UK REVIEW--The challenge of creating a truly realistic battlefield is rarely attempted in video games, but Operation Flashpoint: Red River takes it on and comes very close to succeeding. Unfortunately, the intensity of its highly tactical warzone is often broken by AI issues, poor checkpointing, and the need for a trial-and-error approach in some areas. Red River includes a well-presented and methodically paced campaign as well as some enjoyable cooperative multiplayer modes, but a long list of design and technical problems ultimately prevent this competent first-person shooter from being a great one.
In the campaign you play as the leader of Fireteam Bravo, a four-man team that is part of a larger marine squad sent into Tajikistan to chase down insurgents who have fled the conflict in Afghanistan. What starts out as a small operation quickly escalates as China's People's Liberation Army forces move into the country to wipe out insurgents who have been attacking the Chinese border. The story is well-presented with great looking cut-scenes that mix footage from the game with video from the real-world conflict in Afghanistan. However, the plot is a little lacking in originality.
To control your team amid the increasing chaos of the Tajik battlefield, you can issue a variety of specific orders to your brothers in arms. These start with simple commands such as "follow me" or "hold position" and then progress to orders such as assaulting buildings, suppressing targets, and calling in airstrikes or artillery. The key to success in the single-player game is to make sure your team is always in a position to respond quickly to new situations.
However, despite your best efforts, your AI squadmates show very little awareness of what is going on around them, and don't have much sense of self-preservation. They often wander off on their own even if told to hold position, for example, and when complying with the "follow" command, they walk into your crossfire with alarming regularity. During particularly intense firefights, you sometimes spend as much time healing your teammates as you do shooting at the enemy. Friendly AI shows little desire to stay behind cover, and one hit is enough to incapacitate them. Healing your friends takes quite some time too, because there is one process to stop bleeding and another to heal wounds. Healing your team often leaves you exposed to the enemy, risking a quick death that forces you to start the firefight all over again. The careless AI dampens the realism of the battles and often forces you to repeat sections multiple times. This is made even worse by a checkpoint system that regularly forces you to replay overly long sections when you're killed.
While these moments of the campaign are supremely frustrating, there are others that offer great satisfaction. Performing the perfect flanking maneuver is almost an art form and is a great way to surprise the enemy. This element of surprise is often the key to succeeding in Red River's lengthy and difficult missions, because your enemies are deadly accurate even from several hundred yards away. Make your approach too obvious, and you might quickly find yourself in a bottleneck with enemy forces bearing down from all sides. Most battles take place at a range of around 100 to 150 yards, but if your enemies see a chance to get up close and personal, they will take it. If you let them get too close, the fight will be over very quickly, because they use similar tactics to your own, attempting to suppress and flank your position. The realistic, tactical ebb and flow to the battles is one of Red River's biggest strengths.
This level of depth is great for shooter fans looking for a more strategic and challenging experience. However, some players may lack the tactical awareness needed. This is where Red River's assists come in. Rather than affecting the competence of your enemies, turning the difficulty up turns off some of the assists, most of which are on by default in normal mode. Some of these aids, such as aim assist, are familiar from other first-person shooters, but in this strategic game, the most important assists are those that improve your situational awareness on the battlefield. These include radar to show the location of your team and the enemy, objective icons on the map, and markers that suggest the best route through the environment. If you turn these assists off, you can create one of the most intensely authentic military experiences available in a video game. Without the assists to rely on, the game becomes even more demanding, but because of the AI issues, it rarely becomes more satisfying.
The campaign can also be played online cooperatively with up to four players. Without the dim-witted friendly AI to spoil the fun, the co-op experience is far more enjoyable. Ideally you need to use voice chat to coordinate your efforts, so this mode is best played with friends rather than by jumping into a quick match online. You can arrange your loadouts to make sure that your co-op squad is ready for any situation and then take to the battlefield to play the same missions as in the single-player campaign. Getting your tactics right when playing with real people is far more satisfying and gives you greater freedom to creatively approach battlefield situations. This makes the co-op campaign by far the most entertaining part of Red River. There are also several other cooperative games called Fireteam Engagements. These quick matches take place on maps separate from the main campaign and offer faster-paced co-op missions, such as rescuing downed pilots, defending an area from waves of attackers, protecting a convoy, or clearing an area of enemies. The great cooperative play goes a long way toward offsetting the disappointing absence of competitive multiplayer.
All of the game modes in single-player and co-op reward you with experience. You can level up in each of the four separate classes: rifleman, auto rifleman, grenadier, and scout. This gives you access to new weapons, attachments, and mods, which function similarly to the perk systems found in many modern first-person shooters. You can also assign upgrade points to particular combat abilities, such as faster sprinting and better accuracy. All of the upgrades and experience that you earn apply across all of the different game modes, so you always feel like you are progressing, even when you're not playing the campaign.
Red River boasts detailed characters and exaggerated atmospheric lighting. Unfortunately, the environment occasionally lacks detail and regularly features low-resolution textures. During the intense battlefield situations, you won't notice this lack of detail too often, but on other occasions the visuals let the game down. During one sequence in an early mission, the staff sergeant warns his troops to be careful in the "forest" up ahead, but there are only a handful of trees to be seen. That said, the view distance and scale in the environments are very impressive, making the battlefields feel large and imposing. On the PC there is anti-aliasing and slightly improved lighting, but these offer only minor improvements over the graphics in the console versions. The voice acting is good, though there is an awful lot of swearing, which makes the dialogue sound more cliched than authentic. At times the game would have benefitted from less profane and more technical military chatter, rather than having the sergeant follow every instruction with a swear-filled simile for how angry he's going to be if you do things wrong.
Operation Flashpoint: Red River is a decent first-person shooter with solid shooting mechanics and great emphasis on a tactical approach to the battlefield. However, the single-player campaign is hampered by poor AI that turns challenging missions into frustrating ones, and lackluster graphics sometimes erode the game's realism. If you play the campaign in cooperative mode, though, you will find a well-balanced game that offers satisfaction and reward for overcoming its high level of challenge.