As we all know, Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising is positioned as the realistic war game - the fact to Modern Warfare's fiction, if you like - and Codemasters' ballsy approach has worked well: the game is enjoying a third week in UK charts top-five surrounded by blockbuster competition.
But then selling a wargame to some of us as being "realistic" is like telling a small child about Santa Claus - we have no grounds to argue otherwise. That's why skipped off to quiz former army Major Neil Powell - a veteran of the Balkans - about the game, hoping to catch Codemasters out.
In the spirit of sportsmanship we also quizzed the developer, and wrangled plenty from both parties about army games, downloadable content and Modern Warfare 2. The interviews are presented separately, one after the other. Dragon Rising executive producer Sion Lenton strikes first.
Eurogamer: Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising has been out for a few weeks and reviews are in - are you happy?
Sion Lenton: On the whole, yes. In reviews I'm seeing that a lot of people are 'getting it'. That was one of the big things from my point of view. The game does step up and do something different, and it does require thought because it is different to [Call of Duty]. I'm also really enthused that the co-op and online is going down an absolute storm, which I knew it would because we love it here. Server numbers are up as well, so that's all good. There's still a way to go, but I'm very encouraged!
Eurogamer: What's first on the fix-list?
Sion Lenton: We're hoping to get some optimisation to the network code [and] streamline that a bit further. The problem with that is you never know, unless you do a full beta test, what the performance is going to be online. We're tracking it now and it's in line with our expectations. We've got some more tweaks that we can do just to optimise that experience and make it flow a bit better.
Eurogamer: When are we going to see the first Xbox 360 patch?
Sion Lenton: Very quick. Weeks as opposed to months.
Eurogamer: So one is just around the corner?
Sion Lenton: Yes. Within two-to-four weeks of release, tops. Our intention is to align it with the first DLC pack that's coming out as well, which is due around the end of October. Hopefully we'll do the whole thing in one.
Eurogamer: The "first DLC pack" - does that mean there will be more?
Sion Lenton: Yeah!
Eurogamer: Have you got a number in your head?
Sion Lenton: Not yet, no. But, given the engine, it's quite open-ended. It's not a lot of fuss for us to make new content - it's actually quite easy for us to get it out there, with regards to things like levels, game modes, etc.
The other thing we actually like to look at is getting some new equipment in there as well. One of the things we're hoping is we can address the balance of vehicles in the game, as there are people who expected to be able to use them more than they can in the final game. We're really ramping up the vehicle-specific missions in there. It's all really great tech, it all works, you can get in these things, so again, we'll be trying to exploit that as well.
Eurogamer: Will you expand on the campaign missions at all?
Sion Lenton: Who knows? I'd like to. As I said, we're pretty open-minded at the minute. We've got some stuff initially planned for this year, which I'm sure we'll be announcing soon - I'm looking at the PR here. I guess at the end of the day, let's see how it goes. But we'd love to do more stuff with it, we really would.
Eurogamer: Operation Flashpoint 2: Dragon Rising is billed as realistic, so I'm talking to a real-life army man tomorrow to see what he thinks. What do you think he'll say?
Sion Lenton: He'll probably tell you that you don't carry a gun like that - that's one of the bits of feedback we've been getting. Most of the people that pick this up are people with military experience, so we've got something right. We had Marines playing in multiplayer, barking orders at each other, totally in the zone. The irony is that they were barking the same orders and instructions that are in-game. Even the tactics lend themselves very well to people with military experience and a military background.
As long as he's got experience playing first-person shooters then I'd expect him to pick it up pretty quickly. I bet you he plays it completely differently to anyone in the office, and probably better! No seriously, these guys, we've watched them playing, and it's very impressive watching them, they know exactly what they're doing - it's obviously a vocabulary they're familiar with.
Eurogamer: Army training is useful for something then?
Sion Lenton: Yeah, yeah. Ha ha!
Eurogamer: Let's say I want to join the army. Will I better my chances by playing Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising?
Sion Lenton: You'd probably have a better chance than you would if you played [Call of Duty]. Ha ha. No hiding behind rocks to get better in real life, I tell you.
Eurogamer: I'm glad you mentioned Modern Warfare 2. Do you think it's over-hyped?
Sion Lenton: The very nature of the game, and I mean this in the nicest possible way, is a hyped event. It's kind of like the Michael Bay of videogames. Its budget, its sales, all these kind of things - it is a huge game. But if you're worried that about kind of thing then nobody would ever make games - there would only be one football game, one shooter game and one platform. It's healthy to have competition.
I don't actually think we're in the same place as Modern Warfare 2, anyway. We're a different creature. We'll probably get people buying [our game] and Modern Warfare 2 as well. There's a market for both. I really see Modern Warfare 2 as Hollywood and we're the Cannes, the arty documentary - dare I say the reportage-style thing. So, two very different creatures. But [Modern Warfare] is a great game. I'll be buying it, I'll be playing it and I'm sure you will as well.
