I loved Operation Flashpoint on the PC way back when I used to play it. I loved having access to the mission editor and learning the intricacies of the game. I was saddened when Bohemia Interactive went their own way and sadly I couldn't get into ArmA or ArmA 2 since whilst great games, they were way too buggy and some of those bugs are real game breakers. So I was curious when Codemasters announced Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising, could they deliver the same kind of fun as Flashpoint on the PC and console platforms?
Well, here's the answer.
Set in the 'near' alternative future where China's thirst for oil causes them to invade an island known as Skira, you are tasked as various US forces to go in and sort out the problem. It's pretty basic as stories like this go, but this is a war game and that's what you need: conflict. It does a good job introducing the war torn island and backdrop to the Global Economic Crises of 2012.
Dragon Rising treads the line between shooter and military simulation, it's not quite up there with the hardcore Flashpoint but it's a worthy successor and has fewer bugs than both ArmA and ArmA 2 put together (sorry ArmA fanboys but you can put away your pink bayonets; this is the way it is.) You play one of 4 USMC soldiers with varying roles over a massive military playground. The vast island of Skira is your sandbox and the game does not punish you for approaching objectives in your own way, staying true to the spirit of Operation Flashpoint this gives you immense tactical opportunities and allows you to adjust to any situation on the fly.
Movement is done as per your standard shooter, with various controls explained thoroughly in the lengthy Tutorial Mission, aka: Dragon Rising. You have iron sights on the weapons, scopes and whilst you CANNOT select your squad's weapon's load out at the start of a mission, you can procure weapons on site (OSP) from weapon crates, fallen enemies/allies and other locations.
You are given full control over your 3-man fire-team from the get-go and it is important to make this distinction, this is NOT Call of Duty 4. Dragon Rising as a game presents the whole theatre of war as a visceral combat experience with very little room for error and spray and pray, ala other shooters. Even on Normal difficulty, it's easier and less unforgiving but it's still a brutal game. One bullet can rip through your body armour, deliver a punishing wound and either kill you outright or force you to drop to the ground in agony until a medic can come and treat your injury.
You have a layered wounds system in the game; you can take damage in your body, arms and legs. Taking a wound on the arm can impact your ability to aim and use weapons effectively; taking a hit to the leg can slow you down and remove your ability to sprint. The head will often take you right out of the fight in one. Your medic can help you with blood loss (you often start to bleed when hit by a bullet) and you can also patch yourself up if you can find a safe spot during a battle, with a med kit.
To avoid a fate like this, you need to learn to use the Quick Command Radial and effectively manage your men. The game allows you to alter their spacing, set their Rules of Engagement as well as the formation they use and other orders that are context sensitive, such as assaulting enemy buildings, entering and using vehicles, mounted weapons and so on. Once you become adept at using the QCR you begin to understand the depth of tactics that Dragon Rising offers, this isn't a quick twitch shooter, this is a fairly deep tactical experience that allows you to think and plan your engagements rather than shooting up cookie-cutter bad guys in close quarters through DOOM-like corridors.
You also have other elements at your disposal, as well as many authentically modelled USMC and enemy firearms; you also have vehicles as well as USMC equipment (Night Vision Goggles, infra-red markers, high-powered binoculars), Fire Support (called in via a simple command menu) and the map. On the map screen you can issue complex orders to your fire-team and take the role of a true squad commander, linking waypoints and working on a battle plan. There seems to be no way to place a marker though, which is kind of annoying since any order often sends your squad to the location. A marker would have been useful for multiplayer.
Using the map it's possible to send your squad out, get them to engage the enemy, steal a support helicopter and fly it to your position, all without you having to get your hands dirty. That's flexibility. The key to success in Dragon Rising is that you can always withdraw, run away from an engagement and come back to it from a different angle. Because I can tell you now, that's exactly what your enemy will do and they are not as predictable as you might think.
You can also change stance in the game, going from standing to crouching and prone with a click of the correct control. This is a must when armed with the heavy sniper rifle, otherwise the accuracy goes right out of the window and you can't even hit a barn door when it's right up close and personal. It also presents a smaller target for your enemy to try and hit.
