Sometimes when the whole world seems to be going one way, it’s fun to step out of line, turn around, and head straight back the other way. In the crowded FPS genre, Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising (the long awaited sequel to 2001’s Operation Flashpoint: Cold War Crisis) does its best to do just that. With the gaming community reaching a fever pitch for the impending launch of Modern Warfare 2, Op Flash dares to replace your run and gun with crouch and crawl. It files in as a realistic simulation of war, giving you complete freedom over where and how you approach your objectives instead of funneling you from one scripted event to another. While this approach makes the game considerably less “cinematic” than its blockbuster competition, it does fill a niche that is rarely serviced on the console market. Because of its differences, Op Flash was never going to set the sales world on fire. What it did have was the potential to shake up the somewhat stagnant console FPS market in a good way. While some technical issues and unforgiving controls prevent the game from fulfilling its true potential, Codemasters has managed to create an engaging tactical shooter that will please its fans provided they know what they’re getting into.
The storyline of OF:DR revolves around the fictional island of Skira. The oil rich island has been hotly contested over the years by the Chinese, Japanese, and eventually the Russians. Before the opening of the game the economically strapped Chinese invade the island, claiming it as their historical right. With tensions high in the region, and Chinese forces encroaching on the Russian border, the Russians request help from the United States. That’s where you come in.
As the leader of a four man squad of Marines, your mission is to liberate the island from the Chinese forces by accomplishing various objectives. The open world nature of the game ensures that you’ll be able to do this just about any way you could want. You can approach objectives in any order, and can navigate to waypoints from any direction. This adds a tremendous amount of freedom to the experience, and exponentially increases your tactical options. Granted, this freedom will come with a price for players weaned on standard shooters. The benefit of most modern shooters is that because they are mostly heavily linear, they can purposely funnel the player into interesting situations and scripted events. Flashpoint’s freedom forces players to create their own drama, which may leave some gamers wanting more in the exposition department. Fortunately for gamers willing to forge their own path in a game like this, there’s plenty of drama to be found in the games unique gameplay.
OP:DR takes its realism to heart, and if you try and run and gun your way through the game you’ll be cut down quickly. The guns and bullets in the game perform like their real life counterparts, which means you’ll need to adjust for bullet trajectory when firing up or down hill or from longer distances. You’ll also need to make sure you’re taking good shots rather than mindlessly spraying bullets into a group of enemies. There are occasional ammo drops to be found during your missions, but even still if you aren’t judicious with your ammunition you’ll quickly find yourself surrounded by enemies with nothing but an empty click from your rifle.
On the defensive side, you’ll want to make good use of the aforementioned freedom of movement to flank and cautiously approach your opposition. Computer controlled enemies are very smart, and they’ll not only use those same tactics against you but punish your mistakes sharply. Even on Normal difficulty, one or two hits can end your life, and even a shot to the arm can cause you to bleed out if you don’t address it quickly. Complicating this is the fact that enemies can generally seem to see you much quicker than you can see them. The game uses a very drab color scheme, and with little contrast between your enemies and the environment you’ll often have difficulty spotting where exactly the firing is coming from at first. On normal difficulty you will get a radar to show you where the enemies are, but even once their location is pointed out its still sometimes difficult to pick out and aim at enemies from a distance.
Luckily, you’re not alone in your attempts. You’re tasked with leading 3 other Marines via a squad control mechanic. There are several ways to go about issuing commands to your fellow soldiers, you can order them to specific areas via the map screen or you can command them via a quick command radial menu. Accessed by pressing the RB or R1 button (on Xbox 360 or PS3 respectively), the quick command menu allows you to issue on the fly orders to your squad ranging from formations and movement commands to firing orders. The quick command radial also allows you to call in artillery strikes when they are available.
Unfortunately some nagging AI and design issues prevent this system from working as well as it needs to in a difficult tactical game like this one. The AI of your teammates ranges from quite good in certain situations to nearly idiotic at times. You cannot give your AI teammates specific cover instructions, so occasionally you’ll order your squad mates into an area and instead of neatly falling into cover they stand wide open and get their face shot off. The radial menu is clunky and difficult to use as quickly as is necessary in a game as tense as this. In fact besides the solid shooting and movement controls, nearly every other function makes it obvious why this style of game hasn’t made the smoothest transition from PC to consoles. Even something as simple as switching your ammo type or selecting your field dressing is a clumsy affair with the controller.
Luckily, the game offers a full Co-op mode which allows you to bypass any of the questionable AI by replacing it with the questionable decision making of your close friends. Co-op is immensely more entertaining than the standard single player game, and shouting commands and warnings to your fellow players while you battle against the intelligent enemies is intense and incredibly satisfying. This fantastic Co-op integration dramatically increases the quality of OP:DR and should keep you and your likeminded friends plugging away for hours. The game also features two modes of competitive multiplayer, a standard deathmatch style mode called Annihalation, and a attack/defend style mode called Infiltration. While these modes are both fun, they don’t offer the same appeal as the co-op gameplay.
Console owners don’t really have much in the way of choices when it comes to realistic tactical shooters. Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising does a great job of filling this niche, despite its flaws. If you’re a fan of this style and you can find 3 other players, you’ll have a blast liberating Skira Island via the fantastic Co-op mode. Even if you plan on going it alone though there’s still a lot of fun to be had here. The freedom present means that no two missions will play out the same and the tense difficulty will challenge you to constantly improve your tactics. Just make sure you come in with the right expectations, because run and gunners need not apply.