It's going to be interesting, and I wouldn't be surprised to see a few nods to our game in there - we saw a lot of the Infinity Ward developers playing our game at E3, which was quite nice.
Eurogamer: Be nice to shoot them, I suppose.
Sion Lenton: Yeah, heh heh - be queuing up! Heh heh.
Eurogamer: What's the plan for the series after Dragon Rising has been and gone?
Sion Lenton: Onwards and upwards, hopefully. I'm relatively confident - I'm very confident that this game's going to be successful. We've got the DLC that we're working on in the studio itself, and we're always looking ahead, prototyping new ideas and new stuff. We've got a whole studio here dedicated to making s***-hot first-person shooters. We've got a great team and they're all very talented and they're actually working now on stuff we never got to fully prototype, etc. It's a really nice phase at the minute, working through some of the features we didn't get in the first title.
But as far as the franchise is concerned: Codemasters views it as one its strongest, and certainly moving forward I imagine it's going to be in our portfolio for the duration.
The Army Man
Eurogamer: Sir! Please tell us a bit about yourself.
Major Neil Powell: I've spent 23 years in the army, of which my early years were with the infantry. I spent a large period of time working for the military police in the special investigation branch, which is the Army's equivalent of the CID I suppose.
Eurogamer: Are you a keen gamer?
Major Neil Powell: Yes, I'm afraid for my sins I'm a 45-year-old 17-year-old, if that makes sense?
Eurogamer: You are allowed to play games these days.
Major Neil Powell: Yeah [laughs].
Eurogamer: And what did you contribute to Operation Flashpoint?
Major Neil Powell: I've done nothing. All they've asked me to do is review Flashpoint from the perspective of an ex-serving infantry-stroke-soldier. They wanted me to look at the reality, I suppose, although why everyone has to use Marine Corps tactics I don't know - probably because it's done more in The States. It's a wee bit sad.
Eurogamer: That's because British tactics are better! Aren't they?
Major Neil Powell: They're just different, really.
[Operation Flashpoint] has got the American Field Manuals, which are the American Bibles, they've got those absolutely sorted. No problem at all. Brilliant stuff.
Eurogamer: Was your career in the army a bit like the campaign in Operation Flashpoint?
Major Neil Powell: Yes. A long time ago. I'm a veteran of the Balkans wars. I'm not an Afghanistan veteran.
Eurogamer: Is there enough material for Steven Spielberg to make a film of your career from?
Major Neil Powell: Ha ha. No I don't think so! And to be perfectly fair, Robert, I've had a fantastic career and it has been hugely varied. I did a lot of work for the War Groups Commission and the War Crimes Commission in Kosovo and Bosnia. I did an awful lot of war investigation stuff.
It was only my early years of service that I did proper infantry work. Closing-with-the-enemy - the sort of stuff that you see in Flashpoint. Nevertheless, the whole premise of the British Army is that every single soldier and officer is a soldier first before they're their trade second. There are far better people with far better stories to tell than me, I have to say.
Eurogamer: I asked Codemasters what they thought you were going to say when I asked you how realistic Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising is. What do you think they said?
Major Neil Powell: Haha, good question. Who are Eurogamer, first?
Eurogamer: We're a European videogame website!
Major Neil Powell: Oh, alright.
I have a funny feeling Codemasters said I would comment on combat realism and the experiential focus. I don't know: they haven't given me any brief at all.
Eurogamer: They did sort of say that, although, specifically, they said you might pick up on how the soldiers carried their guns.
Major Neil Powell: No, I certainly wouldn't say that. If we were working with a weapon in the field in an area that is prone to combat - meaning you could be hit at any time - then the weapon would be tight in the shoulder and held relatively low, [so it] can be brought into action at any given time. What that means effectively is that from a first-person point of view, you're not going to be able to see half of the weapon because it's in the shoulder. So no, I wouldn't have said that at all.
Eurogamer: Which bits do you think Dragon Rising does tackle well and, on the contrary, tackle badly?
Major Neil Powell: Let me talk about the bits I don't like before I talk about the bits I do, because there is lots to commend it, but there are also bits it can be challenged on.
If [the game is] dealing with an elite squad, which it is, quite obviously... Right from the very start I was frustrated with some of the weapons that were chosen. I don't like this premise of starting 'low'. You've been inserted in on a mission - you're going to have everything that you need unless something has gone wrong. This idea that you start off with [a weapon] that isn't good and you work up finding other things that are - that frustrates me.
It frustrates me because in the very first scene, for instance, whilst you're calling in an artillery strike, the enemy decides to send riflemen to flush you out - and shooting them is particularly difficult, even when you bring the weapon up and use the eye-sight. Most soldiers will tell you that modern day weaponry, providing you've got great line of sight...
The optimal sights that are attached to most high-quality weapons now mean you can see very clearly at 300-400 metres. And that scenario seemed to be about 150 metres.
The ability to kill the enemy, whilst you yourself are targeted relatively easy, is frustrating.
Eurogamer: It's much easier to kill in real life, basically?
