Welcome back to the War
I like these kinds of games and I'm notoriously hard to please in that respect, what I am not is a rabid Hardcore Operation Flashpoint fan, which will start to foam at the mouth the moment that something is wrong with a game that bears the name of their beloved franchise. If you want that kind of realism then go and enlist in a real army or play Arma 2 plus the many expansions. Anyone who knows the history of this series knows that Bohemia Interactive went away and made Armed Assault 1 and 2 leaving Flashpoint in the hands of Codemasters.
Operation Flashpoint: Red River is set in Tajikistan just over the border of Afghanistan and features nods towards 911 and Osama Bin Laden's terrorist faction Al Qaeda. The Insurgents have been striking the Chinese and the whole region has now become a Flashpoint, it's up to Staff Sergeant Knox and his beloved Outlaw Platoon to go in and clean up the mess before it ignites into a full scale war.
Red River is a leaner beast than Dragon Rising and many of the features that were in the previous game have been streamlined, or removed entirely. This has given the game a wider appeal and made it slightly easier to get into for the non-Hardcore fans of the series. Red River is definitely far more accessible and definitely more playable than Dragon Rising right from the get-go.
Anyone familiar with the mechanics and controls of a First Person shooter is going to feel right at home here, barring the edge of realism that's been layered upon the shooting mechanics. There are things like penetration to consider, calibre of the weapon that you're using and the most important which is distance to target. You see unlike in CoD where a bullet can fly hundreds of meters and strike a target with impunity across the battlefield, in Red River the bullet loses power over distance and that's something that tends to be known as: bullet drop.
It's something to bear in mind when looking at the game, since you need to adjust your aim and fire above the target so that the round lands smack on their smug noggin' rather than smashing into the dirt in an embarrassing short-fall cloud of sand and gravel. Once you begin to realise that there's a physics engine working behind the weapons in the game, you start to adapt your play style and find out there's a very decent shooter under all the Team America Oooh-rah!
It's a game that rewards patience and it rewards perseverance too. You can actually mark where you get better at Red River and see the difference following some of SSgt Knox's 10 simple rules to surviving in Tajikistan. Our initial forays were met with a lot of cursing and swearing, since the game is hard if you make a few mistakes and one bullet can kill you outright. You may be lucky and get hosed by the Insurgent's AK dropping you into a downed bleeding- out state or you might be one-shot-killed there and then. Several factors come into play, most of them behind the scenes and worked out by the game's combat engine.
If you take a penetrative wound you will start to bleed, you can patch yourself and heal that wound. You can let the AI or fellow Marines heal you and patch you up. It's all about using cover, the various stances: kneeling and prone, to effectively put obstacles between you and them allowing your sights to fall on the enemy and the bullets to hit the barricade. Be warned, ricochets can still kill you if you're very unlucky.
The controls are simple enough; you can quickly get to grips with the basics and learn how to turn on and off your equipment. This includes torches for badly lit buildings, Night Vision goggles and an IR Marker to paint those targets to let your team know where to shoot at night. You can carry a primary weapon (usually some kind of rifle) and a secondary weapon (often a pistol or an SMG), a few grenades and some other toys that open up later on or are mission specific. You can also vault over low walls, which means you can flank the enemy on the other side fairly easily now.
There are 4 classes in Red River (Scout, Rifleman, Auto-Rifleman and Grenadier) and there's a customisation layer that allows you to load them out as you unlock various weapons. The more you do in the game, the more you gain experience points that give you a level up and the higher level you are the better equipment you can field and so on. Each class is different and amongst the weapons, there are also class modifiers that change things subtly again. For instance a Scout can eventually gain the modifier that allows them to mostly ignore bullet drop over longer distances, it's still there but greatly reduced due to high-velocity rounds.
As you complete out missions in the campaign or Fireteam Engagements (of which there are 4 main modes and 2 missions a pop) you get medals, bronze, silver and gold. Gold awards you 3 points, silver 2 and bronze 1. Those points can be placed in the core skills of your character and they are persistent across all 4 classes. So for instance you can put points in skills like Tactical Awareness, allowing you to ID targets across longer distances keep them in your HUD for longer and be more aware of threats in general. Assault Rifle Training and Handling improve your use of basic rifles and so on. There are several core skills and investing the points in those pays dividends in later missions and FTE's.
