Just what was Operation Flashpoint’s chief achievement? I suspect, everyone has a different answer. Was it the fact that every shot fired conformed to physical principles? Was it the careful attention to detail in bringing countless real world killing machines to the table? The vast engagement ranges? The flexibility of the editor? The challenging AI? The way it achieved that “cog in the machine” type mission structure and narrative? How about the awesome multiplayer, both cooperative and competitive? I can say for certain, Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising manages to capture every single one of these aspects. But nagging at the back of mind is the question: Does it actually do any of these things really well enough?
It’s probably worth emphasizing this one. I genuinely think OFP:DR is the most realistic FPS that’s not ArmA II. The explosions are bangy, bullets crackle around you like you’ve eaten a bucket of popping candy and virtual men maneuver around you in a frighteningly intelligent manner – for the most part when it’s functioning- spitting down covering fire while their chums move in to ventilate your fleshy corpus. I love the way bullets kick up dirt and grass up all around you, and it all feels very visceral and exciting in a more realistic fashion than most other games out there. Particular attention should go to audio aspects. Environmental sounds are particularly impressive, while scripted radio chatter generally does the part. It does these basic things which bring modern warfare onto your monitor very, very well. It certainly feels like something approximating to combat without resorting to the cinematic gimmicks that dominate most military themed FPSs. An exception to this might be a personal one, but I’m really not impressed with the weapons. I’d been playing a lot of the excellent Source mod Insurgency in the week before OFP:DR‘s release, and going from INS, replete with loud, meaty effects, visibly violent firing animations and high recoil. OFP:DR felt limp in comparison.
If you read my preview of OFP:DR a few months back, you’d remember I particularly extolled the excellent radial tactical interface. I’m still very impressed with it, and consolidating a huge array of orders into a very simple to use system (simply hit ‘Q’ and navigate to the order types you want to execute) is very effective, and once mastered becomes a joy to use. This became particularly apparent in the second mission of the game. Through careful application of my squad’s firepower, I managed to execute rapid invasive assaults on enemy equipment with a minimum of time engaged, completing the objectives one after the other without letting up the pace. Cool. Calm. Aggressive. Ergo I am genuinely impressed with the way it handles Fire Team level tactics. This is also particularly thanks to the level of intelligence basic squad members seem to have, and they fully understand basic military maneuvers such as bounding overwatch and room clearances – playing coop a few nights ago, 3 of us were spectacularly wiped out by AI performing this one.
Codies’ flair for making the famously fiddly Flashpoint a more accessible affair certainly expands to vehicular affairs. Tanks, APCs and other such land based machines show their ego engine heritage and handle far better than the slightly bizarre beasts daddy offered. I would highlight that the lack of free look does make situational awareness frustratingly poor. This isn’t so much of an issue in the armoured beasts, since that’s actually quite accurate. In jeeps/humvees it’s incredibly frustrating, and given their light armour, you want to be able to keep an eye on the horizon far more than the game allows for. It’s even more essential in helicopters, though these are otherwise improved. A joystick/pad were pretty essential purchases if you wanted to make the most of helicopters in the original, but mouse/keyboard is easily enough to keep them going in a straight line in OFP:DR. If you can handle the heli’s in Battlefield 2 you’ll probably be right at home here, though the more realistic nature of the weapon systems means you wont be quite the same menace in the sky if you’re not careful. And Chinese tank commanders are worryingly efficient at picking you out of the sky, too.
With all this working admittedly quite nicely, you’re probably wondering where the negative tone is coming from. Lets get rid of the basic grievances first, quick fire. Hardcore’s lack of interface is just frustratingly shit, not hard. Going down to Experienced gives you psychic sight. Inexplicably, you can often hit (and get hit by) enemies to no discernible effect despite blood. Spectator mode when online is nauseating. An iron site toggle key would be lovely. Who the hell set voice chat to F5 and fire support missions to right shift? Where the flying fuck is lean?! Those all irritate, but let’s forget about them, since they’re not game breakers.
