They say that war is hell, and I’m certainly not going to dispute that observation. Real life conflict is no walk in the park, we all know that. But it’s all too easy to lose perspective after playing hundreds of hours of COD4, and if the pre-pubescent mouth-runners online are anything to go by, there’s no shortage of gamers out there that think they could make it in the real world military. This is a worrying thought for most of us, and one that games like Operation Flashpoint try to stamp out.
Claimed, by the developers, as “the closest to war you’ll ever want to get”, the sequel to the original Operation Flashpoint: Cold War Crisis, aims squarely for the realism jugular. This is no corridor shooter, or Hollywood-inspired military action title. This is all about realism, and Codemasters, along with developers Ego, have gone out of their way to make this point clear.
Let’s get the story out of the way first, though. It’s not entirely original stuff, but it does echo various real world situations of late. The game is set on the fictional island of Skira, a landmass that sits on the border between China and Russia. The island has been fought over ever since it was discovered centuries ago, and with the more recent revelation of masses of oil deposits under its soil, the conflict has escalated to possible all-out war.
Chinese militant fanatics following a rogue general have assaulted Skira, and Russia has called in aid from the US to help stabilise the situation, fearing a full-blown conflict between the two nations. The US quickly sends in help, which is where the player comes in.
The single player campaign is where many players will begin, and this takes place over 11 missions. These missions take in various objectives, from taking a beachhead for the landing force and clearing enemy strong points, to rescuing downed helicopter pilots and calling in air strikes to help defend a newly taken airfield.
Throughout the campaign you’ll alternate between standard marine forces and special ops teams, and you’ll have command of your own fire team, which consists of three other soldiers.
Before I go any further, however, I should make it very clear that this game is tough. And when I say tough, I mean it. Dragon Rising, like its predecessor, is all about real military tactics, and as such there’s absolutely no room for Rambo-style shenanigans. If you’re expecting Call Of Duty style heroics, think again. Here, if you run in guns blazing, you’ll die – every time. To succeed in this game you need to advance slowly, use cover, and come up with unique tactics to complete your objectives.
For example, imagine having to take out an AA battery, which is guarded by a small checkpoint. In games like COD you’d almost always run in, throw a few grenades and take out the enemy. Here, you’ll just die a very quick death, and will be on the ground before you can pull the pin on your first grenade.
Instead, a more suitable approach would be to crawl through the undergrowth around to the sides of the checkpoint while ordering your men to flank from the other side, and take the enemy out from both directions. Or, better still, you may choose to bypass the guard post silently, and then sneak in to destroy the AA batteries without firing a shot. You may even choose to put some distance between you and the target and call in an artillery strike, doing away with face-to-face confrontation altogether.
This difficulty is evident at all times, and is reflected in a number of ways. Enemies are very hard to spot at a distance, meaning you need to look for the slightest movement or muzzle flash to spot your foes, and one hit kills are commonplace, often from an enemy you never saw coming. Even changing weapons and reloading are victims of this realism, and these actions have been motion captured from real soldiers, so there’s no slapping in a clip and firing away, or quickly lobbing a grenade in a split second here. It’s all technically correct, and is part of the tactical considerations you’ll need to make.
The various difficulty modes are all the same when it comes to damage and number of foes etc, and instead the higher difficulties remove visual aids, with the hardest mode, hardcore, giving you no help at all. So, your compass, enemy indicator, team health, ammo count and so on, are all gone. You’ll need to keep eyes and ears on your team to assess their health and status, scan diligently for signs of enemies and remember just how many rounds you fired. All realistic and absorbing stuff, indeed.
Missions take place in enormous open world areas, basically the entire island of Skira, which, if the developers are to be believed, would take you around nine hours in real time to traverse on foot. To be honest, I’ve not got enough spare time to try out those claims, but you can’t deny the world is huge.
Sadly, most missions don’t really give you the chance to see much of the world, and many restrict you to the immediate mission area, or ‘AO’ as military types call it. This restriction can come in the form of superior officers telling you to return to the AO, or, in many missions, arbitrary time limits for certain objectives. Other times you may not be restricted, but there’s little reason to go wandering off really, as the island of Skira is a pretty barren, and lifeless place.
An example of the enforced boundaries happens very early on in the game in a mission that sees you taking a beachhead. Your first goal is to take out AT (anti-tank) troops and defend your APCs as they land. While the game doesn’t actually specify a time limit, if you’re not quick enough, your APCs will be destroyed. Now, this is fine, and I fully appreciate the realism here, but for a game that’s all about forcing the player to think tactically, it leaves little room for error. This also leads me on to another problem that soon rears its head: objective vagueness.
Often the game will unceremoniously punish you beyond belief for failing to meet certain goals. There’s no heads up about this, and you’re usually left to figure it out yourself. An early example is losing too many APCs before taking and defending a village. Lose too many, and you’ll face impossible odds when you come to make your stand against wave after wave of enemies. Again, this is realistic and adds to the challenge, but it’s certain that many players will find this unwavering and often unforgiving approach a little unfair.
