Operation Flashpoint is one of those shooters in which getting shot actually matters. It could be said that's true of every shooter, but not to this extent. In many modern FPS games, each bullet you take merely drains a little colour from your world until you finally keel over. It's no worse, in a sense, than being told Fred Astaire has died.
In Flashpoint, however, even when bullets are simply landing nearby, it's a sign you're probably doing something wrong. By the time they're actually thudding into you, it's almost certainly game over.
Players tend to call this sort of thing a simulation. Codemasters prefers to think of it as a military game with a heavy emphasis on "authenticity". With Red River, the team is attempting to pull off what should be authentically difficult. They want to keep Flashpoint's hardcore fans happy their game isn't being watered down, while simultaneously making the intricacies of the genre more accessible to new players who might not be used to playing games in which getting shot is a big deal.
Here's why you should hope they succeed: Operation Flashpoint is a bit amazing. As mainstream military shooters become increasingly scripted, and increasingly tempted up skidoo-filled mountain pathways by the allure of the cinematic experience, the things they have to do to actually thrill players has gotten ridiculous. It's like the arms race but blended with amusement park rides.
Black Ops, for example, needs to arrange for intricately stage-managed avalanches, frantic abseils out of burning helicopters and all manner of other bombastic conceits, just to get your pulse racing for a few minutes. Operation Flashpoint, on the other hand, can deliver authentic terror with nothing more than a stretch of empty road leading to a bombed-out village. Oh, and snipers.
Red River is set in Tajikistan. It's some time in the near future and embattled US forces, weary from fighting insurgents in Afghanistan, are pushing upwards into new territory. They're heading for a potential clash with factory-fresh Chinese troops coming the other way.
Early on in the central campaign, during a level called The Human Terrain, you'll find yourself on that aforementioned stretch of empty road leading to that bombed-out village. Your four-man fire-team, flanked by Alpha and Charlie units on either side, is pushing across a couple of hundred yards of gravel on an escort mission designed to win the hearts and minds of the local population. That's when the fighting erupts.
A Flashpoint encounter may look like an old-fashioned shooting gallery - insurgents appear on overhanging ledges and burst out of doorways - but Red River hasn't become Wild Gunman. It's a far more thoughtful game where progress is slow and hard won.
Each encounter hinges on the planning stage as you arrange your squad-mates and scope out enemy positioning. You must then try to out-think your opponents before you're overwhelmed by smart AI that's all too happy to rush you, or fall back and flank AI's that's happy to wait out of sight until it has just the right shot.
Both enemies and computer-controlled allies use the same last-known-position algorithms. This gives each firefight a convincing kind of crescendo structure: you always have to be thinking ahead but you always have to be moving, too. Listen to the sounds of gunfire - if it's getting closer, chances are you've had it.
After the bloat of blockbuster shooters, the integrity of something like Flashpoint the effortless way it spins fascinating, twitchy encounters out of the tiniest handful of elements can be astonishing. This time, however, as you move outwards, it's also clear that Red River might manage to stitch its brilliant ideas into something a little more coherent and less buggy than Dragon Rising.
The game's new campaign is set in a huge sprawl of countryside. You're fighting not just incoming Chinese, but roving bands of insurgents who are already in place. The terrain is dramatic and varied, offering mountains, scrappy plains and the odd bombed out city. Huge skyboxes promise beautiful cloudy vistas and much more in the way of colour than previous games have delivered.
The attention to detail is wonderful. The patched-up and often customised weapons of the US troops who have already fought tours in neighbouring countries contrast with the sleek brand new kit of the Chinese forces, fresh from training.
It's still a squad game, with your fire-team made up of four familiar classes: the rifleman, who's a good general purpose soldier, the grenadier, who's a high-impact up-close force, the scout, who works best over distance, and the auto-rifleman, who's expertise lies in suppression.
Alongside the tantalising prospect of four-player drop-in co-op, your command of the squad represents one of the most obvious ways in which Codemasters is aiming to balance the intricacy fans want with the kind of immediacy newcomers will appreciate. In Red River, every order you could need will be available on the radial menu with just two taps in the correct direction.
(Incidentally, when it comes to making a PC shooter feel at home on a control pad, the developers have chosen to support assists like sticky reticules and snap-to aiming - and give you the option to turn them off.)
The team's taken progression to heart with plenty of ways to specialise your soldiers. You'll have load-outs to unlock and tamper with, weapon upgrades like red-dots and holographic sites to choose between and training and B-mods to select, allowing for character perks.
Everything comes at a cost a boost in speed will diminish accuracy, for instance but Red River shies away from huge, arcadey stat bumps anyway. A reaction-speed perk might make you a single hundredth of a second faster: you'll notice the difference, but you'll still have to learn how to make the most of it.
Aside from the four-player campaign, the standalone multiplayer content sticks with co-operative rather than competitive modes. There's a quartet of distinct game types which will see you surviving waves of enemies, flushing out embedded AI, escorting convoys and performing search and rescue operations.
Playing the first mode (Last Stand, a kind of Flashpoint-styled Horde attack) perched on top of a windy hill as the Chinese move in, it's a shock how well Flashpoint handles on the Xbox 360 pad. Many will still prefer mouse and keyboard controls, but with stance on the left-stick and the new radial menu working well, it's far easier than expected to get into the move-and-shoot rhythm of the game.
From this tiny glimpse, then, Red River's shaping up to be a brilliant game: a shooter which balances rewarding gunplay with a tactical thoughtfulness that simply wouldn't be possible with much in the way of obvious scripting. Authentic? I have no idea. Convincing? Absolutely.