Codemasters' soldier sim sequel, Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising, hit the shelves this week in the US, and is out tomorrow in Europe. But is this open-world shooter as tight and tough as we'd hoped, or is it all bravado? Here's wot I think.
The internal development teams at Codemasters are having a better year than their external counterparts. Dirt 2 is all handsome, youthful and dashing, and Operation Flashpoint is gritty, manly, even painterly. The soldier sequel is set on a grim island north of Japan, in 2010, and has been moderately impressive in its displays of military flourish. The fiction weaves history with current affairs to create a hotspot where Americans make conventional war on Chinese occupiers. The technology takes a branch of Codies' in-house engine and does things with it that make pyres of smoke rise moodily across the horizon. (It's been a good year for that.) Dragon Rising is helicopters and howitzer barrages and rocket attacks, all delivered in an open world level that would make most other first-person developers blush. Codies' tech - variants of which run both this and Dirt 2 - has a right to puff out its chest, salute, and feel proud as the Codemasters' flag is raised: it's really getting somewhere, especially on PC. It's good lookin'.
Indeed, it's the technical solidity of Dragon Rising that first impresses itself on you during play. It feels well-made and smooth, at least on my middle-to-high end PC. It's not exactly glistening with processes and shader-magic - this is no showpiece, Mr Crytek - but it does feel like a minor accomplishment of practicality and realism. The lighting is washed out and yet crisp and precise. The effects are understated, and yet routinely evocative of what a nerd imagines is probably real war. The smack and splatter of bullet impacts aren't just well-rendered with camera grime, they're also sold to you by the thunderous audio. Ever actually stood next to a big piece of army hardware as it fires high-calibre rounds? No? Well, it seems clear that Codies audio team have done, because the guns go bang in a most satisfying manner.
The game world itself features one enormous landscape - splendid terrain upon which to make war, or to stop and gaze out across the see, wistfully wondering. It's a shame there's no button for picking the flowers. Few games manage a backdrop as hi-fidelity as this, and the realisation that you can go off the rails and charge across a beautifully realised island on which there really is a war unfolding is an interesting one. Interesting because you seldom see any reason to do so in the single player game. You genuinely can just follow the waypoints from one to the next to complete the mission. The level design is such is that there's almost always appropriate cover along the line of the waypoints, and if you utilise that cover sensibly you'll always be able to take down the enemies that lay ahead of you. The only real challenge, I found, was in having enough ammo.
Of course the difficulty levels allow you strip some of that HUD scaffolding out, and you'll probably want to, because the game becomes rather easy by default. Enemies don't seem particularly inventive in their attacks, and occasionally fail to address your presence at all, opting instead to carry out their dash for cover or their prescribed attacks on other units. The pervasive tracer fire means that as long as you've got some cover nearby you can pretty much always identify where the enemies are, and can cut them down before they become anything like a significant threat. (Despite that fact that - hnngh - you can't lean.)
What is possibly Operation Flashpoint's most accomplished piece of game design is the radial command system for your fireteam - for you are not alone - which you use to instruct your sidekicks into action. They are, for the most part, not particularly bright. They'll sometimes not respond to an enemy, or forget an order and just stand about aimlessly, or even over-zealously pursue an order so that they chase someone up the side of a hill when you'd said "defend this shed". But with some careful manipulation you can get them to lay down suppressing fire for you to flank, or even flank while you lay down suppressing fire. Useful routines on the battlefield, and they make for some Dragon Rising's most entertaining play. Possibly the most useful routine, however, is being able to patch people up: the medic is a walking hospital, able to mend gunshot wounds with a wave of his arms. Invaluable, as you might expect, especially when it's you who is bleeding to death in the long grass.
Even with these absent-minded androids shambling across the island of Skiira behind you, the single player campaign is a brief excursion. Never too much of a challenge, and rather lacking in punch. It certainly shows off the Ego engine - there are some beautiful moments of charging through smoke to assault enemy positions, and the gun-action is entirely satisfactory - but it doesn't do much to show off the game design talents of the Codemasters team. It's /distinctly/ unimaginative. The characters are characterless, and the world without humour or invention. Not a single mission made me think, or take a notes for a review I'd later write.
However, it doesn't seem like it's the single player game that is intended to be the meat of this soldier game. It could well be seen as just another extended intro ahead of the multiplayer game. This gives you both co-op and competitive multiplayer. I've had a crack and the co-op and rather enjoyed it. I expect the incredibly solid engine will deliver a good team-based versus game too. Like any game with chums and guns, the fun is immediately multiplied so that you end up having stupid larks in a place where serious war is happening. The accessibility and non-brokenness of Dragon Rising are a massive boon here too, obviously, because it's not hugely demanding of your PC spec, and is well optimised enough not to seem like it'll be flexible as to its platform. I have, at least, seen it running on a number of PCs now, and not seen any significant problems. Going into one of the missions against AI with your friends is fun. Especially when you're supposed to be stealthy, and you're the one that raises the alarm...
There's a mission editor bundled with the package too. I've had a bit of play with it and was sadly baffled by the process: I spent ages fiddling with a vast stand up fight between American and Chinese forces, hoping to be able to chalk up yet another score for being able to make your own ludicrous missions in a shooter, but I was vexed. That said, you almost /have/ to spend some time in this editor to really get a sense of Dragon Rising, and to take in the scope of that island. I fully expect some enormous player generated missions to be created using this - there's certainly immense scope for creating PC-flooring mega-battles across Skiira, the likes of which Codies wouldn't have dared to include in their own campaign.
And so to the concluding paragraphs. I've come this far without mentioning Arma 2, but it's impossible to continue without doing so. These two soldier games are diametrically opposed. Arma 2 has all the ambition, character, and versatility, while Dragon Rising has all the production values, accessibility and neat design. Codemaster's design decisions all make sense: their radial command menu is great, the missions are all comprehensible and readily executed, and they tie a soldier shooter package up with a quality assured bow. It all makes for a tidy experience, but it's just not very interesting. For example, there's minimal vehicular action. By the end of Arma 2 you're commanding - even building - an entire army, but Dragon Rising barely gets beyond small arms action. Sure, there's a helicopter bit in the single player campaign, irregular support fire, and the odd jeep ride, but Arma 2 is all the helicopters and tanks I will ever want to see in one gaming life. Imagine my disappointment when I ran up to a tractor in Dragon Rising and realised it could not be driven. This is not the promised land.
I realised early on that the "Operation Flashpoint" part of Dragon Rising really isn't anything more than a convenient handle that Codemasters happened to have around. This is a game that is, spiritually and genetically, far more a successor to the Delta Force games than it is to the original Operation Flashpoint. I was having flashbacks to Delta Force 2 during my time with Dragon Rising, and remembered just how much I enjoyed that ancient manshoot at the time. These days, however, it seems barren. The actual Delta Force games have long ago wandered off into the no-man's land of awfulness, and Dragon Rising seems like a good approximation of where they might have been if they had remained a contender.
Far from being the calamitous failure that some Arma 2 fans would have liked this game to be, Dragon Rising actually just a mild disappointment, but a disappointment that leads in an entirely different direction to that of Bohemia's project. In fact, it's almost a lesson in why Codemasters and Bohemia Interactive should never have parted ways in the first place. Each game has something the other one needs, and they're both flawed without it.