Despite increasing competition in the genre, the Operation Flashpoint series has carved out an identity for itself, taking a more realistic approach to modern-day first-person shooters. The latest game in the series, Red River, continues that trend with an approach that creative director Sion Lenton calls "authentically cool," meaning that most of what you'll see in the game has its roots firmly planted in a realistic depiction of combat, but it's all integrated in a way that makes the experience more accessible for newcomers and more entertaining on the whole.
An immediate example of this comes into play with the modifications you can make to each of the four classes available--rifleman, scout, grenadier, and auto rifleman. The rifleman is the jack-of-all-trades of the group, making the class ideal for multiple types of combat situations. The scout is a long-range specialist who can spot enemies at great distances and make effective use of sniper rifles. The grenadier is a close-combat specialist equipped accordingly with weaponry and skills. And finally, the auto rifleman can flourish in a support role, laying down suppressive fire for squadmates. As you progress through the game, you earn experience points that can unlock a variety of items, including new scopes for weapons as well as special skills (or modifications), such as enemy weapons specialist.
The reason that the enemy weapons specialist modification sticks out, as opposed to something like marksman training, which increases long-range proficiency, is that it reveals how Codemasters takes a very real element of combat and implements it in a way that makes perfect sense in gaming terms. When you come across an enemy weapon in Flashpoint, there's a good chance you won't have much luck with it, and there's also a very real possibility that it will continually lock up on you simply because you haven't trained with it. But by gaining experiencing and enabling the enemy weapon specialist modification, you can pick up these weapons and have more success with them.
Some modifications will improve your reloading times or accuracy by limiting how the reticle jumps around when firing. Of course, this makes it seem as though less-skilled soldiers will have trouble hitting their targets in the game early on. Fortunately, as a part of making Red River more accessible, the game features tools to help novices, such as aiming assist and snap-to targeting that make it a little easier to jump in and play well, but seasoned players can turn these features off completely if they want more of a challenge and a more realistic gameplay experience.
Even without such features, newcomers will find Red River more accommodating. In the first mission we saw, called Human Terrain, a squad of Marines (joining Alpha and Charlie squads) flies into a small section of the in-game reproduction of Tajikistan--the focal point of Red River's campaign--where they must escort a convoy to a dam to provide infrastructure support. While touching down, Sergeant Knox gives some general tips as to what to do in case things go wrong, and while they're couched in military vernacular, they're easy to understand and follow. When it comes time to issue your own orders to squadmates (which can be controlled by three other players at any time since the whole campaign supports co-op), you'll find an equally easy-to-understand command radial that sections off complex orders into four distinct areas--maneuvers, tactics, suppression, and follow. Orders are also context sensitive, so what you see when pointing to an open field will be different from what you see when pointing at the side of a building.
It's not long before you have to make extensive use of these orders in this particular mission. Enemy insurgents have taken up positions in the buildings that line the road, making the convoy a relatively easy target. You can move your squad up the sides of the road, taking cover at various points to shoot enemies positioned in between buildings and on rooftops. What makes this a little more nerve-racking is that the AI will change and adapt based on your tactics, and enemies will not hesitate to take advantage of a situation and flank you if the opportunity arises. This mission also reveals how important it is to move forward in a logical way--if you try to just run up the street with your squad, there's a distinct chance that you won't last more than a few seconds. Enemies will appear on your radar, but those dots represent their last known position and not their current one, so while you may have your sights set on a certain spot, there's a possibility that the enemy lurking there has moved and found cover elsewhere--unless, of course, he's on a rooftop.
If you happen to get injured over the course of a mission, it's important to heal yourself as soon as possible. Not only can you bleed out if a wound isn't attended to, but other sorts of injuries also affect physical performance. If you get a leg injury, then that has an adverse effect on your ability to sprint. Fortunately, it's pretty easy to heal yourself (and your squadmates will heal you as well), since you just hold down the corresponding button and wait, but this also makes you incredibly vulnerable because you can't shoot or run while healing. Needless to say, it's important to find some decent cover. Upon completing the mission, Lenton told us that Operation Flashpoint: Red River is an infantry-focused game, and therefore, you won't be piloting helicopters or other fancy vehicles. That's not to say you won't ever get the opportunity. Later missions will have you driving Humvees and jeeps (which have been designed with the help of Codemasters' Dirt driving team), but the emphasis is placed on on-foot action.
With that, we then moved into Last Defense mode, one of the four special Fireteam Engagement modes. This mode has you and your squad (which, again, can be played cooperatively with four players) holding a defensive line against wave after wave of PLA (People's Liberation Army of China) soldiers. Each successive wave becomes more difficult to deal with as more soldiers appear with more firepower, including tanks. Fortunately, you have an unlimited cache of ammunition at your disposal (provided you remember to run back to the cache to stock up) as well as mounted guns. You'll also have access to more powerful anti-vehicle weapons, but ammunition for these is limited. We used the scout glass for the duration of this mode and found it pretty easy to pick off enemies in the first few waves with the DMR (Designated Marksman Rifle) and other weapons available, but as additional waves came in, it became much more difficult to keep up. Eventually, PLA soldiers overwhelmed our position by using a combination of flanking and sheer force. This mode features a point system for individual play as well as team play, adding a little competitive spirit to a game that doesn't have competitive online modes.
At this point, it's clear that Codemasters has been listening to fans of its previous games and has implemented some features that the audience thought were lacking in Dragon Rising. It's also clear that the team wants to make the experience accessible to all sorts of shooter fans without sacrificing the series' dedication to delivering an "authentically cool" experience. Operation Flashpoint: Red River is scheduled for release in spring 2011.