Version tested: Xbox 360
Call of Duty and its ilk are fairground-ride approximations of modern warfare. Their designers carefully arrange buildings, beams of sunlight and terrain to turn the head and draw the eye as you move along the rails. Explosions blast and enemies pop up as you pass through invisible triggers, only to be reset by the SFX team as soon as you're done, ready for the next tourist to gawp at.
These games are often exhilarating and absolutely deserve their place front-and-centre of mainstream gaming for their visceral, immediate thrills. But they are, nevertheless, a Disneyland rendering of contemporary combat. The primary emotion you feel travelling through the mechanical string of set-pieces is one of puff-chested power, rarely fear.
It would be senseless to imply that Operation Flashpoint, console gaming's only military sim series, is anything like real war. But the emotions the game elicits are undoubtedly more nuanced and realistic than those of its corridor-shooter cousins. There are still the invisible trigger points that cause enemies to burst out of buildings on cue. But in this world, ammo is scarce, bullets drop height the longer they are asked to fly, and there's no precision-engineered path through these wide-open desert spaces to bustle you mindlessly along to your next objective.
When your gruff-voiced Staff Sergeant barks down the headset to call in mortar fire on the farmhouse two clicks north – where a clutch of insurgents are holed up with AK47s and ideological issues with your uniform – you're more likely to scan the horizon with a keen sense of stress and panic. Which one of these identical huts that punctuate the landscape is the target again? Pick the wrong building and not only will you draw the fierce blue ire of your staff sergeant, but your Alpha squad companions could be blown all the way from Tajikistan to CNN.
The US Army caught a lot of flak for friendly fire in the Iraq war. But it's surprisingly hard to tell friendly from enemy when squinting through the noonday sun. And if you're playing Operation Flashpoint: Red River on 'hardcore', with the HUD rubbed out, no respawns or checkpoints, and nothing but your eyes and radios to count on for information, Red River introduces a sense of white-hot tension that is actually very rare in video games.
Likewise, when one of your squad mates screams "Sniper, 200 metres East" as a bullet wheezes unseen past your helmet, your immediate reaction is to dive behind a nearby wall, not to scan the rooftops in search of a vainglorious headshot. If you take a bullet, in this game your head will lunge violently to one side, incapacitating you for a few seconds before you can steady your aim again.
You'll also start bleeding out, a drain of strength that can only be stemmed by ducking into safety to apply bandages before mending your wounds, a two-stage healing process that takes you out of the fight for a full 15 seconds. In game terms, these are weighty punishments for a lack of due care and attention, and they make Infinity Ward's vision-clouding strawberry jam filter seem faintly ridiculous.
So realism is built into the Red River's code, but now – far more than in its predecessor Dragon Rising – it's written into its script too. It's clear Codemasters has feasted on a diet of contemporary war TV and cinema in arranging what turns out to be one of the strongest battle stories in gaming. There are echoes of HBO and David Simon's Generation Kill in the reams of dialogue that couch each fire team encounter here, while providing cover for an explosive ordnance disposal team attempting to disarm an IED in a car is lifted straight from The Hurt Locker. Missions are introduced by exquisitely produced motion-comic cut-scenes, but it's in-game where story and interaction meld with rare effectiveness.
It's a game of long, meandering walk and talks, not least since you play as a four-man infantry unit whose job is often to run ahead of Humvee convoys clearing roads. The constant radio chatter and banter back and forth between fireteams and the steadying voice of the staff sergeant have a keen authenticity.
Although you are constantly receiving orders and directions, this is still a game with wide-open play options. As well as controlling your own character, you can direct the other members of your fireteam, composed of a Rifleman, Auto-Rifleman, Grenadier and Scout.
Holding down the right bumper brings up a radial menu with a host of options, allowing to you order your team to suppress targets, clear buildings or even provide overwatch support all within a couple of simple clicks. The d-pad allows you to select individual members of your fireteam or you can give a group command. It's simple and, once you've got to grips with the system, effective, and you come to feel a sense of responsibility and affection for your three compatriots that builds quickly through the campaign.
Part of the reason for this is that each mission is long and arduous, some taking up to an hour to complete. 60 minutes of concentrated effort and tension brings men together, even if they are virtual soldier men. So when you dive into the campaign with three real friends, playing co-operatively online, the result is mesmerising.
It's the kind of playpen designed to create personal memories: the time one of your friends took a miracle shot on a helicopter pilot and brought the bird down, or when you managed to retreat from the Chinese PLA against overwhelming odds without anyone losing a life. Some of these memories are scripted, but they often feel like your own. Find three competent friends to play through the game with and you will have one of the best shooter experiences currently available. No question.
The overarching design of the game has been tightened up since Dragon Rising, too. Now you earn experience points for making kills and completing objectives, levelling up your class of choice and, in doing so, gaining points that can be allocated to improve stamina, reload rates or the ability to pick out targets. Each mission is graded Bronze, Silver or Gold, with more class points won the better the medal.
Once the campaign is spent, a series of Fireteam Engagement missions are available to play through across four different types, asking you to defend fixed positions, rescue downed pilots, protect convoys or sweep an area to eliminate enemy forces, in a series of scored challenges complete with leaderboards.
It's not quite all good news. Animations are jumpy, with enemies occasionally shifting three paces to the right, or flicking between crouching and standing positions without grace. Lines of dialogue sometimes repeat, breaking the sense of authenticity that the game works so hard to create.
The vehicle sections aren't Codemasters' best work, and the engine in general, while excellent at huge draw distances, veers between beautiful and scrappy. This lack of polish only slightly detracts from the experience but while there is much less of the roughness that defined Red River's predecessor, it is noticeable nonetheless.
The game is also going to disappoint PC military sim veterans expecting a rival to ArmA II. This is more tactical shooter than true military sim, and the lack of a mission editor or CTI mode, together with the relatively prescribed mission orders, will no doubt grate.
While the AI is certainly improved from Dragon Rising, you'll still need to pay close attention not to direct teammates into dangerous situations as they'll follow orders without question and often pay the ultimate price for it. The removal of tight time limits removes much of the irritation of the first game but even so, players approaching Red River as a tactical shooter couched in an engaging story will get the most from it.
At its best, Red River surpasses Ubisoft's original Ghost Recons for squad-based tactical play. But it's the presentation of the story – not the broad-canvas story, but the story of four marines and their staff sergeant – that marks it out as something new. We still may be some way from the bite and nuance of Generation Kill, but in communicating the camaraderie, banter, fear and glory of modern warfare in the Middle East, nothing can touch this.
8 / 10