"I love war movies and I love the bits when people die in war movies," says Sion Lenton, executive producer of Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising, with a disturbing glint in his eye. More specifically, Lenton's talking about the lengths he went to in order to ensure this updated version doesn't skimp on the horrors of war. "Catastrophic damage" is how he describes the injury model in this long-awaited sequel to the 2001 cult PC hit, which left many FPS addicts weak-kneed with its brutal realism, and his dedication to detail extends to letting the animation team film him writhing on the office floor in mock agony for visual reference.
There's little doubt that the Flashpoint boys take their war very seriously. We're gathered in the meeting-cum-demo room at Codemasters' rural headquarters, and arranged menacingly on the table is a veritable arsenal of life-sized weaponry. They're mostly replicas and airguns but, much like the game currently being polished off in deepest Warwickshire, they look and feel like the real thing. The game itself - due for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 - is now in the final few months of refinement and testing, and far from exhausted the team are like eager puppies, excited and happy to show off their virtual theatre of war to a new audience.
For this belated follow-up, the action shifts from the Cold War setting of the original to a new and timely tale based around the fight for natural resources on Skira, an island near the "arse end of Russia". It's a real place, although its real name is Kiska, and its 36km length lies nestled in the Aleutian island chain, the subject of numerous invasions and conquests over the past six centuries. The Russians, Chinese and Japanese have all claimed the territory at some point, and with one of the last untapped reserves of gas and oil lurking beneath its crust, it's the perfect place for an all new flashpoint crisis.
For the purposes of the game, the global economic crisis forces the Chinese to adopt a more aggressively expansionist worldview, which brings them to Skira and into battle with Russian forces there. Players take the role of a US Marine Corps unit intervening in the conflict. As with all things Flashpoint, few liberties have been taken with the facts: the Marine unit in question is the one actually stationed in Okinawa which would respond to such a situation, the boats that deliver you to the island are the exact same boats that would be used, and even the tiny digitised screws and bolts on the Javelin missile launchers are in the right place.
"The word 'sim' is used a lot," admits Lenton, tackling the daunting hardcore reputation that Operation Flashpoint has built up over the last eight years, thanks to its unforgiving approach to military combat. All these years later, it's still a title that comes up when the old PC vs. console debate rears its tatty head, an example of the sort of deep, challenging gameplay that the woolly-minded joypad addicts are supposedly unable to grasp. This could be something of a problem, given that this sequel is being developed for PC and consoles simultaneously.
"One of my personal bugbears is the belief that PC gaming and console gaming have IQ requirements that are different," insists Clive Lindop, the game's senior designer, AI specialist and a veteran of the original Flashpoint community. "It's simply not true. Originally, the quick-command system was developed to allow console players to be able to give the same complex orders as the PC players." This system, which uses a three-tier HUD selection process to issue context sensitive orders quickly and efficiently, is at the heart of the cross-platform development.
Lindop continues. "We very rapidly learned we could give PC players the quick-command system and allow the console players to use the complex command system, and they both work. One's for use when someone's trying to put a bullet in your face, and the other's for when you've got time to sit there and plan. Real soldiers in combat don't have time to fiddle with complex interfaces. You make decisions instantly because if you don't, you die."
"You almost get combos. For example, regroup is right, down, right," explains Lenton, demonstrating the simple directional inputs used to cycle through a surprising array of tactical options. No command, he assures us, will require more than three button-presses to find and implement. "You have these muscle-memory actions you can use. The idea behind this is that if you've got a conflict which is two or three hundred metres away, you want to be able to tell the guy with the heavy machine gun to lay down suppressing fire, tell this guy to move around that way, that guy to move around this way. You're coming down the middle and eventually you flank these guys."
When we finally get to sit down and see the latest PC build, the wisdom of this two-pronged control scheme becomes clear. The quick-command menu is great for reacting to the battlefield on the fly, the available options changing to reflect whatever you're looking at. For the moments when you have the luxury of more time to plan ahead, such as the start of a mission, you can call up the map screen, set waypoints and order your squad in a much more strategic manner, all in real time.
Your squad is remarkably self-sufficient, thanks to a high-level AI model which, the team insists, is able to take the most basic orders and interpret them in a naturalistic and efficient manner. Dragon Rising's gameworld is a dynamic, fluid place where every soldier, both allied and enemy, is governed by a complex "playbook" of tactical options for every eventuality. All drawn from actual military training manuals, it means the player isn't the odd one out in the field when it comes to appraising the situation.
