After an hour spent waiting around in belly of London’s only Tajik restaurant, a fifteen minute presentation on Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising’s refinement into Red River and a testosterone-powered 5 minute briefing video, I’m pumped hard and tight like a bicycle tire. Soldiers! Camaraderie! Death! All under an untrustworthy and powerfully foreign Eurasian sky. What followed was painful and awesome in equal measure, and you can read it below.
Where Dragon Rising seemed uncertain about precisely what it wanted to provide, Red River is a confident creature. It’s forte is co-op. As well as a campaign centering around a four man fireteam, its multiplayer extends to four kinds of co-op missions.
Fire Fight tasks you with sweeping into an area, killing the insurgents present and bugging out. Last Stand has you killing increasingly large waves of insurgents before “banking” your score by calling for extraction and bugging out. In Rolling Thunder you escort a Generation Kill-style convoy of humvees and trucks through a dangerous landscape just crawling with people who want to kill you (but you want to kill them too), and in Combat Search and Rescue you rescue downed pilots lying in the middle of a whole mess of people who want to kill you (and killing these people is recommended). You got that? Ooh-rah! This would be a manly bit of fun, I thought to myself.
So you can imagine my dismay when I was ushered into a room containing my fireteam for the day and saw, in no particular order, a lady journalist who was already commenting about how shit she was going to be while giggling with the tempo and intensity of a tumble drier, a geeky guy next to her who couldn’t decide whether to agree or laugh at everything she said and most often expelled a mutant hybrid of both, and an empty chair. We’d be rockin’ our first mission with a team of three. Ooh... rah.
Whatever! Screw those losers. I would at least prove myself as the most competent of the team. Doing my best to fade out the exact words of the girl’s stream-of-consciousness commentary so it simply sounded like a parrot belting out an unknown national anthem, I send my character sprinting down a hill to take cover behind some sandbags. What were we playing? Last Stand? Right. No problem. Now, if I could just figure out the precise controls...
My character lowers his rifle, and a grenade pops back into view. Ah! Right. That’s how you select grenades. Now, how do I get back to my gun-
I press something that causes my character to pull the pin on the grenade and lift it overhead. This is not- no, this is not ideal. How do I throw it? Is he cooking it, or holding the pin in? What’s-
Silence falls across Fireteam Disabled. I’m left staring at the various parts of my character’s sundered body. My flak jacket has kept my torso in one piece, but everything else has been detached from it. I consider calling for a medic.
“OH MY GOD,” comes the feminine blare from the other side of the room. “DID SOME IDIOT JUST BLOW THEMSELVES UP?”
A little while and a few slightly more successful respawns later, and I take a break to talk to Sion Lenton, the Creative Director on Red River. I decide to start with the obvious- how do the team feel about Dragon Rising in the light of an underwhelmed critical reception?
“The one word I’d use to sum up Dragon Rising is ‘ambitious’,” says Sion. “In hindsight, we probably tried to be too much to too many people. There’s obviously a rich heritage of hardcore PC gaming in Flashpoint, and we tried to cater for that and make a console game, and personally? I don’t think you can do it. But from a business point of view, we had to get the game on consoles.
“We went back to the drawing board for Red River, both technically and philosophically... The word I’d use for Red River is ‘focused’. We had an idea, and I’m thrilled to say that we’ve gone from Dragon Rising to realising that idea in just under 14 months, and that’s a very rare things in games development.
“The three areas that we really wanted to sort out are accessibility, co-op, and visuals. Accessibility- what do we mean by that? We don’t mean dumbing it down. It’s still the same game under there, and one shot still kills, but what we’re doing is giving the player more tools to help them out- things like help text and aim assist. But obviously we’re still giving the player the option to turn all that off.”
The impression I’ve been getting all morning is that Red River is far more focused on simply having fun than even Dragon Rising was. Yet it strikes me that the original Operation Flashpoint was the definitive “not-fun” game.
