Sometimes, we like to imagine what the state of FPS military gaming would be like without the excellent HBO series Generation Kill. There’s a definite line in the sand, as it were, in terms of in-game dialogue. We certainly had never heard the phrase ‘Oscar Mike’ (military slang for ‘On the move’) before then, and we’re guessing neither had many developers. But suddenly, every game from Modern Warfare 2 on sounds like it was written by the same team of HBO writers.
Sure, it’s all very accurate and all, but possibly Generation Kill’s having slightly too much of an impact. Its influence is causing every modern military game to sound suspiciously alike.
Anyway, we digress. Sure, Operation Flashpoint: Red River sounds like it too is trying to cash in on the clever military feel of the show, but how about the actual game wrapped around the Oo-RAH banter and phonetic alphabet?
Welcome to the war
If there’s one thing Red River does well, it’s an intro. It’s a brilliant plotted history of US involvement in Afghanistan and the Middle East, as related by an in-the-know Sergeant to his squad. It sets the HBO-like tone quite nicely, while also making some pointed remarks about American diplomacy and the poor grunts who get to take over when diplomacy gets taken out by an IED.
After that, the game then shifts into classic Flashpoint mode. Your fireteam shows up, gets yelled at by a senior NCO, and then gets to spend some time on the range before heading out to secure a mortar position dropping HE on your base.
As training levels go, it’s pretty unimaginative, but it gets the job done. It also shows off the more complex mission structure of the game, as once the position is secure you move on to the border of Tajikistan (a real country on the border of China and the rest of the ‘stans, and like chosen because it can be contracted to Taji, so as to emulate the term ‘haji’ from Generation Kill) and take part in a push into the interior.
Red River’s missions are often sprawling affairs, requiring you clear villages, cover fellow fireteams, call in air support, and then do it all over again over the next ridge.
The battlefield you traverse seems constantly alive with action – helis supporting infantry, or convoys of tanks moving into combat are always off in the distance. However, at the same time it’s kind of... empty. It’s often pointed out by your squadmates that the lack of civilians means action’s imminent, but it also takes down the realism a notch. You might be told to check your fire, but you only ever seem to face armed resistance.
But, perhaps friendly fire incidents aren’t where Codemasters wants to take the game.
Regardless, the singleplayer is a solid, if talky experience. Your squad AI is pretty sharp – though not the best at taking up a solid defensive position – and more than capable of taking down enemy combatants. This is not a game where every kill must be made by you.
Combat itself can get very busy. Red River features large and open engagement areas, so you can often come under fire from targets that will take you some time to locate. It’s chaotic at first, but once you get used to it, it feels very natural and fluid. Weapon physics are challenging without being impossible, with bullet drop and some basic penetration. You can get injured, and bleeding wounds will need to be dressed – on you, and your squad. However, your medpacks never seem to run out, and even incapacitated troops will come right at each new save point in a mission.
And yes, the game is checkpoint-based. Sigh.
However, the real meat of the game is when you can play with friends. Red River doesn’t feature any competitive multiplayer, though; it’s all co-op based. You can play through the campaign missions, or take on a number of specific co-op missions as a fireteam.
This is what Red River is all about – tight, squad-based play. And you’ll need to be tight, too, especially on the hardest difficulty setting, Hardcore. In this mode your HUD is stripped away, and you’ll even have to bring up compass bearings to work out where your next waypoint is or where that just-spotted sniper might be hiding.
In co-op mode, things like suppressive fire and good wound management become even more essential, and more powerful. In singleplayer mode, ordering individual squad members can be a task, but with good voice comms everything is much more responsive, and you can execute some very satisfying moves.
Your soldier levels up as you play, too. The unlocks aren’t as detailed or as powerful as, say, Modern Warfare, but the level of customisation they bring is welcome.
Finally, on top of all this, the game looks good too. The open environments and huge view distance to come at a cost, and distant vistas can look a little... samey, but overall the graphics get the job done. And on even a video card a generation old we were able to get solid frames at max-settings.
If you’re looking for a more mature shooter while we all wait for Battlefield 3, this could be your option. It’s tighter – yet not excessive – focus on realism and squad interplay is a refreshing change. It’s not perfect, but with the right teammates it’s a lot of fun.