Dying over and over and over. That’s what Operation Flashpoint: Cold War Crisis was really about. Dying a lot until you stopped just playing, and started thinking. My experience with its sequel, the upcoming Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising really has captured this unflinching, unremitting approach to warfare. But unlike its predecessor, the key difference is you won’t be losing your head to a sniper while you navigate a mass of obtuse menus. OFP has learned to streamline.
The first thing that really struck me having got my hands on the game is just how few controls there are. Orders are all given through a radial menu, selected by hitting ‘Q’, and selecting tactical options and orders with your movement navigation keys. It’s not that there’s few enough potential orders to allow this; they’ve just managed to condense them all through a combination of easily accessible sub-menus and context sensitive commands. It takes a bit of getting used to, but unlike the original, you’ll be giving orders in the middle of a firefight after reassuringly little practice. It’s perhaps best compared to Gearbox’s Brothers In Arms and it’s carefully streamlined and context sensitive control scheme, only far more expanded in depth of options available; which is essential given the size of the environments, and the nature of combat in this thoroughly more realism conscious take on squad based warfare. Player control is similarly reduced to a minimum of fuss (though I would say the lack of “lean” keys is a criminal offense), perhaps best compared to the way Far Cry 2 managed to attribute most interactive elements to a single ‘use’ key. Yet despite this minimalistic reduction of the original’s extensive and labyrinthine keyboard clusterfuck, you never feel you’re being hamstrung for tactical options. It seems to be very careful at ensuring the right orders are available right when you need them.
Which is especially important given just how unforgiving OFP is in combat. Become caught out in the open and you will go down in a hailstorm of Chinese gunfire, as will your team mates. If you’re lucky you’ll receive a minor wound that can be bandaged up, or tended to by your medic. Take a full burst of QBZ-95 through your chest up to your head and you’ll be stopped cold as happened to my unfortunate support gunner while assaulting just three artillery spotters in one mission. Which is why the order system is so important. You need to be able to quickly react as circumstances change, which the radial menu really does help to achieve. Even the first 2 enemies you encounter in the first mission can be tenacious opponents if you approach from the wrong angles despite outnumbering and outgunning them.
The two missions I’ve had chance to play demonstrate a definite reverence to the first game’s “cog in the machine” philosophy. The first, a special ops mission, has you tasked with taking out special targets in preparation for the approaching invasion, and while you’re clearly the primary operators, you are so in (and with) support of other elements, defending landing zones for friendly helicopters, and assisting the assault of a village. The second (certainly the superior of the two) increases the scale further, putting you in control of a squad taking part in the amphibious operation, protecting assisting AAVs from anti-armour infantry, while relying on their heavier armaments and armour to distract enemies from pointing their guns at you. Friendly helicopters too fly in support, and smoke is used to cover the whole force’s approach. By no means do you feel like the world revolves around you and your squad. Excellently, the game remains unforgiving at all times with regards friendly forces. Fail to take out spotters using mortars against your AAVs and you just have to continue the slog without them; and trust me, you’ll be wanting their heavier guns when it comes to the crunch.
Is it realistic? The average non-military gamer will almost certainly feel it is. It’s certainly more realistic than most other games on the market you would care to mention. I’m not a military man myself (on the contrary, one of these infernal pacifists) so can’t make any definite judgments. I did see some odd trespasses against the laws of physics, such as my support gunner regularly erupting into full auto firing mid-sprint, though I believe this is more likely than not something to be tweaked in the time between now and release. Red barrels of death do unfortunately feature, and the first guy who mods them out will gain my infinite gratitude along with most fans of OFP1. Regarding vehicles I can’t say much, since they didn’t feature in any significant degree under player control. I can say for certain that this is no run and gun shooter. Call of Duty kiddies and their kin will find themselves grandiosely outmatched by anyone with any sort of real tactical nous in OFP:DR. With environments and engagement ranges longer than most other titles out there, the feel is significantly different when planning assault approaches. Your squad’s AI will do some of the work – they know how to move tactically when you tell them to assault a position, but it’s up to you to pick a wise angle of approach. Blindly bouncing from objective to objective will get you killed again and again. It’s a satisfyingly difficult game that makes you think about the lie of the terrain, firing angles and potential hazards brilliantly.
Ultimately, I think OFP:DR is set to capture much of what made OFP1 great; extended engagement ranges, brutally efficient AI and grand scope all feature. The feel is ultimately a bit different, even if it’s through the use of a totally different engine. I dare say some fans of the original will actually genuinely dislike the keyboard liposuction that will ultimately make it more accessible to the mainstream gaming world, and they’re bound to find realism inconsistencies that can’t be abided by – though such is the nature of a sequel by a new developer. It’s certainly shaping up nicely, and seems to be very well optimized, running beautifully in its current state. The litmus test commences October 6th (US)/9th (EU).