“I’m glad you said that, and not me. Simulations aren’t about fun- they’re about immersion and providing an exact experience. But when I play games I like them to be fun. So we’ve been throwing buckets of fun into this game. Things like getting Sgt. Apone from Aliens to do the mission briefings. Points and scores- unheard of in the old military sims! ‘Simulation’ is almost a dirty word in the studio now. Authenticity, that’s fine. But realism, that’s another thing. Realism is facts without the fun, and authenticity is fun with the facts. That’s my take on it... at the end of the day, we’re in this business to make a AAA commercial tactical shooter. That’s what we’re doing.”
And what defines a tactical shooter, exactly?
“It means thinking. You know, I see people playing CoD [Call of Duty], and I don’t really see them thinking. I see them reacting. The thing about Flashpoint is it’s not about how quick you are, but about how smart you are... that’s where the co-op comes in. You need to talk to each other to succeed in the game.
“It’s about working as a team. And it’s also about working with those four fireteam classes. I describe them as magic user, fighter, dwarf and elf, because that’s how different I wanted them to be. The grenadier, for instance, is my favourite. I like the MP5 and I like the grenade launcher. I like the physics of it- I love watching people go bouncing up into the air.”
The joy of watching people go bouncing into the air, eh? Do you feel Red River’s identity might have gotten a bit tangled up in the name of Operation Flashpoint, at some point? Do you feel it’s a little misleading?
“I don’t at all. I’m proud to have that name, that brand, and it’s got a great heritage. But it’s Codemasters’ IP, it’s our franchise, and it’s ours to do with what we will, and we want to blow it wide open. I don’t see any reason why we couldn’t make an Operation Flashpoint RTS game.
“The way we look at it from a brand point of view is that we have what we call the core DNA of Flashpoint, which is things like authenticity, global superpowers, tanks and choppers- we’re not CoD, you know? We have more open levels, we give the player choices- that’s the core DNA of Flashpoint. I hate using the word reboot, but it’s kind of what we did from Colin McRae to DIRT, or from ToCA Race Driver to GRID. You’ve got to try something new. I can’t stand stagnation. You’ve got to just keep changing stuff.
“You know, if people want to say ‘Ohh... but... bring back Flashpoint’, I’ll tell you- there are other games out there, made by the original developer, that do it! It’s like- play that game! No-one’s putting a gun to your head and making you play this game. Knock yourselves out!”
After my interview I'm assigned to an entirely different group of gamers. Pros, this time- fans of Dragon Rising plucked from Codemasters' forums. It is, predictably, a world apart from playing with people new to the game, and everything Codemasters are shooting for becomes clear.
Red River's still a lighter game than the original Flashpoint or Arma II, with a forgiving healing mechanic, closer range firefights and less nerve-wrackingly dangerous AI, but there's still all the room in the world for you and your friends to play soldier, and with Red River Codemasters are refining that into something more structured and much prettier, wiith a more entertaining and personality-driven single player campaign.
The vets and I are playing a game of Rolling Thunder, the four of us having bundled into a single one of the convoy's armed humvees. The attention to detail in its interior is awesomely immersive, and outside the window Tajikistan's lunar landscape leering at us from out of the window. We've been silent for some 20 seconds when the blast from an RPG erupts just next to the lead convoy vehicle, leaving it momentarily balanced on two wheels. With... not quite precision, exactly, but certainly enthusiasm, the four of us go flying out of our humvee and begin fanning out across the landscape, dropping to one knee or going prone behind houses, in ditches or in thick patches of grass. "I've got a visual," calls our rifleman. A beat passes, followed by the faint pop of a rifle. "He's down," calls our scout.
The next half an hour passed in a haze of excitement and vague interpretations of military tactics ("I'll cover you!" "Flanking them!"), climaxing perfectly with us calling in the chopper at the end of a brilliant run of a Fire Fight map, only for one of our number to be crushed like a paper bag when the extraction helicopter landed on top of him. And it wasn't even me.
All told, I had a great time. Red River might not appease anybody upset with the direction Codemasters are taking Flashpoint, but it certainly seems like a much more competent product, ready and able to tap into some of the ennui surrounding Call of Duty. When this game lands at the end of April, I'll be very keen to take a closer look.