Operation Flashpoint: Red River
When I reviewed Killzone 3's single-player a few weeks back, I was impressed by its technical proficiency, but disappointed in its lack of character, its unadventurous campaign and the general feeling that I had seen it all before. It wasn't bad by any stretch of the imagination. It just felt a little by-the-numbers.
But there's another issue with Killzone 3. Alongside the Call of Duty series it represents the pinnacle of highly-scripted, disguised tunnel shooters that dictate that you must go exactly where the game tells you at all times. As a result you are shepherded and herded through the game so that when that huge explosion the artists toiled over for so long rips through a building it's right there in front of you. There's no chance you'll miss it.
And that's great. Thrilling even. After all, who will forget that moment in Modern Warfare when the helicopter comes skidding to a halt just inches from your face? Not me. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't have alternatives.
Operation Flashpoint: Red River attempts to be that alternative. The follow-up to Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising, it is the latest in a series that prides itself on offering an entirely more realistic brand of military face shooting. Ok, so since Codemasters took the reigns they've shied away from the 'Sim' tag. But the fact remains that compared to many contemporary FPSs, this is as authentic as booking the next flight to Kandahar.
Of course, as Atomic Games discovered with Six Days in Fallujah, setting your game in the midst of an actual real-life battle is not the best of ideas. Families of fallen soldiers don't take especially kindly to it. So Red River takes place in a near-future Tajikistan, in a battle that draws on actual events but creates enough of a distance to keep it in controversy-free territory.
You are a U.S. Marine soldier, caught between Tajik insurgents and the PLA, China's huge army, who have been stirred into action by the uncomfortably close presence of U.S. Forces on their border. Led by Staff Segeant Knox, you and the rest of your fireteam must make survive throughout an escalating battle where just one bullet can spell game over.
There's a certain amount of mental rewiring involved with enjoying Red River. It would seem the habits formed by playing as a series of gung-ho one-men-armies die hard. It's often a slow-paced, methodical affair where not only are there long periods of inactivity, but when skirmishes do break out you may not be the one to deliver the Hollywood-easque final shot.
What that means in practical terms is that a lot of your time is spent trudging long distances from waypoint to waypoint or sat in the back of a jeep with only the (frankly stunning) Tajiki mountain ranges and the foul and abusive (but he still loves you) Sgt. Knox to keep you interested. Even the self-healing ability you are granted takes a significant amount of time to work. Everything about the game seems designed to get you to slow the hell down.
That's not to say that when the firefights are boring. They're often thrilling. The tension and drama during the second chapter, where you're desperately attempting to hold the line against a PLA attack, only to be pushed back by the sheer weight of their numbers isn't drama made from a rousing score or any kind of crash-bang bombast. It's exciting because it genuinely desperate scramble to survive. But the game itself is undeniably more tempered than you may be used to.
Combat largely takes place at at range, with you picking off tiny specks in the distance. To be honest, without the radar and the ever-so-handy auto-aim (which doesn't really sit well with the realism of the game), it would be difficult to identify enemy positions at all. The constant shouts of your teammates - '250 meters, North!' - help too. Though you'll become increasingly frustrated with their repeated yelps of useless things like, 'we're being shot at!'
But maybe that's a deliberate move. Maybe these soldiers are just incredibly stupid, because their words fit perfectly well with their actions. Thanks to some wonky AI, your teammates aren't the brightest bunch. Occasionally running around in meaningless circles, often strolling carelessly into your line of fire and generally being a bit of a pain, it's safe to say that Red River is best experienced with friends in co-op than on your own.
Thankfully, this is a joy. Red River allows you to play with up to three friends across four loadouts Rifleman, Scout, Auto Rifleman and Grenadier. You can unlock perks, weapons and abilities as you go too. There's not a vast amount of customisation on offer, but it's enough to give you a decent sense of progression.
Sweetening the co-op deal is the presence of eight Fireteam missions. There are four different flavours: Last Stand is all about Horde-esque wave killing, Rolling Thunder is a convoy escort mission, Combat Search and Rescue tasks you with rescuing survivors from behind enemy lines and Combat Sweep has you clearing out enemy encampments. Adding some value to a sizeable, ten chapter campaign, these modes are a welcome addition.
Ultimately, you have to admire Red River for at least attempting something with such a unique sense of character. It's not perfect. It starts off slowly and the aforementioned AI issues are a genuine problem. There's a large amount of texture pop-in and the game occasionally struggles with the huge draw distances on offer too (though perhaps that's just our review copy). But it's nevertheless an engaging experience, one that stands alone from a sea of CoD-alikes. For this it must be praised.