Major Neil Powell: Yeah, well, it's about having control of your senses in real life. The problem with a game - and it's always going to be the case - is that you lose your ability to turn your head very quickly, you lose your ability to just feel where everybody is around you, you lose the ability to sense danger. Therefore, the very first time you know you've been shot at is when you've been shot, if that makes sense. You don't see it coming - there's just no smell of it. That's not helped by the complex gameplay.
On a positive note, the tactics are spot on. Anybody that's played Flashpoint gets some idea of what it's like to think and command a small team in war. I love the interface. I love the whole thing about the amount of kit people are carrying. I love that it's difficult to move in all that kit and you can sense that it is cumbersome. You have very fine margins for error which, if it was equal and it was a level playing field, would be fine and spot on. But it's weighted towards the enemy. The language: spot on. And, once you've mastered the gameplay, it works particularly well.
The thing is, these games appeal more to non-soldiers, whereas most of my peer group would prefer to play things like Brothers in Arms and Call of Duty. That's not a criticism of Flashpoint - part of it is that when you do it for real you want something a bit easier [to play]. Does that make sense? Something a bit quicker.
Eurogamer: A publisher called Konami announced a game called Six Days in Fallujah earlier this year, a shooter based on real-life accounts of the Iraq War by US Marine veterans. There was huge controversy, despite games having plundered World War II and its ilk for decades. When is it acceptable to convert modern conflicts into entertainment?
Major Neil Powell: The biggest thing is getting youngsters to interact with history. It's incredibly difficult. And if their Xbox or their PlayStation gets them to think about history... Certainly when we talk about World War II and we show them a picture it will be, "That's Saving Private Ryan," or, "That's Call of Duty." And if you do that and it gives you an 'in' to talk about history then that is always a good thing.
All of these games ultimately deal in the death of other people. It doesn't matter if it's Fallujah in 2004; whether it's Afghanistan now; whether it's the Barbarossa campaign, D-day - people die as a result of it. You can't honestly say, "Call of Duty, Brothers in Arms: good. Anything modern: bad." They all have their roots in the management of violence. They are all games that deal with the death of somebody, and I don't think it matters much whether those deaths occur in 1944 or whether they occur in 2004. All of us that play those games have to accept some responsibility that that's precisely what we're doing.
That's a long way of saying I don't get 'pissy' about any of that nonsense.
Eurogamer: Do you think it matters how tasteful the recreations are?
Major Neil Powell: If it's done properly it should just remind people that that's what happens in war: people die, and it's not particularly pleasant no matter which way you look at it. Things like Grand Theft Auto are completely and utterly glorified. If the wargames were treated in that way it would probably be distasteful. But I don't think you can make a game about war without people dying. That's unavoidable, and all of us that play those - and all of us that enjoy those - have to accept that. It can be a little bit pious of people to think it's okay to play Call of Duty or Brothers in Arms and then draw a line at Fallujah because it's up to date and current - I have a bit of an issue with that.
The other thing is that nobody these days - NATO or UN - has conscripted armies. All of us that do what we do, or did what we did, know full well what we're doing. I was a volunteer soldier, I've always been a volunteer soldier - the people out in Afghanistan are volunteer soldiers. It makes the Second World War games worse if anything! Most of those [soldiers] were conscripted and didn't have a choice but to die. The first waves on Omaha Beach died in their droves and they hadn't a choice about that. You could say that's probably worse than the violence that's going on in Afghanistan or Iraq at the moment.
Eurogamer: Codemasters said yesterday that people with a military background have a head-start at Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising. Do you think the same can work in reverse - can gamers become better soldiers?
Major Neil Powell: No. I play a lot of this stuff online, and I've been a soldier for 20-odd years. I've got a few medals on my chest - it's not double rows, but I've got several medals and I've been in a few operations. And I get thumped all the time. The key to any of these games is nothing to do with military service, it's to do with dexterity; it's about hand-eye coordination; it's about practice.
In the short term, Flashpoint probably has a point where you can make an impact on the tactical side of a game. But I tell you something: if you put any one of those Special Ops guys who's not a good-quality gamer against a 30-stone, sit-in-a-rocking-chair, eating crisps, drinking pop eight-hours-a-day gamer, [then] the fat guy always wins.
Eurogamer: There are videos of soldiers controlling aerial surveillance drones with Xbox 360 pads. Now Microsoft and Sony are developing complex motion-sensing inputs for their consoles, could they unwittingly be bringing about a much larger change than to the gaming sector?
Major Neil Powell: My answer to that as an academic would be: definitely, yes. Kids don't read books any more - there's a different skill-set. If we don't keep up, there's a huge danger that somebody else will do it before we do.
They key problem is that these things cost money, and defence procurement is something that's always going to be under threat. And to upgrade and update in the same way that Microsoft do, for a public sector organisation like the public forces, is almost impossible. And that's the dilemma. The army would have a very different technical look if it had all the money it wanted to.
Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising is out now on PC, PS3 and Xbox 360.