With 20 levels to gain across 4 classes and unique mods to unlock for each one, there's a lot of play right there and then. The main campaign is pretty big and it has missions that can take 45 minutes or more to complete when you're looking to keep yourself alive and your team healthy.
Talking of team...you have 3 other men under your command. These men can be customised just like your main character and assigned any of the 4 classes and all of the weapons/mods unlocked at that point in your career. If you want to roll with 3 Scouts in your Fireteam, you can. 20th Level Scouts make some of the defence missions a real breeze until the vehicles roll in. Red River removes the cumbersome orders wheel from the previous game and replaces it with a slicker right bumper interface, there are a reduced number of orders on offer and no order to stop your men from firing once you've given them a suppress. You have to literally order them to do something else, you can stop them with Hold Fire but they'll carry on suppressing when you give the all clear.
With just a few orders per slot on the wheel, it's not hard to use the command interface and pull up the right command. With a tap of the left bumper you can switch to the Fire Support wheel and let loose that JDAM you've always wanted to drop on the enemy, providing you have the all clear of course.
It's possible to order the team or your individual men and in the heat of battle, the smoother menu pays dividends. If you're not the Fireteam Leader you can still use the wheel but the options are different and are layered into responses and target painting. This is very useful when you're playing with human Fireteam members. Something we'll talk about later on.
There are a limited amount of vehicles on offer and you won't be driving Tanks or Choppers on this outing, this is all about smaller group engagements with the resources available to the soldiers under Knox's command. Not just rolling in with tanks and levelling everything in sight.
You can play the Fireteam Engagements, FTE's. These are self-contained semi-random mission types with 2 maps a piece. They are:
CSAR: Combat Search and Rescue: get 2 downed chopper pilots to the chopper and ward off any enemy presence.
Combat Sweep: Take out the Insurgent presence and blow up any weapon caches that you might find. A bonus is awarded for the time taken to clear each map. Do it quickly for that awesome GOLD medal.
Rolling Thunder: Keep the convoy safe, keep it from being destroyed. Kill all the bad guys and keep the vehicles moving, if they stop, you lose points and can go into negative score. The good news is that you get 500 points per checkpoint. Now go get those points!
Last Stand: The enemy are coming in waves; you have to hold them back. You can Bug Out at any time but the longer you hold, the more rewards you get and the higher the experience payout is at the end. If you don't hold the line and the enemy overwhelm you or you run out of respawns - game over man, game over.
These engagements can be played single player or with friends, we'll talk about the multiplayer a little bit later though.
Finally the game has mid-mission checkpoints that allow you to come right back in later on and continue, even if you go off and play a few FTE's to get some more experience. This system makes it much more fun to play the game and there are fewer headaches all round. It's simple enough and for those Hardcore fans there are various settings that allow you to play the game with reduced HUD and no crosshairs, no checkpoints and so on.
There's also aim-assist which can be toggled on and off in the option menu, don't think it's like CoD aim-assist though, you're still going to have to use bullet drop training from earlier.
Red River is a significant step up from Dragon Rising in terms of the graphics. War-torn Tajikistan is an interesting place and it's packed with detail. The dust and smoke clouds obscure vision and the sun is filtered through a haze of desert sand. It's graphically fairly pretty and whilst it doesn't stand head to head with the triple-A titles it's not a slouch in those terms either. The character models are pretty good and they are nicely textured with a decent level of detail on the soldiers and the vehicles. There are no real instances of pop-in or out as well and the whole thing hums along at a decent framerate even when a JDAM goes off. A lot of attention to detail has gone into the interiors of the vehicles you can control. The graphics also extend to the damage system and some of the wound effects look pretty spot on.