Vehicle controls are good, they offer a great degree of flexibility for numerous roles in the vehicle (especially for multiplayer) and you can switch seats on the fly if you feel like trusting the AI to act as driver for you (hint: give them good waypoints and it helps) to get you from A to B. As driver or pilot, you can turn the engine on and off, fire off counter measures and even toggle the vehicles lights for night time ops. Helicopters are tricky to fly at first but there is an auto-hover and that will help avoid any premature collisions with the ground.
The game does not allow you to save anywhere and has a checkpoint (rally point) system that operates differently based on the difficulty. There is Normal (still hard), Experienced and Hardcore.
On Normal you can have your wounds healed, dead teammates revived at checkpoints and various in-game aids will help you to find and eliminate your targets. On Experienced things get harder, the team no longer respawn and you still have a lot of your helpful aids. On Hardcore, you're on your own in terms of game aids and all the previous rules of Experienced apply. Hardcore is the mode that you really want to play the game in if you're a fan of the original or that you think the game's too easy on Normal or Experienced. It's vicious and it's brutal, just like war.
The Ego Engine manages to do a pretty good job on the 220 kilometres squared map of Skira. It's putting down a decent frame rate with only one noticeable hiccup through a lot of different play-tests from various maps and heavy engagements. It creates a varied terrain with lots of different engagement areas and static emplacements/villages/towns on the massive island. Dense packed forests give way to lush valleys and there's a real feeling of Skira being a true place in the world. The water looks slightly rough and there's a lack of detail on many of the textures, but it's a king compared to Operation Flashpoint and so on. The day/night cycle and various touches as a helicopter picks up dust from its rotor blades on the ground below are all well done.
A moonlit night is something to behold in the game, with the stark white of the moon washing the ground below in an almost ghostly light. The lighting is one of the high points of the game, the next high point is the use of smoke, smoke in this game is truly excellent and it doesn't impact the frame-rate one little bit.
Character models are nicely done and there's a lot of authentic detail here on the weapons and equipment. The vehicles are likewise, very accurate. There are some nice touches such as working navigational lights on the choppers and various control surfaces display proper movement.
There's a nice level of animation detail here, they don't look stiff and from the soldiers to the vehicles, there's a lot of detail that the developers put in to make things look authentic. Setting up a Javelin for instance, it doesn't just appear on your shoulder, this thing takes time to get up and running. Reloading and swapping weapons has the same meticulous attention to animation detail too. There is a nice level of physical animation too, when soldiers are hit by gunfire, they react to it, it's a solid oomph and sometimes a powerful weapon and knock them off their feet or tear limbs off in the case of the Light .50 cal anti-material sniper rifle.
Dragon Rising offers something a little different in terms of physics; it offers you a fairly realistic take on it. Bodies do not obey the laws of Hollywood Physics and nor do vehicles, though it's possible to get the engine to do some odd things now and then when you hit a rock at the wrong angle in a Hummer and end up flipping A-Team style through the air only to land on the roof and have to search for a new vehicle. Yeah, no Halo-style flipping here, once your vehicle is in a position you can't recover from, it's pretty much useless and no amount of trying to bump into it with other vehicles will right it. Especially helicopters, so you have been warned. You can repair damaged vehicles though, which is good if you can still gain access to them. Weapon hits are modelled realistically too, bullet drop, mass and weight as well as wind are all taken into account and if you're using a sniper rifle, and it's time to learn how to use the sight too.
The AI in Dragon Rising is a curious thing. On foot, it's pretty damn good. The allied AI is useful and often they will make sure you survive, coming to help out if they're close enough and you're down. Sometimes they have a moment where they forget how to help you, even though you're screaming for a Medic and in this respect they're almost scarily human and like playing with certain human allies in cooperative. They use their tactics and setting a squad to a Wedge Formation with a Combat Spread allows you to see USMC tactics in action, used to cross open ground and so on. In a vehicle they can be decent as well, when they're not parked across a couple of rocks on the beach trying to move a stuck car. There's a fairly decent obstacle avoidance AI in action and when it works, it's actually pretty slick. When it fails though, you'd wished you'd driven the damn car yourself.
Enemy AI can do everything your AI can and the beauty of Dragon Rising is that the AI is non-scripted. It's adaptive and reactive, it will use tactics, flanking manoeuvres, cover, concealment, stances, fire modes, vehicles and available gun emplacements/weapons to its advantage and at times it's an eagle eyed shot, capable of shooting out your grey matter for 300m away. It's a ruthless adversary like this that transforms Dragon Rising into a truly excellent tactical game. To create an engagement between forces in Dragon Rising, all the developers need to do is drop two opposing sides down and then let them fight it out. You can see this in action in the first mission, with a support squad inserted by chopper on a nearby hill.