When you do realise this fact, yet another issue comes into play – checkpoints. Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising has one of the worst checkpoint systems I’ve ever seen. Sometimes the checkpoints you get are fine, and trigger at perfectly reasonable times, such as after completing a goal, but more often than not, checkpoints fire off whenever they feel like, and sometimes they don’t even appear at all. This isn’t a major issue if you’re simply traversing some countryside, but when a checkpoint is saved in the middle of battle – a battle you cannot win – you’ll be in for some serious anger management issues.
You see, checkpoints overwrite each other, meaning that all previous checkpoints in the mission are wiped. Find yourself in an impossible situation, and bam! Your only option is to start the entire mission from the beginning. Aaargh! If only the devs had deemed it reasonable to let people choose the checkpoint to load, even on the easier difficulties, then this problem wouldn’t be an issue.
You may be thinking that this is all part of the challenge, and, yes, I’d also agree to some point, but after experiencing more than one situation where a checkpoint fired off at the exact same time a helicopter gunship was pinning my fire team to the floor, meaning I had no choice but to start again, I find it hard to let this go as mere difficulty. No, this is a bad system and one that will undoubtedly cause major irritation.
Still, the vague objectives and awful checkpoint system aren’t even a tiny hint of a scratch on the game’s major shortcoming. This is a shortcoming that really will be the cause of several broken controllers, and one that’s made all the more annoying given the over-ambitious claims by Ego. This issue is the artificial intelligence.
Now, I’ve played too many games to mention where devs have simply failed to produce workable AI, but few times have I seen AI as painfully embarrassing Dragon Rising‘s automaton soldiers, and as you’ll often depend on your AI team mates, this is a very real, and almost certain game-breaker for some.
Sometimes the AI of your fire team can be okay. They’ll follow you, fire at foes and even help flank positions and the like. However, I found that for the most part, they’re unbelievably poor. Using the game’s command wheel, which is a little clunky, you can order your team to move to points, flank the enemy, change ROE (Rules of Engagement, such as hold fire, fire on my lead and so on) and shout for medical help, amongst other things. When they do these things, great, but when they constantly and consistently refuse to comply, you’ll be gritting your teeth. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve shouted for a medic, only to see my ‘ally’ piss about in the bushes or get stuck on a wall, leaving me to bleed out and die.
Ask you team mates to heal each other, and instead of finding good cover to hide in, they’ll relocate to a spot where the enemy can get an even better shot. Oh, and would someone confirm where in the US Marines handbook it states that firing at a fully armed helicopter gunship with a small arms rifle is a perfectly normal tactic, especially when the helicopter in question was blissfully unaware of your presence?
Another prime example of poor AI (when your allies aren’t busy walking in front of your gun sights in the middle of combat, or even shooting you in the back of the head) lies with the command to assault a building. Far from elite military room clearing tactics, the end result of your order is more like watching a slow motion Benny Hill, as your fire team wanders around outside the building as if they’ve never even seen a door, let alone know how to use it. Of course, do this under fire and they’ll all die horribly too, leaving you standing there in awe of their stupidity. The end result is just plain embarrassing for all concerned, and it’s amazing that such poor AI was let out of the door.
You may think I’m being overly harsh here, and maybe I am, a little, but OP Flash Dragon Rising is already so difficult, and emphasises teamwork and tactics so heavily that the AI is very, very important. And, simply, it’s not good enough and is a real problem.
Luckily, the game also has a major online component, as well as four-player co-op. In these modes, with other players replacing the AI (AI is often still present, though, and makes up fire teams), OP Flash Dragon Rising shines like a beacon of military tactical goodness.
The strict damage system and need to advance and move tactically as a team makes for some of the most absorbing and thrilling online gaming you’ll ever experience, and this alone is enough to warrant a purchase. In this regard, I’ve few complaints at all.
So, what we have here is a potentially great game that’s let down by a few major issues. This is a real shame, because if it wasn’t for these problems, and other minor bugs and glitches, Dragon Rising could have been an all-time classic. In fact, even with the flaws, I still find myself coming back for more. I find the challenge offered to be very enjoyable, and getting killed by enemies that flank my team, a patrolling chopper or an artillery barrage is all part of the experience. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for getting killed due to faulty AI or poor checkpoints, which is why my overall score isn’t as high as the one I’d love to give the game. It does a whole lot right, but the problems are just too big.
Fans of the original Op Flash should enjoy Dragon Rising, and as long as you’ve got the patience to put up with the flaws, any gamer with a tactical, sim-like approach will find the title to be very enjoyable, indeed. If you’ve got little time for buggy, and shoddy implementation of some of the game’s features, then you may be best steering clear, at least until the inevitable patch.