It's been five years since Conflict: Desert Storm hit the shops. The first game in Pivotal's tactical shooter series received a warm critical reception (not least from the likes of us), and went straight to number one in the charts. The three sequels which followed also turned out to be best-sellers, despite (or because of) largely being more of the same.
Nevertheless, around nine million Conflict games have now been sold, so it's hardly surprising Pivotal has decided to do another one. Conflict: Denied Ops (formerly known as Crossfire) is currently in development for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360, and it's due out in 2008.
The title refers to those military agents whose existence is la-la-la-I-can't-hear-you'd by their Governments even if they get caught by the enemy and bumped off. Responsible for covert operations, they are not allowed to carry anything which might reveal their true identity. However, they do get access to some excellent guns.
The missions in Denied Ops take place in various countries around the globe but the game starts out in Venezuela, where the Government has been overthrown. The US decides to pop round and sort it all out, sending in a couple of operatives from the CIA's Special Activities Division - which is where you come in.
Time for a change
It's also where Conflict fans will notice the first big change introduced in Denied Ops. In previous games, you controlled a squad of four men from a third-person perspective. Now you only get two men, it's all first-person, and you can switch direct control of your characters at any time.
You'll be doing this quite a lot as they have different skills. One agent is a heavy weapons specialist, the other a sniper. When you switch, the camera zooms across to the other character in a manner which will be familiar to Battlefield 2: Modern Combat players. It's particularly useful for setting traps and lining up flanking manoeuvres.
You don't have to be in direct control of characters to command them. You can keep playing as one operative whilst using button presses to issue instructions to your partner. These are pretty simple - 'Go there', 'Come here', 'Attack' or 'Guard area'. According to Eidos, it's the straightforward nature of the tactical combat in the Conflict games which have made them so popular. As a result, they've made sure things are kept simple in Denied Ops.
That's particularly true of the weapons system. Your characters have unlimited ammo, they can't swap guns and they can't pick up new ones. However, there is a wide range of add-ons to collect. The sniper can use one of these to turn his rifle into an under-slung grenade launcher, as one example, while the heavy weapons expert can equip his pistol with a silencer or turn it into a shotgun.
You've been framed
Denied Ops features plenty of high tech weaponry, including some based on experimental prototypes which are currently being tested out by certain branches of the real life military. Take the Land Warrior add-on, which sticks a tiny TV camera on the end of your gun and a tiny TV screen inside your helmet, reminiscent of the ones used in Ghost Recon titles. The screen will show whatever the gun is pointing at, so you can see and even shoot targets without having to break cover. Apparently this is being used by soldiers in Iraq right now. "Great."
The grenade system from previous games is back. Eidos says it proved popular because it's so simple - there's a crosshair which indicates exactly where the grenade you're about to throw will fall. This means they're highly effective in all sorts of situations and you'll probably end up using them rather a lot.
New to Denied Ops is Pivotal's 'Puncture Technology'. It's been used to create a destructible environment which can be destroyed to your particular advantage. For example, you can shoot a bullet through a wall to create a hole you can then aim your sniper rifle through. Or you can use a bigger weapon to blast walls away entirely, giving enemies a right old shock.
The destructible environments were certainly very impressive in the demo we saw, as were the visuals generally. The game was being demoed for us on the Xbox 360, but Eidos says it will look "almost identical" on PC and PlayStation 3.
We didn't get to see what may turn out to be the most interesting feature of the game - the two-player co-op mode, which will be available in split-screen and online flavours. The latter sounds most interesting, especially when you consider the heavy weapons / sniper dynamic, but we'll have to wait and see how well it works.
In the meantime, the single-player mode of Conflict: Denied Ops is shaping up nicely. The decision to stick to the keep-it-simple principle should please fans, but there are enough new elements and nice next-gen visual effects to suggest a true progression for the series.