Depending how you perform, you can help them to win against the enemy or watch them fight it out snickering from a hidey-hole (this is not advisable) as they perish in a hail of gunfire or manage to win against superior odds. For this reason alone, I can forgive OFP: DR many of the AI faults and amusing chopper related crashes.
Sound design for the game is packed with detail. The developers recorded their weapon sounds from free-fire ranges and various sources, and the same for vehicles. They spent ages making sure that everything you hear in Dragon Rising comes from the real thing. The game also has some great situational and ambient sounds, such as the island at night under a full moon. The atmosphere and tension remains throughout since you may have NVGS or a night-ops scope...but there's a chance your enemy is equipped with them as well. It's exacerbated by the slick sound design and clever use of authentic night time noises. Top marks for the sound design all round. What really impressed me was listening to the sound of gunfire, as bullets ping of metal, skid close to your head and whistle past your ears you instinctively begin to duck as you're playing the game alongside your on-screen counterparts.
A very interesting main theme runs through the game, usually at key points the music can kick in and provide a nice counterpoint to the action. Mostly though the music you'll hear is that of the menu screens and the chattering sound of gunfire as you duck for cover. I wouldn't mind a soundtrack from Dragon Rising, hint-hint Codemasters!
The attention to detail here is excellent, as USMC soldiers use authentic commands and phonetics. There's not much in the way of story script since it's delivered in the actual game itself as orders and talkback from HQ. The voice work is solid, since it's broken up into chunks to allow you to give out orders and for your soliders to reply in kind. It doesn't sound stilted most of the time and you can actually understand the various soldiers, each with their own distinctive voice and personality in combat. What is impressive is that Codemasters have made sure that you have different levels of voice. So when you're in combat and weapons free, you're loud, you're shouting over gunfire. When you're at night and moving with a fire on my lead order or hold fire, then you're whispering and giving the impression you're actually sneaking around. In normal travel with no significant threats, you can expect a fairly normal sounding voice.
So here we are at last, the part many of you will have been waiting for or skipped to the end to read. Yes, it has multiplayer, online with ranked and player matches, offline via system link and basically supports the following modes:
Adversarial: Annihilation, two teams are at war on the island, they have access to everything pretty much from single player and all hell breaks loose. There are AI units and equipment and you begin at the opposite end of the map selected by the host, may the best team win either through a pre-set score or when the timer runs out.
Infiltration: Team A (Spec Ops) must infiltrate and destroy an objective on the map, whilst Team B (defenders) must secure and hold the location where the objective is. This mode forces the attacking team to use covert tactics and operations techniques to accomplish their objective since they are often against much larger numbers and better equipped foes. Team B wins if they kill Team A.
Then there's cooperative play, either with a full team of 4 human players or a mix of 2-3 human players with the last slots occupied by AI. You can either play the Campaign with your friends from mission to mission watching the story unfold as you work together or jump right into favourite maps you have completed in story and play them as a single mission. This is where the infra-red marker on your gun comes in handy since you can use it to help point out objects or soldiers in the world and anyone with NVG's equipped at night will see it.
Online supports 2-8 players with AI filling out the rest of the squads and fire-teams on the maps. Cooperative supports 2-4 players and the AI will take up the remaining soldier slots.
The multiplayer is a lot of fun either adversarial, especially Infiltration and the coop experience is excellent, barring one minor niggle. If your whole team dies then its back to the start of the mission, since checkpoints are only to allow respawn locations for your squad members. So if you lose a man and you can't win, withdraw and wait for them to respawn back in or you'll be back at square one regardless. I would have preferred to return to my last checkpoint in that regard on Normal and could understand it happening on Experienced or Hardcore, but it may put certain players off.
All in all
This is one of the best military sandboxes since Operation Flashpoint, it has less bugs than ArmA and ArmA 2 and offers a wealth of replay value since the dynamic unscripted AI provides more than enough challenge on repeated plays of the same map. This game deserves to be on any serious military shooter fans shelf and regardless of some niggles and bugs mentioned with the AI and physics, it's a good quality game.