Operation Flashpoint: Cold War Crisis Updated Preview
We take a look at the European release of the squad-based shooter from Codemasters.
The tactical shooter genre has to date been defined by a handful of big-name games like Red Storm's Rainbow Six, Sierra's SWAT, Valve's Counter-Strike, and Nova Logic's Delta Force, all of which offered a different strategic take on the first-person experience. To this group we can soon add Operation Flashpoint: Cold War Crisis, which contains some elements of the games that preceded it while managing to add some interesting and innovative features of its own.
Operation Flashpoint is perhaps best described as a "conflict simulator." Playing the game, you will engage in combat on foot, in the air, and in a startling number of ground-based vehicles. In the single-player missions, you assume the role of a NATO soldier, and when the game begins, you are a simple private, obeying the orders given to you. As the campaign goes on, you will eventually work your way up in rank to command of a squad of your own. We were recently able to get ahold of a complete build of the European release of the game, and we spent about a week playing through it in order to update our original preview.
It is important to understand what Operation Flashpoint is not, as much as what it is. While you will drive a tank, it is not a tank sim. Likewise, while you'll pilot a helicopter, a jet, and other airborne vehicles, it is not a flight sim. In a move that may please those frustrated by the complexity of World War II Online, Bohemia Interactive has streamlined each of these vehicles so the emphasis is on action, rather than extreme realism. Throughout the game, you'll come across vehicles on the side of the road, and you'll want to get in and get out of there as soon as possible--there just isn't time to learn a new control scheme. And so Bohemia has made the "WASD" keys the main controls for every action. Whether you're behind the wheel of a jeep or dodging enemy fire on foot, you will always use these four keys to move you forward, backward, right, and left, while controlling the camera with the mouse. Many first-person shooters have used this to control vehicles with mixed results, but thankfully it works here, and quite well in fact. And although they aren't quite up to sim status, the vehicle physics are believable enough.
Visually, Operation Flashpoint is very good, but not spectacular. The character models are a little clunky, but there are lots of them, with lots of different animations for running, crawling, ducking, sitting, and engaging in conversation. The facial animations are very good, with animated eyes and accurate mouth movements. The terrain itself isn't terribly detailed, but more often than not it will be covered with troops, vehicles, and bodies, so chances are you won't ever notice. The foliage, in true Rainbow Six (or for that matter, Deer Hunter) style, is made up of sprites, but when enough are placed next to each other, they are able to produce a believable forest, and ducking behind trees, bushes, and rocks is an easy way to get out of enemy sight. There are some nice environmental effects, including real-time lighting based on the time of day, making the missions at dawn hauntingly beautiful. The weapon models are extremely detailed, and each weapon you pick up looks just like it should. Nice touches like muzzle flashes help convey the idea that you really are holding an M16, AK74, or bazooka.
Should You Choose To Accept It
The single-player campaign is set in 1985, shortly after Mikhail Gorbechev's rise to power in the Soviet Union, but Operation Flashpoint is not a history lesson. Because you begin the game as a private, you aren't actually told what's going on. In fact, when a member of your squad asks, he's told to simply be quiet and follow orders. This is actually a very effective storytelling technique, because as the game moves on, circumstances involve your character more closely in what's going on, and so the bigger picture begins to unfold, allowing you to experience the story from the perspective of NATO, as well as one of the underground resistance movements. The story is moved forward using post-mission cutscenes, which are rendered in real time, giving the whole game a unified look and feel.
Although there is a great deal of strategy involved, particularly in the later missions, where you have to control a squad of your own, the emphasis in Operation Flashpoint is on action. Missions have you making your way across a battlefield, flanked by the other members of your team, trying to regain ground, protect civilians, or in a few cases, just plain survive. This isn't a first-person shooter--you can sustain two, possibly three hits, at most (if that--one good shot is all it really takes), and running too quickly will tire you out. If you do get hit while in the heat of battle, you can make your way over to a medic, who will heal you. Of course, the fighting doesn't exactly stop while this is happening, so a great deal of caution is necessary. Unless you hit the pause button, the fighting never actually stops, so when you check your map or mission objectives, you have to be careful. Actually, you can even keep walking (or running) while on the map or mission objective screens.
The combat is delightfully varied, and it's not quite as dry as that of some other tactical shooters, thanks in part to the different vehicles you'll commandeer, but also because of your constantly changing objectives. When each mission begins, you are given your initial objectives, along with a map that plots out your course. Once on the battlefield, the team leader will issue commands to each squad member, such as "target soldier" or "all proceed to tree." But just as in real combat, things don't always go according to plan, so you are often assigned new tasks on the battlefield. These include having to retreat completely, using a different route, or going to an entirely different location.
The game is quite tense, since you can only sustain a couple of hits and you are only given one save per mission. Deciding when to use this save is difficult, because there are also "retry" points, which will allow you to jump back there after you die. There aren't very many of these for each mission, but it can be frustrating if you use your solitary save just before reaching a retry mark. Fortunately for those unable to spend hours on end at a time with the game, Operation Flashpoint does allow you to quit at any time and pick up where you left off. After completing a mission, you are given a score based on how you performed, and if you do badly enough (but still manage to survive), you'll get chewed out by your commanding officer.
Not An "Army of One"
The AI of your teammates is very good, but like in any team-based combat game, it has its quirks. During a few of the ground combat missions, I noticed my comrades had a tendency to drop to the ground, crawl for a few paces, jump back up, and drop down again repeatedly. Still, they get the job done, and if you can get past the occasional goof, you'll find that they are very capable. Of course there are moments in the game when you won't have them there to back you up, and believe me--when that happens, you'll wish you did, warts and all. If you're the team leader, issuing commands is fairly easy. Each of your teammates is assigned a number that is displayed on the bottom of your HUD, and it's simply a matter of selecting a person and then pressing the number of the command you wish to give him. It can be a bit difficult to assign commands in the heat of battle while trying to stay alive yourself, but then a great leader should be able to deal with that.
Any game of this nature is simply perfect for multiplayer, and Operation Flashpoint is no exception. The version we were sent, which is actually the one already available overseas, features a handful of multiplayer missions, including a capture the flag scenario, an assault-style mission where one team defends a town from invasion, and a paintball-themed map. While only a few of the vehicles from the single-player game are used in these missions, there is something quite satisfying about being able to drive an armored personnel transport or one of the other vehicles during a simple game of CTF. The game ships with a mission editor, and players can create new missions of their own using any vehicles they choose. Another nice feature--though fairly standard for tactical shooters these days--is support for voice-over IP technology, allowing you to talk in real time with your teammates. Finding servers is simple enough, as the game features support for GameSpy out of the box.
Operation Flashpoint is already very stable, but because it's available overseas, the version of the game that lands on North American shores will incorporate the fixes, tweaks, and improvements that have already been added to the European version. Bohemia Interactive is dedicated to supporting the game, and they have already added new features, such as the ability to import custom facial textures, improved weapon shadowing and enemy AI, and the ability to create player-defined actions. In addition to all that, the North American version will include improved multiplayer networking (including dedicated server support), more single- and multiplayer missions, and still more playable vehicles. And of course, for those overseas, these features will all be available for download as part of an upcoming patch.
Based on the version we were sent, it's not difficult at all to recommend this game to any fan of the tactical shooter genre. Its streamlined interface and emphasis on action may be a turnoff for hard-core sim fans, but there is a great deal of depth, strategy, and fun to be found in Operation Flashpoint. Look for it to arrive here next month.
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