If there's one game that needs a sequel, it's Operation Flashpoint.
"It was a game with a lot of potential," observes the game's senior designer and lead AI designer, Clive Lindop. "People fell in love with it even though it had lots of quirks and lots of things weren't quite right with it, but its promise, and the fact that it was unique kind of drew people in."
And draw people in it did. Released in the summer of 2001, the PC-only military shooter sold well over a million units and spawned two successful expansion packs, Red Hammer and Resistance. Such success proved that despite (or possibly because of) its brutally uncompromising approach to the genre, gamers were hungry for a title with scope, ambition and freedom. Admittedly, the visuals were rubbish even then, but what lingers in the memory are the moments of palm-sweating tension as you snuck through a wood or crawled through a field with enemies just feet away from you.
Seven years on, Codemasters is finally ready to take the wraps off the long-awaited follow-up. "There's a reason for that," Lindop says about the delay - but declines to clarify further. The well-documented souring of relations between original developer Bohemia Interactive and Codies certainly didn't help, and meant that the UK publisher was faced with either binning one of its most successful original IPs of the decade, or going it alone. So, in 2005 the company took the latter option and essentially built the game from the ground up.
"We've built all the technology from scratch because it's the only way of [taking] that original promise forward," Lindop says. "It's taken a lot of time and effort to get the technology to the point where we can do these huge landscapes, these massive battles and all these effects and all this impact with a visual delivery and an experience which is 'next-gen', for want of a better word."
But hardcore fans fearing their beloved game will be watered down for the masses needn't fret. "It's still very much from a simulation heritage," he confirms. "But rather than that kind of slight detachment you get from sims where it's all about the numbers and the kit, we wanted to amp up the kind of experience so that you [feel like you] are really there, having bullets flying at you."
We're told to expect a game that's "stylistically a lot more documentary-style" and can look forward to crazy amounts of attention to detail including "kit [that] doesn't just roll out of a factory fresh - it gets muddy, it gets scratched. We want you to feel these are real, in your hand, getting battered as you dive around running past things."
While the original game was set in 1985, Operation Flashpoint 2 opts for a real-world, contemporary setting where you're squabbling for oil. "The game itself is set on an island called Skira, which is off a chain of islands called Scarlett - north of Japan, east of China. It used to be Chinese, then the Japanese nicked it during World War II, then the Soviets liberated it and never gave it back," Lindop explains.
"It's a backwater of history, not a geopolitical hotspot, except... The world's largest oilfield is underneath it. It was found about ten years ago, and everyone's been trying to develop ever since. That's where the tension and back-story come from."
As you might expect, Flashpoint 2 favours vast, sprawling environments which can accommodate battles of impressive scale. We're told that the island itself spans 220 square kilometers or 134 square miles, and that the viewing distance is about 35km ("It's a damned long distance to see!").
But unlike the rather rudimentary visuals of old, this time Codies has gone to extreme lengths to ensure the game is technically well up to scratch. "The environment itself is actually very detailed," Lindop stresses, "And that's where a lot of the technological effort has gone." He points to "clever streaming technology" that enables the level designers to come up with rich environments with a lot of natural and man-made cover.
"There's a density of trees, buildings and structures so that not only are you in this scale of environment, but there's actually stuff in it. One of the problems in the original in that you had this huge scale, but nothing in it, so you'd be stood out in this open area all the time and get shot." Anyone who played it should relate to that.
"The game still has that degree of realism and toughness," declares Lindop, "But now you've actually got a realistic environment. Now you're not just getting shot dead by a magic bullet from two kilometres away, you can use these folds in the ground - the different flora and fauna and different environments to give you cover and make your approach"
And then, of course, there's the game's AI - slightly off kilter in the original, you may recall. "We have to develop an AI that'll be able to read the environment and make tactical decisions about the environment: this is an ambush spot, this is a good place for hiding myself from the enemy and flanking," says Lindop. "All of these things work together to make the environment. Rather than just make it a pretty setting for the action it's an absolute part of the tactical choices you make and why you go certain routes."
But the AI doesn't just figure out routes based on the environment. A whole host of other factors will also come into play, including a morale system and a suppression system. "The AI figures everything else out for itself and does so on the fly," he says. "People don't fire to kill in combat. They fire a lot of bullets to make the other guy hide. If you're lucky, you'll kill him, and you need to reflect that in this game because at that range, and with that calibre, you might kill him, but mainly you want him to piss off, sort of run away and hide." Meanwhile, if you're being an idiot and putting your squad mates at risk, the AI is smart enough that they'll end up going their own way.
Apparently you can expect to "spend a lot of time in the infantry right on the ground", which means "the detail has to be there". So, Codies has gone to great lengths to ensure the environment "offers tactical challenges in a whole series of ways". Think different lighting conditions, such as smoke and dust-filled rooms, or sorties under the cover of darkness or in extreme weather - all of which promise to make us understand why the military uses enhanced vision systems in the first place.
