Reviewed: June 29, 2011
Released: June 7, 2011
I’ve been a big fan of the Operation Flashpoint games ever since Codemasters started making them for the PC back in 2001. Some installments have been hit and miss when it comes to overall quality, and the entire franchise seems to have been overshadowed by the Hollywood-style of military FPS action found in Call of Duty and Bad Company, but when it comes to attention to actual military detail, procedures, and combat tactics, Operation Flashpoint: Red River is as good as it gets…so far.|
First off, if you come from the school of Modern Warfare, Battlefield, or any of those other “arcade” military games, then either be prepared to settle down for a much slower FPS experience or don't bother enlisting. Red River explores a new style of military FPS; one that utilizes real-world tactics and military structure when it comes to four-man fire teams and coordinating the efforts of multiple groups of soldiers. Even the settings are real, right down to location and mission types.
It’s 2013 and you’re in Tajikistan, a little piece of desert real-estate located between Afghanistan and China. You play as an American Marine facing off against the PLA in a realistic set of missions that range from defend, escort, protect, and invade. You are the leader of Fire Team Bravo, and will be working with Alpha and Charlie teams in most missions. While you have no direct control over those teams, you will be required to listen to their radio chatter and support them when possible.
You do have direct control over your own three men, either individually or as a team, and this is where things branch off drastically from other similar games in the genre. By holding down the RB button you will bring up a command cross. Using the D-pad, you can move to any of four command hubs and from their pick an additional three sub-commands. Honestly, it takes a while to get used to, but once you do you will be ordering your men around and setting up elaborate ambushes, securing buildings, and suppressing enemy fire just like a real commander. On-screen objectives and waypoints will give you general clues on where to go, but it’s up to you to position your men by aiming your cursor and clicking orders.
This tactical element gives you several options for playing Red River. You can sit back and order you men around and have them do all the work, or you can stick with the team and work together, or you can even use them as a distraction while you flank the enemy and kill them off lone wolf style. This level of flexibility allows the game to be played at any level from tactical-RPG to pure simulation, but it will never be confused with an action-RPG thanks to the level of realistic damage and healing procedure.
Red River laughs at Modern Warfare’s Veteran mode when played on the hardest skill setting, but even on the normal skill setting, action gamers are in for a surprising challenge. Much like in real world combat you can get shot and never even know where the bullet came from. You’ll be moving forward and suddenly “crack”…”thud” and you’re on your back yelling for a medic. Unless they score an incapacitating shot you will often have the chance to bandage then heal your own wounds, otherwise you will need a medic to perform the first stage of healing.
Healing is a two-step process, one that requires bandaging your wounds to prevent from bleeding out, then another to actually heal your wounds. Each step requires you to hold down the A button for about 10 seconds. The enemy AI can be fooled, and if you are shot and immediately go prone they might not finish you off. Just wait for them to leave before calling a medic. If your medic is too far away or already dead you can hold the button to bleed out and restart from the last checkpoint.
Missions are very realistic, both in their design and their execution, right down to the boring parts. Most missions start with you traveling to the location either by truck or chopper. This travel time is made a bit more tolerable thanks to some humorous chatter by Knox, your CO, who managed to come up with a few fresh and salty expressions that even I haven’t heard in my lengthy military career. Some might think it shocking or over-the-top, but rest assured, this is how soldiers talk in the field…actually worse.
Once you arrive you will usually have to hoof it out on foot to the first of many waypoints. Make sure to order your men to follow. These guys don’t do much on their own. They will respond to enemy fire, but when it comes to movement they will wait till the end of time for your orders. I remember trying to end one mission and thinking the game had locked up only to realize I hadn’t ordered my guys to get in the truck with me. You can end up escorting a convoy of maintenance vehicles to a giant dam, or escorting a bomb tech to a roadside IED then protecting him while he defuses the device. You might clear out a village or invade an enemy camp. There is a great variety in the missions and each and every one is loaded with tense and realistic gameplay.
For as good as the AI is; both the enemy and your team, Red River gets infinitely better when played cooperatively with up to three other people. Not to brag, but when I tackled this game with three of my Army buddies, even the hardest difficulty didn’t stand a chance to our cooperative efforts. Red River is a class-based game, so when you are playing with real people you might not always get your first choice, but each class is well defined and even playing as a scout or a grenadier allows you moments to shine. The solo game even allows you to play through the main 10-12 hour campaign and tracks your stats and progress with each class separately, effectively giving you four rather unique ways (and reasons) to play Red River several times.
As you play the main game you will unlock Fireteam challenges. These are basically streamlined missions that nix the story and immersive travel segments and drop you right into combat. These missions take away a bit of the tension and strategy and turn Red River into a more "Call of Duty" experience, but one that still benefits from teamwork. You’ll earn skill points and rank up the leaderboards, and these shorter missions are perfect for the gamer who doesn’t have an hour or more to commit to a mission in the main game.
Red River complements the realistic gameplay with some stunning visuals that even manage to make some of the ugliest places on earth look inviting. Most of the landscape is realistically barren, which allows for a smooth framerate with a massive draw distance that ends, usually at some impressive mountain range. Some levels are more creative than others with villages or shacks dotting the hillside, a choke point made from cargo containers, a giant dam built into the mountain, or even your own military base. The game is an FPS, but you can toggle to a chase cam for driving segments. Either way, you are free to look around and admire the scenery, even during the on-rails travel segments. Character design, weapons modeling, and animation is as good as it gets; very realistic.
When played on a respectable surround sound system Red River can have you sweating bullets, not so much with the impressive array of sound effects, gunshots, explosions, etc. that come at you from every channel in every encounter, but more so in the more subtle effects. There was one mission where I was lying prone in some tall grass on a hillside sniping hostiles down in the village below. All of the sudden I started hearing the crunch of grass as two enemies approached doing a pattern search of the area. I couldn’t see them…they couldn’t see me, but the perfect placement of their footsteps in my 5.1 Dolby Digital setup allowed me to avoid, flank, and kill those guys without being detected. It’s moments like those that, while not as fun as Knox’s incessant salty ramblings, add immensely to the experience of Red River.
Operation Flashpoint: Red River isn’t the most accessible military FPS game out there, but it certainly is one of the most realistic you’ll find on the console if you're up for the challenge. Obviously, sim purists will want to play on the PC where sharper graphics and finer mouse controls will prevail, but mission for mission, and for overall gameplay, both solo and co-op, Red River is a great ride for those with the tactical precision and patience to play.