This week we got our first hands-on with Conflict: Denied Ops at CES '08. And while the team was chasing the latest game announcements on the show floor, back in the office we were getting better acquainted with the latest build of the game.
Denied Ops is the fifth game in the Conflict series, and like the titles before it--Desert Storm, Desert Storm II, Vietnam, and Global Terror--it's being developed by Pivotal Games. Denied Ops also marks the franchise's first foray into next-generation hardware, appearing on the Xbox 360, PlayStation 3, and PC when it goes on sale in February '08.
In Conflict: Denied Ops, you take control of Graves and Lang, two CIA Special Activities Division (S.A.D.) agents. These are the guys they send in when things really hit the fan and the government needs to maintain a layer of plausible deniability with the mission if and when it goes pear-shaped. Unlike some other team-based military-themed shooters, Denied Ops gives you the ability to control one character, give orders to your teammate, or even switch characters on the fly by pressing a button. The command system covers the basics, such as movement, regrouping on your position, and suppressive fire, and extends all the way to character-specific objectives such as protecting an escort NPC or planting C4 to blow up enemy artillery. This flexibility means that while you will realistically want to swap characters to take advantage of their weapon loadouts--Graves has a sniper rifle and Lang wields a light machine gun--you can feasibly spend as much or as little time as you wish with one character.
As good as the team AI is (provided you tell it what to do), we can't help but recommend you don't leave it to its own devices, as we found in our playtime that it tended to lag behind the player you have control of unless you continue to issue movement and attack orders as you move. We're not sure if it's a casualty of our test build, but while you could command your second player to jump into a vehicle and man a turret, swapping seat positions and asking him to drive didn't pan out the way we had hoped. We sat there waiting for him to do something, and even after we issued orders to drive, he would jerk forward a couple of feet before coming to a complete stop and refusing to budge. On the plus side, the game doesn't have to be played alone. It features split screen, system link, and online co-op play in the campaign mode. The game can hold its own in the single-player mode, but we can see this game being the most fun for two players to take on together. It also gives you the option to alternate between characters on a mission-by-mission basis rather than always assuming the tough-guy or sneaky-guy role.
Once killed, you'll have to switch characters and heal the fallen soldier, because leaving a character for more than three minutes of dirt nap will see you fail a mission. Resurrecting is as easy as activating the "heal" function, which sees you stabbing your bud in the arm or neck with some kind of magical anti-bullet serum. There's no limit on the number of times you can jab your wingman, so provided you can get to him safely, you'll be able to continue as long as one character is standing. Unfortunately, the hit zones on both healing and environmental interaction (like ladder climbing) are quite small and use the same button to perform a melee attack--A on the Xbox controller, and the space bar in the PC version--meaning that often when you're trying to resuscitate your fallen partner, climb a ladder, or climb onto a small ledge, you'll swing the butt of your gun, doing your friend a disservice with a sharp blow to the face or swinging ineffectively at brick walls.
Like with your pseudo-necromancy skills, there's no limit to the amount of ammunition you can carry for your weapons, making every target a potential lead holder. Unfortunately, smoke, flash, and frag grenades are a different story, since you'll be able to carry only a couple of each. Luckily for you, scattered around the levels are ammo supply boxes, letting you refill your ammo, so you'll never be left wanting for one more flash before breaching a room full of enemies.
The ammo concept gives the game a more arcadey feel than many other first-person shooters, and the automatic weapon upgrades you'll receive along the way take a lot of the fun out of specialist roles such as heavy weapons or sniping, since you arent required to spend in-game currency or complete challenges other than finish missions.
The game opens with very little in the way of backstory--which is befitting given the covert-ops nature of the team you're controlling--and drops you in Venezuela charged with infiltrating a communications post housed in the ruins of the Santa Cecilia Monastery. Once inside, you'll need to locate and acquire information relating to General Ramirez and his potential unfriendly nuclear capabilities. This first mission is set in a worn castle complete with large sandstone brick buildings. Inside you'll find plenty of henchmen trying to stop your advance towards the basement, which houses a slightly out-of-place-looking server cluster that you'll need to destroy using Graves' C4 packs. Doing so unleashes waves of foes to take care of while you scramble back through the ruins towards your next objective. Back in natural light, you're targeted by an attack helicopter, but since you don't yet have a rocket launcher, you'll need to take out the gunner, sending the chopper crashing to the ground.
Following the twisting cobblestone paths in the bowels of the monastery leads to an open area where--depending on your method--you'll need to clear multiple hostiles. We found that Graves and his rifle were most useful here, with a crouched stance giving the best mix of agility and rifle accuracy at range. Explosive barrels litter the place, making their collateral damage from being shot the most visually dramatic and effective way to take out hiding groups of foes.
Once clear, you'll get your first chance with a vehicle, and using a double right mouse click or pulling the left controller trigger while hovering your weapon sights over the tank will order your mate to get aboard. After a roll through the countryside and blowing up some RPG-wielding soldiers, you'll confront an enemy tank. The Halo-style driving makes it easy to lurch forward and fire off a cheeky round before ducking back behind cover. Environmental building destruction is scripted, so there's no risk of losing your cover. Rinse and repeat before friendly air support drops by to blow up a barricade blocking your progress, and you can stroll over the finishing line to complete the first mission.
After completing the first mission, you'll open one of three mission choices in different locations, and you can do them in whichever order you wish. Here you can choose between Sveta Archipelago and investigating the Sveta-Ostrov whaling station based on intel from the stolen data at the monastery. Then there's Metuwe Township in Rwanda where you'll be in search of a phantom radio transmission. Lastly there's Kolyma Castle in Siberia, which sees you tracking down known underworld warlord Alexsei Morchenko and his nuclear suitcase bombs. Regardless of which mission you choose, you'll complete tasks like rescuing and protecting informants, escorting prisoners to safety, holding a position until reinforcements arrive, or destroying SAM (surface-to-air missile) sites. Completing these levels unlocks additional weapon upgrades, including a rifle silencer, a shotgun attachment, a 200-round box magazine for Lang's machine gun, and a 40mm grenade for those close-quarter firefights.
Regardless of what objective you pick, the second mission begins with weapon upgrades, giving Lang access to a HEAT rocket launcher, which is useful for those helicopters and tanks that will try to stop you along the way to your task. Graves gets a gun camera for his rifle, allowing you to take shots from behind cover by engaging the camera with the left and right D pad buttons and with the Q and E buttons for PC players. It's not as dramatic as being able to shoot down threats at range, but since you can swap characters at will, you can always find a safe spot, switch, destroy your target, and go back to sniping in just a few button presses. With the exception of hallway clearing--and even this becomes easier once you have the shotgun upgrade in conjunction with unlimited ammo--we found we spent a lot of our time playing as Graves. Often you'll sneak up on lone soldiers facing the opposite away--who are prime candidates for single-shot skull ventilation. Headshots are by far the easiest way to eliminate enemies, with torso rounds even from the 7.62mm rifle taking an average of two to three shots to get targets down.
Conflict: Denied Ops seems to be shaping up quite well. Its combination of fun, solid single-player and online co-op play looks like it may give the title some legs. Check back for a full review when the game is released in February 2008.