Operation Flashpoint: Red River First Impressions

Codemasters is promising to improve Operation Flashpoint across the board in Red River, as we found out on a visit to the studio.

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Operation Flashpoint: Red River
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Last year's Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising was a success for publisher Codemasters. Released in a busy end-of-year period, it still managed to score a number two position in the UK charts. Now, the same team is back with Red River, which is currently halfway through development and being prepped for release on the PC, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3 in 2011. Though it will still be a faithfully realistic shooter, the team in Leamington Spa, UK, is taking a slightly new direction with this entry in the series by applying a cool new visual aesthetic to the game while aiming to make it more accessible. We found out how it is all coming together on a recent trip to see the studio, meet the talent behind the game, and check it out in action.

Our session started with Red River's creative director Sion Lenton laying out his plans for the game. "We want to offer a personalised vision of conflict," he said, before demonstrating his vision by showing clips from The Hurt Locker, Generation Kill, and Jarhead. Lenton, who also worked on Dragon Rising, is keen to reinterpret the word "realism" with this game, moving from the clinical sterility of what you'd see in a Jane's manual to the dusty, broken-down reality of the modern battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. This means that guns, vehicles, and clothing in the game have been modified by the soldiers, who are fighting against the degradation of their equipment caused by the environment. Magazine clips will have tape wrapped around them, vehicles will have posters of girls adorning their walls, and vests will be modified to carry iPods and other consumer electronics devices.

Dragon Rising's fictional open world of Skira was a technical accomplishment, but this time around, Lenton and his team are placing the theatre of war in a more realistic light. First of all, it's a real location in the form of Tajikistan--a country in Central Asia close to China, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. As with other Operation Flashpoint games, Red River will take place in the not-too-distant future, with a number of Afghani insurgents having made their way into the country. The US moves its forces in to try to control the problem, but with the conflict happening on its doorstep, the Chinese People's Liberation Army begins to take notice. You once again play as an American soldier caught up in the conflict, and the single-player campaign will focus on three acts that see you first entering the country and holding the insurgents, "getting your arse kicked," according to Lenton, and then launching a counterattack that "levels Tajikistan to the ground."

The location itself may only be about the same physical size as Skira was in Dragon Rising, but it promises to be much more varied in terms of scenery. The country declared independence from the Soviet Union in the early '90s, but much of the architecture remains, giving the buildings a striking look against the dusty desert backdrops. The country is also surrounded by huge mountains, making an imposing background, with some of them snow capped as well. "Our engine loves this kind of s***," boasts Linton, giving a nod to Codemasters' own in-house Ego engine that's powering the game.

The entire campaign will be playable cooperatively, with each player able to pick one of four classes. The rifleman has a tool for every job and acts as the best all-rounder of the group. The grenadier was described as a "brick s*** house" who carries the first shotgun seen in an Operation Flashpoint game. The scout is able to pick off targets with his long-range weaponry. The auto rifleman is able to support the other classes by laying down suppressive fire. All four players can theoretically play as the same character class, too, and though that might not make for the most balanced team, it means you're not forced to perform a specific role.

These concept renders show the new location, Tajikistan, and the gritty look Codemasters is aiming for.

Our time at the studio also allowed us to see additions that individual departments have made to the game. The visual aesthetic that's being applied to Red River is particularly interesting, in that the team is looking to re-create modern warfare as captured by the people on the ground and then consumed by people back home through platforms, such as YouTube. This has resulted in menu screens that will have intentional visual artefacts, such as hot pixels and lens aberrations, while close proximity explosions will damage the picture--almost as if they've ripped a cable out of the back of your TV. It doesn't appear as if Codemasters is going to go as far as Io Interactive has with Kane & Lynch 2, but Lenton admits, "we want it to look glitchy."

On the multiplayer side, Lenton wants to expand on what the team achieved in Dragon Rising and include as many different modes as possible. He talked about a defensive mode called Last Stand, as well as Combat Sweep, where you and your team have to flush out all enemies from a defensive location. There will also be a Convoy mode where you have to escort a moving target, as well as simple Search & Rescue. Rather than reusing locations from the single-player game, the multiplayer will have its own dedicated area of Tajikistan in the bottom right of the map. The progression, however, will be consistent between single-player and multiplayer, meaning you can always be earning XPs to upgrade your soldier.

The Operation Flashpoint series has made a name for itself as one of the most realistic on the market, and Red River promises to be the most brutal game in the series yet. One big improvement has to do with the human-damage model. We were shown a technical demonstration of wounds that can be applied to soldiers. They can have separate parts of their bodies blown off, with the flesh becoming charred right down to the bone. Thankfully, the team is also aiming to make this the most accessible Flashpoint ever, with a new command tree system that groups orders by type and is context sensitive depending on where you're looking. So, if you're aiming at a target you want to attack, it should be easier than ever to tell your teammates exactly what you want them to do.

It's still relatively early for Red River, but already, it's looking like an improvement on last year's game. The development team employs what it calls an "agile sprint" development system, which means that art assets are regularly delivered from a dedicated team in Kuala Lumpur and builds can improve dramatically in the space of a few short weeks. The game is currently scheduled for release in 2011 on the PC, Xbox 360, and PlayStation 3, and we'll hopefully be able to bring you an updated look in the run-up to its release.

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