I once got lectured by a man at a wedding about Operation Flashpoint. I'd made the mistake of mentioning what I do for a living, but instead of smiling, nodding and pretending to listen while I explained just what a burden it is deciding between two numbers all the time, he went a little purple and asked if I'd heard of ArmA. I didn't have time to answer before he launched into a fifteen-minute tirade against Codemasters, accusing them of being traitorous and misleading money-grabbers for making a game under the name Operation Flashpoint while its real creators Bohemia Interactive, supported by a real community of real fans, were making real sequels to the most real war game ever made and didn't I think it would be worth writing an exposť about that?
I smiled, nodded and pretended to listen. But the fact is, this man was and is no kind of lone nutter. Another acquaintance once gave up a lucrative city job so he could sit around in his dressing gown making Flashpoint maps all day, and Bohemia's own reaction to the great pretender Dragon Rising rearing its head was just as vituperative as its fans'. Flashpoint - the real Flashpoint - means an awful lot to an awful lot of people.
So when it arrives in October - eight years after the original, two-and-a-half after Bohemia's ArmA: Armed Assault, and less than six months after the excellent ArmA II - Codemasters' game faces expectations that can't possibly be met and minds that refuse to be changed. Many people who ought to treat it like a second coming - fans of the realistic, military simulation FPS - won't even give it the time of day. Codemasters will have to go back to square one and persuade everyone else, including people with games consoles, that they want to play a game where getting shot actually kills you.
For an overview of how they plan to do that, check out our previous Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising previews. In brief: the setting is contemporary, with the US Marines stepping in to help repel a Chinese invasion of an oil-rich, Russian-owned island in the Pacific. There's one huge, contiguous island map, free-roaming and free-form combat within mission structures, loads of authentic vehicles and equipment to use, tactical command of a four-man squad via a quick-command menu, strategic command of larger forces from the map, and online co-op and multiplayer.
All of which ticks the right boxes, as did the several glimpses we've had of the game running on high-end PCs. But the questions remain: how will Codemasters' in-house team deliver all this grandiose, granular simulation in a playable and - saving the war-is-hell brigade's graces - entertaining form across several formats? How will they differentiate it from its compulsively comprehensive rival, and how, if at all, will they draw more casual shooter fans into the fold?
An Xbox 360 preview version, featuring two single-player campaign missions, gives some idea. The first impression is made by the sort of slick, atmospheric front-end that Codemasters has been gracing its racing games with of late. Layers of grainy, black-and-white photography glide by under minimal fonts and that mournful, ululating ethnic singing that film-makers currently associate with the horrors of war, for some reason. If Modern Warfare is Hollywood's war, then this is Sundance's: hard-hitting, unvarnished, documentary-style.
Good presentation is one thing the original Operation Flashpoint lacked, but in this game, presentation is everything. It's not put in the service of spectacular set-piece but rather of putting your boots on the ground in an actual conflict situation, giving you the sights and sounds of being there as well as the feel and challenge.
It's graphically subtle - overcast skies, long grasses, copses of trees, broken walls, shabby barns - and on 360, it skimps a little on detail and effects in order to give you the freedom and the breathtaking draw distance. So Dragon Rising doesn't really reveal itself to you until you reach the summit of a hill in the first mission - goal: to disable an early-warning radar on a small outpost island - and use your binoculars to scope out the village in the scooped valley below. This game does naturalistic terrain exceptionally well, especially vegetation and the subtle but vitally useful elevation changes in the rolling landscape. You soon start thinking about cover in terms of the lie of the land rather than the lie of the conveniently placed crates.
It's around this time that the fantastic audio hits you as the bullets don't - just. A realistic soundscape is a very rare thing in games, but Operation Flashpoint has one, and just like the graphics, it's mostly about emphasising one thing - distance. Bullets, after all, travel over long distances, so you're often trading them with men who are very far away, just pixellated specs if you don't equip a scoped weapon.
The tiny, flat crack of their gunfire is drowned out by the frightening zip and thud of their rounds past your ear. Guns sound vastly different from different ranges, and their echo crackles and crunches off hills and buildings. Distant explosions travel to you seconds after you see the bombardment you've ordered strike a village, while your breath and boot-steps are close in the still air. It's very atmospheric.
For fear of breaking that atmosphere, Codemasters hasn't dumbed down the game's stringent rules on any difficulty setting. All enemies are good shots given enough time, a headshot kills you outright, and getting hit anywhere else means you'll bleed to death if you don't bandage it. Lower difficulty settings instead give you UI assistance - red markers for enemies on your compass, clear tracer fire, a target reticule. It doesn't sound much, but finding men wearing camo gear 200 metres away in a copse of trees, and then figuring out if they're friend or foe, is one of the principle challenges in this game, so it helps.
For the most part the UI is good, tidy and helpful, and the controls are sound. Aiming is fast and precise if a little sticky on the pad, and the quick-command system for tactical orders works well - you hold down RB and use the d-pad to make quick stepped selections, or use smart context-sensitive shortcuts. However, equipment selection is awkward and sluggish, and even Assisted difficulty gives you no help actually locating your team-mates - realistic, but often problematic if they're mixing it with the enemy or need to be bandaged. More seriously, they are often unresponsive to orders, which might well be because you're doing it wrong, but some sort of clear feedback would help if that was the case.
At any rate, as you get accustomed to the game, you're probably best leaving them to their own devices, which is when their AI really shines. Without orders, they'll react fluidly and sensibly to the course of action you're taking and provide valuable assistance, flanking, suppressing and perhaps most importantly, spotting threats. Operating with their excellent, autonomous backup gives you confidence in tackling this intimidating game. Whether the tactical system is precise and predictable enough to be a useful tool later on, we won't know until review, but there are some questions at this early stage.
Checkpointing is on the sparse side for such a difficult game with so many instant-death scenarios, and you have to wonder if for once, the old necessary evil of the FPS quick-save might have been usefully brought out of retirement. However, although it can frustrate, Dragon Rising is seldom unfair, and multiple tries at encounters give you a chance to explore the enormous breadth of approach routes, tactics and equipment - rifling enemy caches and bodies for weaponry is always worthwhile - at your disposal. It's not a sandbox game in the free-wheeling playground sense, but the freedom is considerable all the same, and a welcome counterpoint to the tight real-world restrictions of the combat.
How far that freedom extends to the mission design, and chances to explore the landscape, isn't quite clear yet. The introductory mission, on its mini-island, presents you with your main objective early on and rewards you with a big bang as you call in thunderous howitzers on an enemy-held village. You can then pay as much or as little attention as you like to mopping up resistance en route to your helicopter lift out, and there's an optional objective clear over the other side of the island if you want to tally and explore.
The second mission feels more tightly scripted. You assist a beach landing - no D-day this, a modest scramble alongside three amphibian vehicles - by taking out anti-tank gunners, then mortar spotters, then anti-air teams, finally seizing a well-defended village and defending it yourself to hold the beach-head. Guided by the clear waypoints, it flows very well and provides a couple of dramatic moments, but there it doesn't open up in the same way or offers you anything entirely optional to do. Stray far off the beaten track, and you'll find nothing much at all.
Although the mission design is clearly strong, you wonder if Codemasters will have the bravery and the vision to offer you the full scope of this military sandbox. That's what ArmA II does so well, and it's possible that Dragon Rising won't be able to resist the urge to guide you towards its next carefully unstaged, studiedly informal set-piece, like a big-budget effects film shot with a hand-held camcorder. But maybe that's just a matter of taste. And when they've got those atmospherics so right, who can blame them?