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Codemasters' realistic military shooter returns for its third instalment in the series...
I would make a rubbish Marine - Operation Flashpoint: Red River has at least taught me that much. With the game's myriad of squad command options used to direct the four-man Fireteam Bravo, it's got to be said that the clear and proper orders I was supposed to be executing could more accurately be described as vague and wrong: 'Flank left! No, actually - Hold Your Fire! On second thoughts - bear with me a second - Wedge Formation!' It's all about leadership qualities with Red River; the ability to make steadfast decisions under pressure and then see them through, no matter how dangerous the potential consequences. And it's a hard quality to master: gamers used to their 'lone-wolf' shooters may well find themselves having more in common with Frank Spencer than Captain John H. Miller. FUBAR and SNAFU are acronyms that often come to mind.
But despite the many Foxtrot Uniform situations you'll inevitably put your Fireteam in, there is a genuine joy to be had when it all comes together. You really do have to rely on the whole Fireteam if you're going to have any hope of succeeding - if they get killed, then you won't be far behind - and so there's a genuine sense of responsibility, or perhaps even camaraderie to be had here. Codemasters has done a great job of tying military objectives to the actions of a group rather than an individual, and that's no mean feat. In fact, such is the connection between you and the squad that it's kind of mystifying when they die and then spawn back in at the next checkpoint. It may well be a necessary piece of game design but it kind of ends up breaking the connection between you and the squad. If you know that Corporal Ryan Balleto has magical resurrection abilities, then you're that bit less bothered when he's bleeding out on the other side of the battlefield.
Perhaps it's a minor gripe, and maybe it's difficult to conceive balanced gameplay where consistent respawns aren't an option. Either way though, Red River manages to do so much more than most squad shooters just by making you care about the Fireteam. With something a bit more innovative in the design, such as persistent combat XP for the AI that's wiped clean whenever they die, you'd be that bit more tied to the gameplay. As it is, the most original feature in Red River reaches for great but comes off with good instead. Elsewhere, level design is pretty well varied through the campaign's 10 missions. Everything from a stealthy, night-time insertion to escorting a convoy of Humvees, and stronghold offensives to defending fixed positions from enemy onslaughts are covered in a story that spans around 10 hours of game time depending on your skill.
And it's the story that has been a real focus for Codemasters this time around. Unlike the first Operation Flashpoint from Bohemia Interactive that was deeply entrenched in sim territory, or 2009's Dragon Rising with its vague references to oil disputes, Red River wades deeper into the realms of plotlines and characters than ever before (mainly in the sense that it actually has perceivable plotlines and characters). But it's a wafer-thin story with a plot that's flimsily drawn together. There's little more in the form of characters than a Staff Sergeant that barks profanities in your ear the whole time, and a Battalion Commander that voices briefings for the simplistic pre-mission videos (on the upside, Al Matthews did the voice-work). On the one hand, a hot-headed Staff Sergeant is probably in-keeping with what most Marines would experience on a daily basis, but that doesn't make the story more engaging unfortunately.
It all runs the risk of failing to please the broader range of gamers that Red River is trying to attract while also annoying the ardent simulation fans that Operation Flashpoint's user-base was built from in the first place. This tighter focus on story has inevitably led to a more tightly controlled campaign as well, taking the series still further away from its open-world beginnings that the hardcore fanatics remember so fondly. From a design perspective, linear scripting doesn't always mesh well with the game's open environments either. When Codemasters tries its hand at a Captain Price-style scripted stealth sequence - with the option of either taking out the enemy or sliding by them undetected - the resulting gameplay hangs together too loosely. It seems the option actually boils down to an all-out fire-fight or just nonchalantly following waypoints that seamlessly guide you around the patrols.
Perhaps the biggest problem with the game, though, is its lack of refinement. It's hard to recall a mainstream FPS with more instances of pop-up in the environments. At one point we even saw the textures of a whole dam gradually load-in over the period of a few seconds. Shadow effects resemble square edges more than they do smooth outlines, while the depiction of Tajikistan boasts occasionally stunning backdrops but drab and unattractive textures up close. Load times are laborious, voice-over dialogue for your squad-mates is characterless, and co-op matchmaking (for want of a better word) really does leave something to be desired. At the time of our review, Codemasters' new drop-in, drop-out co-op feature left us hanging on load screens indefinitely. In fact, the only success we had was through manually seeking out lobbies - even the Quick Match option failed to find us a game.
Beyond all of these multiplayer difficulties though, you'll find all 10 of the single-player levels dished up as 4 player co-op missions, and some additional Fireteam Engagements as well. These FTEs are basically purpose built co-op scenarios such as 'CSAR', where you're tasked with seeking out downed pilots and returning them to safety, and 'Last Stand', where you'll have to defend a fixed position from waves of enemy troops. In total, four separate FTE modes are available across a variety of maps for up to 4 players and the mode is score-based as well, so there's plenty of leaderboard competition to be had. Replay value can be found throughout the campaign missions as well with bronze, silver, and gold awards being dished-out depending on how well you perform. Players also receive points from each medal that can then be used on upgrading various stats (reload times, sprint speed/duration, and gun accuracy etc.), while an extensive levelling-up tree for each soldier class then unlocks additional weapons, customisations, and perks as you build up combat experience.
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