"Now the AI is a lot smarter, they're constantly telling you things," Lindop explains. "What they can see, how they're feeling." This constant feedback from your allies is used to minimise the amount of game clutter, and to compensate for the general lack of HUD distractions. "One of the things I'm especially proud of is that they use very fluid real-world tactics, and do it of their own volition. They'll reassess which tactics they're using on a moment by moment basis, so they don't commit wholly to an attack. They can change at any moment."
One of the group playing discovers the implications of this all too clearly, as his bold plan to drive erratically at the enemy, shooting wildly, doesn't go down very well with his AI team. "F**k this s**t!" shouts one, before retreating and leaving our hapless player to deal with the aftermath of his rash actions alone. Lindop reckons that far from making the game harder, this level of self-sufficiency will actually make it easier for novices to get their heads around the harsh realities of war. "It's not a steep learning curve. The guys with you know what they're doing, so you don't have to micro-manage them. You've actually got space to figure things out for yourself."
This flexibility is key to the new Flashpoint experience. The game is sandbox in nature, and gives players the freedom to tackle each of the campaign missions in whatever way the see fit, using whichever of the 60+ weapons and numerous vehicles they can get their hands on. "Every time you play a mission, it's different," claims Lenton, and what we see backs him up. Although we're viewing the same small skirmish over and over - assaulting a small Chinese squad bunkered down in a village - each attempt unfolds in completely different ways. "The AI uses different ways of attacking you, you use different ways of attacking them, they'll take a different route, use different cover," says Lenton, as the enemies on-screen do exactly that. He laughs. "One of the best things about demoing this game is that you've got no idea how it's going to turn out."
While realism is paramount, Lenton is keen that people will be able to enjoy their time in his "really fun toybox". The design and details may be stringently true to life, but vehicles are simple to control - even the helicopters, the controls for which have been based on painstaking "research" playing with RC 'copters in the fields around the Codemasters offices. "You want to be able to get in and drive anything, and for it to be fun," Lenton says. "The handling is pick-up-and-play, we're not going for flight sim level of difficulty."
There's no doubt that it's an impressive undertaking. After he's spent some time scampering around this corner of the island, Lenton calls up the map and zooms out so we can see the scale of the place. The area he'd been playing in covers maybe one square centimetre in the lower-right-hand corner. It's vast, and full of procedurally generated elements to boot. Smoke and dust lingers rather than fading away. Missions have had to be carefully designed so they don't rely on any one character or location which could accidentally be destroyed by the NPC forces on either side before the player even reaches them. Every building can be entered or destroyed, although the ruined shells collapse into predetermined patterns rather than blowing to smithereens. The reason for this, understandably, is that it allows the AI to find cover in the debris rather than having to work out where a million splinters are lying.
Another area which has been considerably developed since the original game is multiplayer. "The big, big focus of Flashpoint is online, multiplayer co-op," Lenton reckons. "Your fire team is you and three other guys, and it seems obvious to me that they should be your mates. I'm really building this as a co-op experience, that's the core thing we're doing. Every campaign mission is playable as co-op. If you play it single-player, it's co-op with three AI players. It's that balanced, and every mission is built around that concept."
As our time with the game comes to an end, Lindop is keen that fan fondness for the first game is kept in perspective, explaining that the more sophisticated design tools available in 2009 mean that the experience will be even more immersive. "When you were out in the open, there were really only two states - you were either in cover or not," he says of the first Flashpoint. "The actual polygon density of the terrain was pretty low, so you couldn't just lie down and be in cover. The fidelity of our terrain mesh is much, much higher. There are smooth folds in the ground, dry riverbeds, places where, when you're caught out in the open, there's no such thing as genuinely flat ground. You can get down low and use very small variations in the ground to try and give you that extra of cover. We want something that's more about the experience of being in combat. What's it like when a .50-calibre round passes by your head?"
You'll be able to find out when Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising launches later this year.
Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising is due out for PC, PS3 and Xbox 360 in the summer.
Clarification (23/02/09): In response to feedback, we have clarified Clive Lindop's position and confirmed he was not part of the original Operation Flashpoint development team. We've updated the article and regret the error.