Version tested: PC
The Eurogamer Black Hawk that carried Sergeant Parkin into Skira didn't come straight home. It crossed the densely-forested console/PC border and dropped off another eager soldier-simmer before returning to base. I was that simmer and this is what I learnt from my time in-country.
The first emotion Dragon Rising stirred in me? Disappointment. Launching into the 11-mission campaign fresh from a bout of ArmA II, the flat lighting, washed-out sepia tones and low-res terrain textures of the Skiran landscape had me checking I hadn't minimised the graphics settings by mistake. Later outings in sunnier/moonier conditions show off the vast seamless battlespace far better, but still, it's hard to shake the feeling that Codemasters has lost the beauty contest to Bohemia Interactive.
If we're going to be petty and keep score, the British devs equalise with their elegant radial-menu based GUI. A control system that allows you to order squad-mates about, altering everything from their stances to their rules of engagement to the sides they part their hair, is never going to be idiot-proof, but Dragon Rising's logically-layered menus, accessed through the oh-so-convenient WSAD keys, come mighty close.
Picking victors starts getting complicated when you venture into core areas like infantry combat. The newcomer might not let you lean - a ludicrous omission - and may, when a shooter is close to cover, occasionally block outgoing lead for no apparent reason, but there's no denying the plausibility of its atmospheric, adrenalin-steeped skirmishes. Mud and blood lens-spatter are extremely well-used as are the ZZZIPs, PHWIPS, KRAKS and F*CK!s that pepper the spontaneous soundtrack. Most importantly, the ballistic modelling has an air of grim authority to it.
Do slugs penetrate wooden fences and shack walls? Sadly, I think not. Do projectiles projected over long distances obey gravity? Most definitely. That trademark Operation Flashpoint experience, sniping a faraway foe by aiming several metres over his head, is certainly feasible in the sequel. That other trademark Operation Flashpoint experience - dropping like a sack of spuds after taking a single bullet to a vital organ - also re-appears.
Such sudden demises could be maddening. The fact they aren't says a lot about OFDR's extremely well-judged lethality levels. You'd have to be remarkably unlucky or remarkably stupid to get insta-killed on a regular basis, but the threat of it gives every ballsy advance and nervous house-clearing a palpable piquancy. Most wounds will finish you only if you fail to treat them before the bleed-out timer runs down. If you're incapacitated, aid must be administered by a human or CPU-controlled team-mate. Some of the tensest moments in the game come when you're laying in a pool of blood waiting for a medic to respond to your plaintive cries.
The PLA also play their part in keeping the gunplay credible. Like all the best artificial adversaries, you're never quite sure how they will react to danger. Some hit the dirt and start crawling when the angry lead bees arrive, others dash for cover, hurl smoke grenades, dart behind trees, or commence aggressive flanking manoeuvres. Just about the only behaviour they don't appear to have mastered is surrendering. Oh, that and post-mortem persistence.
After the lack of leaning, one of this game's most exasperating flaws is the way corpses disappear. There you are ready to scavenge a nice Chinese QBZ95M assault rifle or 67-II LMG to replace your ammo-less M16A4 (weapon models and animations are beautiful throughout) when all of a sudden the body you're jogging towards disappears into thin air. It doesn't happen every time and most battlespaces are liberally scattered with weapon crates, but it's not the sort of nonsense you expect from a serious squaddy sim.
And talking of things I really didn't expect to see in Dragon Rising, it's probably time to mention the game's creaky peer-to-peer multiplayer. For a title that supports 32-player mayhem and has potentially massive clan appeal, the current absence of dedicated server code is downright baffling [tell that to Infinity Ward - Ed]. I've just fled from a worst-case session in which opening doors, switching weapons, and operating vehicles was nigh-on impossible thanks to lag. Without a server support patch, some anti-hack protection, and, ideally, the ability to join games already in progress, the future for multiplay looks bleak, which is a shame because there's definitely promise there.
Co-op allows you to take-on the campaign in the company of up to three mates, Annihilation is a no-nonsense team mode in which two sides grapple over a strategic location like a bridge or village, and Infiltration - arguably the most interesting form of off-the-shelf MP - casts one small group of combatants as spec-ops attackers, the rest as defending grunts.