The real flaw at the heart of OFP:DR is technical. With a limit of 64 AI entities running around and shooting each other at any one time, it is very, very difficult for the game to really open out, and design decisions within the campaign missions are reflected by this. First off, it means most of the game has been designed around Fire Team level combat. Not only is this horribly unrealistic (the basic level of tactical control in the Marines is the 13 man squad, with 4 man fire teams acting as flexible arms within it) but the scale of combat is dramatically reduced. It’s particularly laughable in the 3rd mission, where 3 AAVPs are being escorted by 3 fire teams – when a single AAVP is meant to operate with one squad. If that was the scale the game was going by though, we’d have 42 of the 64 AI slots used up with one side alone. The worst thing is, having prodded around the editor, squad level (hell, 50 man+ platoon level) control is a possibility (and it’s quite fun at that). It’s just not used because it’s not practical given technical constraints, and that you’d never be pitching equal sides against each other. Even doubling the entity max to 128 would have made things thoroughly more involving. But perhaps our console cousin don’t boast powerful enough systems for that eh? I would say, that given the excellence of Fire Team level AI, and otherwise fluid, intuitive game mechanics, OFP:DR thus does give a genuinely enjoyable Spec Ops level simulation. But OFP was more than that, and thus combined arms operations pale in comparison with those in the original game. I really cannot understate how much I feel this curtails from the experience.
If this technical deficiency takes away from the experience, especially re-playability, I’m too worried about the state of online play. First off, the infrastructure just isn’t there. OFP:DR gives you a console type browser system, making for finding a decent server painful at best. Codies are allegedly working on improving it, but everything in this regard seems far too basic for matters to improve significantly. It’s slow, fiddly, and doesn’t give either players or admins enough control over what’s going on. The technical difficulties with the online component has resulted in our needing to use Hamachi/LAN to get a decent game of coop going. Which is further more irritating, because coop really is where the game shines. We’ve had a lot of fun with coop, it has to be said. As good as the tactical AI is, it’s got nothing on the unpredictable nature of human intelligence. Even if that includes accidentally firing at your mate in the leg, also alerting the enemy to your presence. But the scale issues again worry me in the long term scheme of things. The capability for players to control their own Fire Teams in coop is there, and I think once player made maps that start exploiting this start to come out, good times are a’ comin’, but it’ll still come down to scale. And the coop will still be 4 player max, which is disappointing to say the least. In this regard, it’s got nothing on OFP.
I’m not impressed with the plot either. Stylishly presented it maybe, but it doesn’t really strike me as plausible nor really that inspiring. Sorry Codies, but the reason OFP worked was because the Cold War could have gone hot. Chances of conflict with China in 2010 are slim at the very most. I’d argue that conflict with China by 2050 is unlikely, let alone within the time frame OFP:DR gives. Once it gets underway, nothing particularly inspiring happens, either. The Marines, arrive, kick down the door, a chopper hits the deck for your single fire team to disappear and go down the rabbit hole to find, and it all seems a bit tired. The weight of the world isn’t there. It never feels like the world could erupt into fiery nuclear death if you fudge it. Handily having the civilian population evacuated means there’s both no gameplay linked in with this, and makes the isle of Skira little more than a set of hills and forests to duke it out over. The result is rather little more just being given two armies, a plot of land to squabble over, and a logical progression over the island to grind through. I honestly couldn’t give a shit about the overall scheme of the campaign.
But I suppose, at the end of the day, OFP:DR does work. It’s functional. The basic mechanics, regardless of a few controls I wish were in it (lean, Codies, give me lean), are solid. So long as you use Hamachi, you can have a good laugh with mates on coop. It’s a lot of fun. But, lets go back to the 2 questions I asked at the start. What was OFPs chief achievement? That’s clear. It gave you a war, and numerous small parts to play in it, on a scale no other FPS could accomplish. Does OFP:DR capture this? No. I find myself repeatedly disappointed, I have to be honest. This does not mean I wont perhaps enjoy going back to it. I certainly intend to play the rest of the campaign in coop, and I will be looking out for more missions made by the community – but given its limitations, will the community even bother? Hard to say. If Codies keep up the support, and the community interested, then OFP:DR has a future. They’ve got to sort and expand the online functionality. They should at least double the entity limit. There’s a solid game in here. It’s just not got enough long term prospects at the moment. The only way I can recommend this is if you have 3 mates to play it with coop, in which case you will have fun with it. Otherwise, it’s a Miss.
Fuck! OFP2. Is Down.
Running on a Phenom II 945 @3gz, 4gb RAM, Radeon 4870 512mb ed. Runs fine on maximum, resolution: 1600×1050, with x4 anti-aliasing. No crashes. Alt-tabbing frustrating. No Steam interface. Fucking atrocious online connectivity.
I’ll have an ArmA II, OFP:DR comparison piece up sometime next week.