By their very nature, tactical military shooters are restrictive affairs that reward you for keeping your actions well within the bounds of realism. It's a genre where success is predicated on doing things by the book and sticking with a proven strategy for keeping you and your team out of harm's way. In other words, the genre is probably not your first choice for an open-world sandbox game--but Codemasters sees things a little differently. For its upcoming tactical shooter Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising--the sequel to the well-received 2001 game Operation Flashpoint: Cold War Crisis--the English developer is aiming to give you the freedom that goes with 220 square kilometers of outdoor terrain while still keeping true to the series' origins as an authentic portrayal of war. The last time we saw the game was during a visit to Codemasters' studios last August, but yesterday we had a chance to check out an updated build and get our first hands-on time with it.
As we described in our last look at Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising, the story is driven by a fictional conflict between China and the US. China has invaded an oil-rich island off the eastern coast of Russia following a global economic meltdown, and now US marines have been sent in to forcefully drive out the Chinese. As with most shooters, the story is primarily a vehicle for explaining the setting--and that setting is what you'll really want to pay attention to. The island where the game takes place is called Skira, a 220-square-kilometer collection of mountains, grassy hills, and wet marshland that Codemasters claims would take a good three hours to walk from end to end. So yes, it's big, and that open terrain should amount to a nice, expansive sandbox for approaching each mission in a variety of ways.
The mission we got to try involved clearing out Chinese forces that had taken up camp in a small coastal fishing village. The mission begins with you and three of your fellow marines standing near the top of a rolling hill leading down to the village. There's a heavily patrolled road on the left-hand side of the hill that leads down to the village entrance where we were likely to be greeted by turret guns and angry guards. So instead of taking that path, we braved the right-hand side of the hill: a much steeper drop that offered lots of trees and rocks to use as cover.
How you approach the enemy base is a critical part of the mission, because with a realistic damage model where one-hit kills aren't entirely unheard of, you and your squad need to work as a tight team. The way you do that is by getting acquainted with the Quick Command radial menu. This pulls up a circular menu that controls, among other things, your various squad commands. You can order them to stay put, to follow you, to fire at will or only after your lead, and to assemble into various tactical formations. We pushed our way down the cliff using suppressing fire to distract the enemy forces, and then we dashed through clearings when the gunfire stopped. Eventually we made it to the village at the bottom, where the long-range tactics gave way to close-quarters combat.
Whereas the long-range firefights are like a chess game of planned advances and temporary retreats, close scuffles take on a bit of a different feel. We used the Xbox 360 controller, and the game controlled like a slower-paced Call of Duty--no sticky cover system, pull L to look down the iron sights--but with an added layer of tension provided by the jumpy camera movements and a blurrier line between dead and wounded enemies. In fact, what you might perceive as a dead body could actually be an enemy bleeding out while crawling to safety--or getting back on his feet to fire one last shot at you.
With 47-plus vehicles in the game, this mission could have easily been approached by air, water, or fully loaded jeep. But even without the aid of vehicles, we could have taken a much more bombastic approach to this mission using the aid of air strikes, M16-mounted grenade launchers, and a more aggressive group formation. The folks from Codemasters guiding us through the game were keen to stress that each attempt will play out differently, even if you attempt the same tactic twice in a row. That seems true, but considering the long, drawn-out missions that require patience and planning, you'll want to make sure you succeed the first time around.
We're interested to see what the rest of the island looks like and how much the varying terrain will affect the course of each battle. We'll likely have the chance to do that before Operation: Flashpoint is released this summer. You can expect to see it arrive on the PC, PlayStation 3, and Xbox 360.