We've been lucky enough to see quite a bit of Operation Flashpoint: Red River through development, but with the game now entering its final stretch, we've been able to go hands-on to see what it's like to play. Certainly, Codemasters' claims of maintaining the series' authenticity while making the game more accessible are backed up by what we've played so far. Our latest hands-on session allowed us to experience the first mission of the game in single-player, as well as one of the game's later missions in two-player co-op alongside a member of the development team.
Our co-op buddy for the day was Tim Browne, the game's principal designer. "Red River is completely geared around co-op," he said as he introduced the game to us. This is why the four character classes are designed to complement each other in a way that should create the perfect unit of marines, with the scout, grenadier, rifleman, and auto rifleman all having their own strengths and weaknesses. As you play as each class, you earn experience points in every game mode, which can be spent on weapon upgrades and perks, the latter including extracurricular training, such as assault or the ability to rapidly recover. The classes that you level up also enjoy the benefit of your experience even when controlled by the AI, so your teammates will get stronger as you spend more time playing in the different roles.
In addition to experience points, you're awarded with core skill points, depending on how you perform in each mission. Performance criteria include mission-completion time and whether you complete secondary objectives, which are added together to form an overall gold, silver, or bronze medal. Core skill points can then be spent in six key areas--sprint, endurance, battle readiness, assault rifle handling, assault rifle training, and tactical awareness. Thankfully, you can reset your allocated points at any time, so if your setup isn't working, you can restart from scratch at any time. Each character also has his own distinctive look, based on extensive research by Codemasters into real-life Marines. For example, the auto rifleman is the newest member of the squad, so he's physically the least muscular of the team. Codemasters found that in the real world, the newest or youngest member of a team will be given the task of carrying the biggest, heaviest gun, almost as a rite of passage, which is reflected in the game.
While one of Codemasters' key aims is to make Red River realistic, there's also a great deal of humour to the proceedings, as we found out during the game's opening animation. You're assigned to a training camp on the border of Tajikistan and Afghanistan, where Staff Sergeant Damien Knox introduces you to the former country's chequered history. The history lesson is delivered using a mix of kinetic typography, video footage, and vivid iconography, including one shot where someone urinates on a bowl of cornflakes. From there, you're introduced to a training camp to learn the basics--a feature that was noticeably absent from Dragon Rising, which just dumped you straight onto the battlefield. However, it doesn't take long for the camp to come under attack, at which point you jump into one of the game's officially licensed Humvee trucks and head to the nearest town to investigate.
While the single-player introduction to the game was fun, Codemasters insists that Red River was designed to be played cooperatively, so Browne wasted no time in joining us for a co-op session further into the campaign. We jumped to mission seven of the 10-mission campaign, which sees the Chinese People's Liberation Army joining the fray in Tajikistan. After a mission briefing from actor Al Matthews, best known as Sergeant Apone in the movie Aliens, we escorted our team over to the iconic dam that's featured in many of the game's prerelease videos and into a small mountain town. We soon came under attack from the PLA, and while we were able to use the Humvee's mounted gun to see off the initial assault, we had to jump out of our vehicles to engage in ground combat soon enough.
Working with your team is incredibly important in Red River, as we found playing as the squad leader in our co-op demo. Playing on the Xbox 360, we had to use the right bumper to bring up the command wheel and then choose orders by using the D pad. Thankfully, the improved command system is more intuitive than in Dragon Rising, making it easy to tell your squad to follow you or supress a position even in the heat of battle. This is complemented by improved AI from your computer-controlled allies, especially when it comes to offering medical support. On the normal difficulty level, you slowly bleed out if you're injured, but you can quickly patch yourself up and carry on the fight as long as you find cover. If you want to fully regain your health, you need to stop and heal yourself for longer and are obviously vulnerable while doing so. Thankfully, though, if you are seriously wounded, AI teammates will attempt to come and revive you, as will your fellow players if you're playing co-op.
Our co-op battle was understandably challenging, as the mission took place in the latter half of the game. There were times when we were overrun with PLA soldiers who were being delivered by helicopter; when we had to run away from rocket attacks; and an explosive finale, where we had to jump in a jeep and drive to the helicopter extraction point. In all, the mission took us 42 minutes to complete (not including time spent retrying certain sections), which is in line with Codemasters' claim that it will take an average of one hour to complete each of the campaign's 10 missions. There will be a hardcore difficulty mode for those who want the ultimate challenge, and the removal of checkpoints from this mode means that if any of your team members die, then you will have to restart the mission from the beginning. Unlike in the previous Operation Flashpoint, though, achievements and trophies won't be tied to difficulty levels, so playing on hardcore won't score you any bonuses other than a sense of personal pride.
Codemasters also ran us through the Fireteam Engagements mode, which is essentially Operation Flashpoint's skirmish mode where four players can club together to complete assignments. Fireteam Engagement includes four game modes with two maps each. Last Stand is effectively Gears of War's Horde mode with a twist--you face increasingly difficult waves of enemies and decide when to bank your score by calling in a helicopter to extract your team. However, when you do decide to call in support, you have to wait a couple of minutes before the chopper arrives, so you have to call at the right moment to bank your score. Combat Sweep sees you clearing compounds of insurgents and searching out weapons caches--the more you find, the higher your score. In Rolling Thunder, you have to escort a convoy and protect it from randomly placed insurgents, who'll fire rocket-propelled grenades at you and your escort. Finally, Combat Search and Rescue is what Browne calls the "Black Hawk Down" mode, where you have to extract fellow marines from a downed helicopter, with bonus points awarded for blowing up the vehicle to stop it from falling into enemy hands. We, unfortunately, didn't get to play any of these modes at this stage, but they will be revealed shortly.
Operation Flashpoint: Red River is being released on the PC, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3 on April 21 in Europe and Australia, and on April 26 in the US. We'll hopefully have more on the game soon, but in the meantime, be sure to check out our latest video feature to hear from the developer and see the co-op mode in action.