Whatever the mode, your role and load-out depend on the squad slot you grab before the action commences. Fancy eviscerating tanks and reducing houses to smoking ruins with a single trigger squeeze? Go AT gunner. Want to feel the love of your fellow team-members radiating from your screen? Go medic. I think the most fun I've had is playing a defensive engineer in Infiltration mode. Step 1: Grab a buggy at the spawn point and race down to the objective. Step 2: Scamper around sowing land mines in likely avenues of approach. Step 3: Take up overwatch position and await satisfying crump of unexpectedly airborne spec-ops foes.
Bizarrely, without multiplay or editor experimentation, you won't get to experience many of the best vehicles in the game. The Codies transport department has done a splendid job of building a fleet of helos, jeeps and armoured vehicles only to be shafted by the folk responsible for the campaign. Apart from the odd Humvee or jeep ride, the story segment is completely devoid of vehicular thrills. I waited patiently for the mission that would put me in an Abrams tank or missile-spitting Cobra attack helicopter, or encourage me to half-inch a civilian car, bus or tractor. It never came.
The ridiculous thing about this self-enforced driving ban is vehicles are one of Dragon Rising's best-executed features. They are certainly friendlier and more convincing than their ArmA II equivalents. Being underpinned by Havok physics probably has a hand in that. You certainly notice the middleware when you're sliding around Skira in a Joint Ops-style dune buggy, or attempting to land a helo on uneven ground.
Outside of proper flight sims, chopper flight models tend to be either soggy or silly. Here they're neither. Within minutes of clambering into a Seahawk for the first time I was darting around in much the same happy way I do in FSX. I wonder if the flat roofs of sangers and sheds are landable? Oh, lovely, they are. I wonder if I can activate auto-hover, then switch to a door-mounted minigun or scamper off and explore on foot? Ah, splendid, I can. Does it matter if wander too close to the tail rotor while exiting? Ouch! Yes it does. The default keyboard control scheme and handling feel so natural I still haven't bothered to plug in a joystick.
A few more wheeled or winged interludes would have added spangle to what is a consistently enjoyable but rather imagination-bereft campaign. There's no real plot to speak of. Once the initial load screens have supplied their speedy potted history of Skira - a history that ends with oil-hungry China invading and a Russia/US alliance responding - it's bog-standard military ops all the way. Seize this hamlet, destroy those SAM sites, infiltrate this oil storage depot... it's a testament to the game's visceral, unpredictable combat that familiar tasks like these never feel tiresome.
Will I want to replay the story segment? Yes, I'm sure I will. Various unachieved secondary objectives and unexplored tactical approaches will see to that. When I do restart, I'll certainly be activating 'hardcore' mode. At the default difficulty level all spotted threats are marked on a strip-compass which does undermine immersion after a while.
A small disincentive to revisit the campaign is the nasty checkpoint save system. Auto-save points are scarce and sometimes poorly positioned. One of the more exasperating scenarios involves nailing a couple of heavily-defended AAA vehicles before friendly helos arrive. After about six attempts, I succeeded only to be sniped by a distant marksman while strolling out to greet the landing Seahawks. Not a problem, I thought. The game is bound to have surreptitiously saved my progress immediately after the AFV's brewed-up. Oh, the naivety.
It may well be possible - I haven't got round to checking - to add extra save checkpoints to default missions using the bundled editor. My cursory fumblings suggest a powerful tool with a few hopefully-patchable teething troubles. Without consulting the help file, I managed to set up a simple infantry skirmish, and build the sort of firing range that should have been provided by the devs themselves. Things started to go awry when I attempted to stress-test the engine by fabricating a massive pitched battle involving hundreds of individual units and much of Skira's surface area. On jabbing the 'test scenario' button, I found myself staring at a grey, irretrievably frozen screen. Hmmm.
As you'll have gathered by now, Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising is a bit of a curate's egg. The core combat is frequently fabulous - gritty in ways that most modern shooters can't match. Disillusion starts creeping in when you consider the barely adequate multiplayer tech, the surprise-free vehicle-shunning campaign, and the graphical mediocrity. Anyone with a taste for realistic military entertainment will find plenty to enjoy here, but its hard to shake the feeling that Operation Flashpoint hasn't got the brave, superbly equipped sequel it truly deserved.
7 / 10