Gone are the stiff animations of Dragon Rising, replaced with a wide variety of idle motions that give the soldiers various character actions. They'll light cigarettes and smoke, they'll stretch and adjust their weapons, check their sights and so on. Running looks realistic enough, they can throw themselves prone, vault over small walls and obstacles. They come to a sliding stop when they're running full tilt, duck into cover when being shot at and generally give the impression that they're soldiers in a battle. So this new iteration of Codemaster's animation system is actually pretty good and gives a nice atmospheric feel.
There's a lot of realism here in the bullet physics and the damage system has been designed to take into account the munitions used. The calibre of the weapon, the penetration value of the round and all those kinds of things are invisible to the gamer, but they're going on in the background. So the soldiers can be shot, bleed, blown to bits if they're on the wrong end of an m203 grenade and so on. They can also be thrown a little way from the blast of an explosion or knocked prone by a heavier combat round. There's also a destruction layer in the game and heavier munitions can ruin buildings.
Vehicle physics are handled by Codemaster's own racing studio, so this time the handling is a lot better than Dragon Rising.
Ah...there's the rub eh, wondering why the game only got an 8? Well...the AI isn't all that great, they'll make some really dumb moves and often ignore a tango that comes right out and stands there in front of them. Taylor's DOWN! Well yes, he was shot point blank by a grinning guy with an AK...I imagine that's going to happen if he ties his shoelaces in battle!
When it works, it works really well and they're a life-saver and great addition to the team. But when it fails, such as when you give them an order to defend and they basically hide behind a brick wall failing to shoot the bad guys as they come running over the hill...it just makes you want to put them down for good.
In short, AI needs fixing.
Enemy AI isn't too bad; it's probably more competent than your own AI squad.
The Theatre of War is brought to life pretty well, the various weapons have a nice sound to them and the ambient/spot effects, as well as the vehicle noises are all drawn from real life inspiration and sounds. It is really scary to hear the grumble of an enemy tank and have to avoid the blast from the barrel as it slams into a nearby building.
Once again the music for Red River is powerful and evocative; it has overtones of the Chinese PLA's menace and the desperation of the Insurgents throughout. It's all wrapped up against driving themes that bark loudly and evoke the war torn country as the US roll on through. There are also desperate moments where things look grim and they are delivered with a great score. Also there are a fair few tracks from bands such as Drowning Pool and Saliva for the vehicle stereo systems just to add that extra bit of zing.
If you don't like swearing, well...this might not be the game for you. Sgt Knox is ably acted by the very same Apone from Aliens and that makes him a hateable and likable character at the same time. He pops more F-bombs than JDAMs in the US arsenal and has a really colourful way of putting things. The voice work is solid enough from all the actors and it works well with the story, the dialogue is well written and peppered with a lot of Marine Corps by-worlds and acronyms.
This is a true drop-in/out experience for System Link or Xbox Live play. Red River allows you to play with 3 other friends across all the modes of the game and have a ton of fun. This is where the game really shines and having a human Fireteam is really good when you're rocking out the campaign. This is where you can work as a team and use all the skills that you'd expect to have learned from singleplayer to put the hurt on the bad guys. There is no adversarial multiplayer and frankly we don't miss it. More co-op multiplayer is needed and that's a fact. The multiplayer lobby fires up the moment you boot the game and any of your friends can join in, either in the front-end or mid-mission. It's that simple; see someone you want to play with online invite them in, presto...done.
There were a few issues with lag at times but that could have been due to the player and not the game itself, so we're not holding that against Red River.
This is a game that lets you drop the JDAM on someone(s) house, this is the game that's built for you and your friends, this is the game that might not be true to the legacy of Operation Flashpoint...this is more importantly the game that gets it right compared to Dragon Rising. If Codemasters called this: Operation: Red River or something along those lines, Flashpoint fans wouldn't bat an eyelid and they wouldn't give a damn about it. They have Arma 2 to immerse themselves with and yes, I have played that game.
Tell you what though, I actually thoroughly enjoyed Red River and its staying on my shelf for a long time.
This is the game that you deserve to give a chance to, regardless of your fanboy leanings.
We are Oscar Mike!