Jim and Alec have been dipping their toes in the Red River. This second Operation Flashpoint from Codemasters' internal studio once again returns to sprawling landscapes and manshooter action, but this time seems a little more refined. That said, critical responses to the game once again seem negative. Is that justified? Or is there some value in this desert manshoot? Read on for manshoot eludication.
Alec: So Red River is the second game in Codemaster's ongoing attempt to reboot Operation Flashpoint, a game whose soul remains in the possession of original devs Bohemia Interactive's ArmA, but whose name stayed with the publisher. It's a modern combat shooter set in a place which sounds like Afghanistan but isn't. How much have we both played?
Jim: A tutorial mission and an hour or two of co-op for me, so not much, but I also played the previous game pretty extensively.
Alec: I've played most of the campaign, a few hours of co-op and most of the bonus Fireteam missions. Let's concentrate on the co-op we played together. Did you feel like a soldier, or a superman?
Jim: I felt more like a paintballer with a sniper-paintgun, perhaps. It lacks the bombast of our manshooter mainstream, while also lacking the army-feel enormity of the ArmA games. That said, it's a pretty awesome paintballing session, in some fantastic scenery.
Alec: Yes, it starts off forgettably deserty but swiftly grows to include pretty spectacular mountain ranges and stuff like water cascading down a giant dam. But it's very hard to place as an action game. It's sat on the fence between CoD and Flashpoint actual, which means you get stuff like involving intense firefights where you have to be super careful but feel like a hero if you make it, followed by ludicrous long runs where nothing happens. I can't make my mind up if it would have been better off leaning towards Flashpoint or to COD. There's actually room for a COD game that isn't totally silly theme, and there's room for a Flashpoint that average humans can play.
Jim: I think I said this as we romped across some big beige hillside, but my feeling is that these are the continuation of the Delta Force games. So they are neither CoD, nor Flashpoint, but a kind of super-shooting gallery in big terrains - just as the old voxel-based Delta Force games were. It has pretensions towards realism and detail of Real War, but actually it's pretty light, and more about just being able to gun people down from far away. That's no bad thing, I think, but it does feel sort of old and under-developed in these times of high-bluster.
Alec: It's more about the soldier fantasy than the soldier actuality, but in an opposite way to COD.
Jim: Yes, absolutely.
Alec: Its fantasy is that of brotherhood rather than lone hero - a bunch of guys toughing it out together
Jim: More running long distances, more worrying about rangers and ammo, but no real simulation.
Alec: Hence the long jeep rides staring at the floor together while nothing happens apart from your sergeant ranting away how inept you all are but secretly he loves you or whatever.
Jim: Well that's where it differs from the old Novalogic catalogue, it lays on the Men Shouting About War stuff pretty thick. I mean I only saw a fragment, but does that last for the whole game?
Alec: Oh, there's a lot of shouting. It thinks it's Aliens, basically, hence the dude who did Apone voicing the sergeant.
Jim: I think some Codemasters PR type actually said in one of the press releases that they thought it might be the sweariest game of all time. Just in terms of pure weight of profanities.
Alec: I dug it for a while, as there was personality and invention, not the bland, po-faced heromen, but it just got incredibly boring. Like a lottery machine that randomly rolled body part + action and made a man say the appropriate phrase angrily. It didn't strike me as obscene, it just harked on too much. What's a shame is that stuff is concentrated into a guy that you don't actually interact with - your squadmates are all but mutes, other than robo-barks about what they've seen or killed. It could have stood to be more of a Brothers In Arms thing, where you give a hoot about the three guys you're ordering around.
Jim: So it's just Apone monologuing the whole game?
Alec: There are other guys in the mix, but he's the lead. But there's sense in that, given the other guys in the squad are ideally controlled by humans
Jim: "We've got Apone from Aliens! Give him all the words - and make it sweary!"
Alec: Forcing a character on them might be really irritating for whoever's inside those pixel-skulls. But, yeah, there is a sort of fanboy feel to that guy.
Jim: Right, of course, that does make sense. Because, as seems to be becoming prevalent in games right now, the co-op is the best bit. Or, at least, is they way its optimal for fun times.
Alec: Yeah, a decent human partner fills in all the missing personality, the nerviness, the cockiness, the desperation. But it's a dangerous way to market a game, and of course everyone's going to initially experience it solo and think "what the hell's this boring shit?", understandably not realising the brotherhood fantasy element that's only truly there in co-op.
Jim: But it lives or dies on the shooting, doesn't it?
Alec: Well, it's more about the pace and flow, how you feel about and outside of the shooting, and that's where it labours for me.
Jim: And the shooting is just “acceptable”, I felt. Paintball. Again with the Delta Force parity.
Alec: Yes, it's fairly popgun. The enemies get smarter later in the game, when China invades. Because what would a modern combat game these days be without a ludicrous fictional conflict with another superpower?
Jim: Excitements! It does seem like it's significantly better than the previous game.
Alec: The PLA guys are bit less like a brainless horde charging down the hill like Serious Sam bads, but it's hardly a world away from the insurgents. (I didn't play the original, but it has its fans.) I've read a lot of criticism of the friendly AI in this one, but I didn't suffer with it too much. If I was lazy or thoughtless they'd be useless, but by and large the NPCs were effective if I pointed them to clever places.
Jim: Well I think I prefer the setting of the original - I am not a fan of running about in deserts. But there was so much crappy design in the missions. This seemed to flow and function, even if it was totally scripted.
Alec: The missions are very samey despite changing backdrops, which possibly speaks to my spoilt action gamer nature but when a game's that gung ho I felt it needed to go further with it. Drop something a bit more ludicrous in there occasionally. I'm fine with it. It's the kind of thing I'm very glad exists, especially as a counter-point to the repulsiveness of COD, but it feels like it needs to be a STALKER or ARMA thing, not in terms of hardcoriness but in terms of being a passion project years in gestation, not a regular franchise trying to piggy back on current trends.
Jim: I feel like this is a game that is open to be heavily criticised, when actually it's not so bad. Mostly average in its delivery, but certainly not an abomination. Actually, you know what I felt about it? That it wasn't cheap. Boring and bland overall, maybe, but it felt like they've tried to fill a space between the linear manshoots and the big old open sims. And they seem to have put the work in.
Alec: Oh yeah, you could tell the devs were genuinely into it.
Jim: I'd much rather be playing some mad desert survival game in that beautiful landscape, but for what it is, I can't say it felt lazy or anything.
Alec: but I could sense a sort of ceiling they couldn't get past for one reason or another. they made a certain structure and set of systems and could go no further.
Jim: Yeah, the formula constrained it.
Alec: Anyway, best to wrap up I suspect. I fear Red River - and maybe even Flashpoint as a whole - is likely to crawl off into the desert and die, and that's a shame. It deserves to find a community, even if it didn't make the best of the name's proud legacy.
Jim: And, I guess, the costs and vision, and market research and all that crap. I'd really like to see Codies put a bold mad designer at the helm of this tech and make something a bit braver. There's more to games than military manshoots!
Alec: Yeah, as with Fuel, there's something amazing there but it can't quite get out.
Jim: Delta Force, Delta Force, Delta Force, I say. These kinds of games will be around forever.
Alec: And that is just and right, really. I'd rather see those trying to outdo each other than Homefronts and Medal of Honors.