Operation Flashpoint 2: Red River
Review Hightailing it across the vast, open countryside in the middle of the night. Fighting a desperate rearguard action against an indomitable force. Squinting through the claustrophobic green murk of nightvision for enemies hidden among trees and rocky outcrops.
Fearing the lethality of their bullets and the scarcity of your own. Faced with constant dilemmas to engage or retreat, to scour for ammo or make do with dwindling supplies, to turn back and heal a fallen comrade or push on and safeguard the rest of your squad.
Moments like these separate the Operation Flashpoint series from the Rambo bravado of Call of Duty and Battlefield. You're not a one-man killing machine cutting a swathe through the enemy here; you're just a squad leader trying to swing the tide of battle and avoid flying home in the cargo hold draped in the Stars and Stripes.
The sequel to 2009's Dragon Rising, Operation Flashpoint 2: Red River moves the near-future fiction onto the arid planes and snow-capped mountains of Tajikistan, where an Islamist insurgency serves as the pretext for another flashpoint between US Marines and China's People's Liberation Army.
Told through ribaldry and the constant, profane musings of Sergeant Damien Knox – voiced by Al Mathews (Apone from Aliens) – Red River's narrative might offend some with its liberal jingoism, misogyny and racism, but it's probably tame compared to the reality of jarheads in combat.
Notwithstanding its puerile narrative, Red River presents a more cerebral approximation of conflict than most other games. The campaign's ten hour-long missions are broken up into enclosed engagements, interposed with hikes across huge terrains and lengthy transports in troop helicopters and open-top Humvees.
Red sky at night, sniper's delight
Firefights often take place at considerable range, but are nonetheless deadly. Just a few bullets can kill, and you can bleed out from minor wounds if left untreated. But while single bullets can kill enemies, it takes many more to find your mark, with red-dot sights and magnified scopes offering a more authentic guide to bullet trajectories than the lethal cursors of the blockbuster FPSs.
Once again, gameplay is divided between standard FPS gunplay and tactical command of your four-man fireteam, which consists of a Rifleman, Scout, Grenadier, and the LMG-toting Automatic Rifleman. Your squad isn't just there to make up the numbers, though.
Red River's AI might be erratic at times, with enemies occasionally facing the wrong way or standing motionless in the middle of a road, but you'll need precise co-ordination of your squad to combat an enemy that generally uses cover and flanking well, and often ambushes you from the most unexpected places.
Instructions are issued through an intuitive context-sensitive radial menu, where, among other commands, you can order offensive and defensive manœuvres, radio for air support, and even call for a medic when injured. While the system works well to prompt specific actions, your fireteam's AI proves less convincing. Squad members fail to fulfil their individual specialisations – the Scout's dire sniping accuracy the most apparent failing.
Discipline too, is a constant problem, with your fireteam often crouching the wrong side of cover, or stepping across your firing line. Worse still, healing constantly restless squad members, at best, leads to comical chases around cover and, at worst, to suicidal pursuits across open ground.
While a single-player play-through proves enjoyable despite the technical flaws, Red River's campaign is transformed by four-player on-line co-op. The increased discipline and accuracy of human squad mates brings out the best of the tactical mechanics. It makes completion of the game's Hardcore mode a distinct possibility, despite a complete lack of checkpoints or visual cues, such as the compass and ammo cache locations.
Keeping the focus clearly on teamwork, Red River has no competitive modes. Instead, Fireteam Engagements offers a collection of four co-op combat scenarios with highscoring and global leaderboards. Essentially campaign vignettes, they concentrate on specific gameplay elements, the best of which appear in the Last Stand and Csar scenarios.
In Last Stand you defend a fortified position against multiple waves of enemies, with the novel twist that you can bug out at any time and safeguard your score by calling in an evac helicopter. Whereas in Csar, you're tasked with a Black Hawk Down-style rescue mission to locate and extract a downed helicopter crew from deep behind enemy lines.
Fireteam Engagements work well to extend Red River's gameplay, but without competitive deathmatches, and with just two maps per scenario at present, it's only going to extend the experience by around four or five hours.
Red River's slow pace and strategic focus won't be to everyone's liking, especially console players accustomed to the high-tempo run-and-gun mechanics of Call of Duty and Battlefield. But overlook its flaws and lack of big-budget polish, and you'll find a enjoyable challenge in Codemaster's distinctive take on war. ®
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