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We go hands-on with Operation Flashpoint: Red River's main campaign...
Kirby, Taylor, Sato, and Balleto: the names for all four members of Operation Flashpoint: Red River's Fireteam Bravo. This is the squad that you will lead throughout a sizeable three act campaign when the game launches later this month. And they're names that really troubled us during a recent hands-on preview of the campaign. You see, so many of our fumbled decisions lead to their demise. We were extracted from combat zones on many occasions with two or three empty seats in the back of our Humvee - the seats where a Balleto or Kirby would've been had we not unknowingly ordered them straight into the line of enemy fire. If Codemasters had simply listed these characters under their ranks alone - Lance Corporal or Sergeant, for example - then our poor decisions would've been so much easier to live with.
It evokes the same kind of conscientiousness that older gamers may remember from Sensible Software's classic, Cannon Fodder. This top-down squad-shooter not only gave its four characters nicknames, but then proceeded to add named tombstones on the main menu whenever you managed to get one of them killed. It was a simple touch that actually made you feel something for an insignificant grouping of pixels and, nearly two decades on, Codemasters has repeated the process using 3D character models with discernible facial features so that now, not only do you feel emotionally tied to these soldiers, but you can see the whites of their eyes too. However, numerous squad-based shooters use nicknames and an engaging storyline to tie you to the characters. What is it about Red River that actually manages to successfully form that bond and mark itself apart from the vast majority of other military shooters out there?
Orders - it's as simple as that. Red River is all about clearly delivered and precisely executed orders, just like the real military. Or, at least, I suppose it's like the real military - the closest I ever got was a single session with a local RAF Cadets unit (the pipe smoking Air Commodore scared me a bit - I did not return). But anyway, I digress... the point is, if you're doing your job right as the leader of Fireteam Bravo then you'll successfully complete the set objectives, none of your squad-mates will return home in body bags, and civilian casualties will go no higher than zero. In fact, if you're really doing your job well during a fire-fight, then you might not even have to fire a bullet. Such is the power of clear and proper orders that, if you nail them at precisely the right time with unwavering accuracy then your three other AI squaddies might even be able to fight off the enemy by themselves, leaving your mag full for the next engagement.
In a familiar vein to the Total War games, however, things rarely turn out that way - in the words of Robbie Burns, the best laid plans of mice and men often go agley. More often than not you'll form a strategy, sending Kirby and Sato out onto the flanks while getting Taylor to provide suppressing fire through the middle, for example, only for this strategy to fall apart as insurgents exploit the channels and leave your fireteam fragmented. Each soldier then becomes easy-pickings for the enemy, their icons on the HUD turning from an injured yellow to a bleeding-out red as you crouch helplessly on the other side of the battlefield with a hive of insurgents now hunkered down between you and your subordinates. At this point there's a feeling of genuine regret and guilt: not only will you have a great deal of trouble completing the current objectives without the aid of your squad (the game makes sure of this), but also the death of your brothers in arms is the direct result of your foolish orders. You shout, 'Sato, No!' in your head as Samuel Barber's Adagio for Strings comes to mind and your squad-mate falls to the ground, his body a sieve with bullets like Sergeant Elias' last moments in Platoon.
What's interesting is that, even though you get a higher rank in a mission if you manage to keep your squad alive from one checkpoint to the next, which in turn unlocks perks and weapon customisation, these aren't the main reasons that you regret being responsible for their deaths. Instead, you regret that you're no longer fighting as a unified team; that you've left someone behind. If you can name another FPS that genuinely evokes these kinds of emotions in its gameplay, then we're all ears. Where other squad shooters seem to make your team into bulletproof drones whose ammo doesn't appear to actually kill the enemy, Red River does the precise opposite of all of those things. From the other end of the spectrum and on an entirely different tack, Codemasters' latest Operation Flashpoint is likely to sit alongside Bulletstorm as one of the most original FPS titles this year.
But there's something on top of all these things that pushes Red River over the top, adding the bond with your squad that the series has previously lacked. After all, a lot of the squad system and gameplay dynamics we've mentioned were present in 2009's Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising, so what was the missing ingredient? Three words: a coherent story. Rather than the somewhat fictionalised island location of Skira in Dragon Rising, with its vague references to a global oil dispute between China, Russia, and the USA, Red River dives head-first into current affairs by setting the game in Tajikistan (check your atlases, it's a real place) and taking on themes of terrorism and insurgency. Amid global unrest and a spiralling crisis in the Middle-East (sounds familiar), violence erupts as Tajik terrorists kill Chinese athletes at the 2012 London Olympics. A full-scale land invasion by the Chinese People's Liberation Army ensues and, as always where issues of global terrorism are involved, the US is never far behind.
As with Dragon Rising, players take on the role of USMC soldiers and, once again, the PLA is brought into the story as it progresses (although not for most of our hands-on, we might add). During the opening levels that we previewed, most of the action consisted of flushing out terrorists from their Tajik hidey holes and the game is all the better for this added tension and unpredictability to the engagements. Overall, the new real-world setting, more palpable state of unrest, and addition of a different enemy with varied tactics adds a much needed touch of spice to the mix. Where the story really starts to get palpable, though, is in the dialogue. Usually we'd quickly grow tired of a game that makes indulgent use of swear words simply because it often comes across as crass and infantile. However, where this potty mouth is accompanied by such well written and researched military vernacular, it just seems that bit more conceivable (after all, if people can't swear in a warzone then where can they?).
This close attention to military slang is never more evident than in the words of Staff Sergeant Knox, whose ever-present pep talks in the first few levels have all the charm of a sports coach from hell. Throughout some jittery preview code visuals that weren't exactly the prettiest of things at times, we've got to say that it was often his steely words that most successfully immersed us in Red River's deadly warzone (that and Operation Flashpoints notoriously high-brow difficulty). Gamers should also look out for the voice-over work of Al Matthews, who played Sergeant Apone in Aliens and takes on the role of Battalion Commander, Colonel Shannon J. Hardaway in this Operation Flashpoint. A USMC veteran of the Vietnam War, Matthews won two Purple Hearts for the service he gave to his country.
Before we go though, it's worth noting that all of this campaign is playable in multiplayer co-op for 1-4 players, meaning you and three friends can build your very own Fireteam Bravo. Click through here for a full hands-on preview of the co-op, including a detailed look at the additional Fireteam Engagements co-op mode.
Amongst all of the Call of Duty clones out there at the moment, it's worth remembering that some developers are still pulling off original gameplay concepts in the FPS genre. For this reason alone, it's worth keeping a very close eye on Operation Flashpoint: Red River as it squares up for launch later this month.
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