Advanced levels of destructibility are also high on the agenda. "Everything is destructible - and it's persistent. Once it's gone, it's gone, and there's a reason for that. You have to actually be careful what you blow up, because if I blow up building X one mission, I might have really needed that building in the next mission for cover and I've blown it. So you've really got to think when you're dropping 2,000 pound bombs everywhere. These all add extra tactical challenges."
Following this quest for realism, we're shown a screen with a vast array of individually modeled solder heads, so that each has a distinct look. In the heat of battle, such attention to detail might prove invaluable - as, of course, it would in real-life. "We built as many individual characters as possible. Part of the intuitive way of giving commands and orders is if I can recognise each individual element. I can see that someone's holding the same machine gun.
"Also, with the kit, if I look at an enemy, I can actually see what his role is - it's pretty much what a sniper does. There's an officer: he's the guy with the radio. There's the machine gunner. You can actually see what people's roles are. It's much easier to give them orders and identify people as enemies," Lindop points out. "So, all of this kind of detail has a practical function. It's about making you use the UI as little as possible because a real soldier doesn't know who you are. He sits there and looks at the environment, looks at the world then gathers information."
To add to the realism, real soldiers have been motion-captured doing all manner of incidental actions, whether entering/exiting different vehicle types, climbing convincingly over obstacles, kicking down doors, bursting into buildings or hitting the deck. But as well getting the look and feel spot-on, Codies has taken a very different approach to the weapons system. "You have to assemble the weapon systems as the manual says. So if you're carrying a javelin, you have to put on the main aiming system, mount it, shoulder it and fire. We didn't want weapons to be a magic wand with bullets," he reasons. "They actually have a sense of functionality, and they have a weight."
In total, we're told to expect 70 infantry weapons in the game, with different sights, scopes, and attachments, including "very James Bond-looking Japanese submachine guns and a fully tricked-out Mk16 with a CVLA aim laser". There will be 50 land, air and sea vehicles, each with different strengths and weaknesses. Apparently "you'll need to learn how to use them".
Moving onto the real-time portion of the demo, Lindop takes the opportunity to stop the game in motion and show us a staggeringly detailed AH1Z Cobra helicopter in mid-air, and how well that detail scales. It's every military fan's wet dream, with every dial and instrument in the cockpit lovingly recreated, and the pilots sitting in massively detailed uniforms wrestling with the controls. "We've got hardcore fans that love their kit, and love the detail and the accuracy and we're delivering on that. You can see that we're not afraid to take you up close to the action."
But there's more to it than just a pretty face, Lindop argues. "Of course, the vehicles look nice but the functionality's got to be there: the weapons systems, deployable weapons systems, crew spaces, passenger spaces, the simulation of the engine and the torque, the vehicle's ability over different terrain types. That buys you a lot in terms of gameplay balancing. If you simulate the real thing, it makes balancing much more realistic."
Achieving this level of realism is, understandably, a vast undertaking, and Lindop is keen to stress how important it is for it to gel correctly on a technical level. "To have all these dynamic effects and terrain, weapon systems all running simultaneously... A lot of the technology and effort has gone into that," he nods. "It means we have to have very clever audio managers and effects managers to have this kind of scale of combat on a cross-platform [title]. As part of the cross-platform delivery there's actually a lot of cross-pollination between platforms so that everybody benefits."
Indeed, PC owners with Quad Core processors and 4GB of memory will particularly benefit from the extra detail. Console owners need not fear getting a watered-down version, but PC owners can expect more expansive multiplayer options and bigger matches. It has previously been reported that the PC will feature 32-player (16 vs 16) multiplayer compared to the console's eight-player multiplayer. In both versions, however, each player will have a total of eight AI squad members fighting alongside them. In co-op terms, the PC will feature eight-player co-op, while console will be restricted to two-player co-op - so there are evidently going to be huge benefits to opting for the PC version if multiplayer is your thing.
For a matter of a few minutes we were shown some pre-alpha code running in real-time, albeit in an un-optimised state. Still, the high levels of detail, advanced damage modeling and awesome sense of scale were already easy to see as we watched as a marine troop land on a beach.
As a squad of soldiers advanced up a hill towards a village (continually chattering about the precise position of nearby landmarks), the old Operation Flashpoint gameplay was very much in evidence: the use of cover, the sense of imminent danger, the total freedom to decide for yourself which route to take. Rightly or wrongly, it's a very different approach to the typical run-and-gun, and all the game is looking all more interesting as a result. Whether all this rich promise will come to fruition is still open to question. But as the spring 2009 release date draws nearer, it hopefully won't be long before we can decide for ourselves whether Codemasters will deliver on its many bold claims.
Operation Flashpoint 2 will be published by Codemasters in spring 2009 on Xbox 360, PS3 and PC.