with every second word being some variant of the F-bomb.
Micky: Hmm, I wonder if he kisses his mother with that mouth? First person shooters are not my favoured genre, but this one certainly feels different right from the start. The unfolding story and the immediacy of the events don’t allow you much time to come to grips with the game dynamics – particularly when it comes to controlling the rest of your squad. I personally would have appreciated more of a tutorial session, before being chucked in at the deep end… wearing concrete shoes.
Mike: Debussing at some nondescript village, Bravo Team is ordered to take point and push through the centre of the village. No problem… We’ll just apply the standard tactics: chaaarge!. Straight to the first mud wall, over the top and straight into them. Bang. You’re dead. Dang!
Micky: Yep, hubby just learnt the hard way that this game is all about realism. Heroes don't last long in this woman’s army. A direct body shot will more than likely kill you. Wounds can also knock you off your feet. There’s no ‘recovery over time’ mechanic, either. You either have to apply your own field dressing or get a buddy to do it. This takes time and results in you swapping out your gun for bandages. Not a good idea during a fire fight.
Mike: I would have made it if it weren’t for the rest of my squad. Lazy buggers just stood there and let me get killed.
Micky: Well it would help if you gave them commands. The right hand shoulder button calls up a command wheel, which allows you to give movement, tactical and formation orders to the rest of your team. Computer controlled squad members then move and react as required. Human players have the bonus option of watching their husband get gunned down for not acting his age. Ha!
Mike: After a reload, and a bit more time getting to know the squad control system, we were back into combat. What does strike you about the game is how realistic it feels. Targets are very hard to spot, with tracer rounds and rough directions from your teammates being about the only way to get an idea of where the enemy is. You find yourself scanning likely hideouts and vantage points as you advance, and shooting at shadows in the off chance there is somebody there. The intensity is not helped by the sarge giving you an earful when you don't push forward fast enough, but if you don't take it carefully you will be terrorist toast.
What also strikes you is the range of some of the combat. You are often targeting over quite long distances, which is all right if you are the scout squad member with the sniper rifle, but if you are the auto gunner, grenadier or rifleman it is basically shoot and pray that you make contact down range. Your skills improve over time, depending on the squad position you play, with a role playing element of allocating skill points as you gain more experience.
It’s easy to run out of ammo though. Luckily, you can swap out your own weapons for those of the enemy. These are less reliable though (cheap tourist souvenirs), and they tend to jam at the wrong time. The main emphasis in the game design is realism, and this is no more evident than in how the combat unfolds. It's loud, noisy, confused, and the terrorist are devious enough to flank you, ambush you, or snipe you. It’s a tough business, playing war.
Micky: Ultra realistic game design is all well and good, but it raises an interesting question: have the designers sacrificed gameplay in favour of realism? This is no place for beginners, after all. If you have no tactical nous you’ll find yourself reloading (the game, not your weapon) time and again at the last checkpoint, until you finally give up in frustration. Gameplay can be difficult and unforgiving… a bit like the Tajikistan terrain, really.
Mike: Agreed. This is a realistic game of tactics and not a casual shooter. I like how the missions are all connected though, and many incidents are strung together to progress the story as you go. I really felt I was in a war zone and there were big events going on around me. It’s not easy to play, even on normal level and some players could find the overall game frustrating.
Micky: The graphics are not bad, though. I liked the subtle scenery changes as you advanced further inland. The border is littered with wrecked and bombarded houses, and as you progress into the missions the buildings tend to be more intact, with fewer signs of conflict scarring the scenery. The changing light conditions are also very good, and a hindrance if you are facing into the sun.
Mike: Overall, I would rate Operation Flashpoint: Red River as a good game, but one that requires tactical patience and some skill. A very hard game to play solo, but certainly with a partner or a whole squad of mates it’s far more enjoyable, and in some ways more doable.
Micky: Agreed, It’s not bad at all – even with all the ‘Hoorah Semper Fi’ machismo that is endemic to this type of game. I would find it frustrating to play it solo, though, and would happily sacrifice a bit of realism for the sake of fun. If it’s realism you want, why not simply enlist in the army?