Remarkably it's been eight years since the release of the original Operation Flashpoint: Cold War Crisis. The ultra-realistic tactical shooter veered drastically from the route the FPS was taking, aiming for hardcore realism and extreme difficulty in a gaming world that was about to ditch the ubiquitous medpack for regenerating health. Since then the original developer, Bohemia, has released an updated sequel, ArmA: Armed Assault, and is currently working on ArmA 2. In a much-publicised split, Bohemia retain the rights to make sequels, but publisher Codemasters has the rights to the game's name. Hence their unofficial sequel, Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising. Confused? Just forget about it all, and focus on being excited about what OPF:DR has to offer.
First and foremost, the scale of the game needs to be expressed. Dragon Rising presents a 135 square mile island, with an engine offering a draw distance of up to 35km. This isn't an exaggeration - we've seen it with our own eyes as a Cobra helicopter rises above the hills to reveal the extraordinary vista. The new engine is designed to allow a great deal of stuff on screen at any one time, which is essential for one of the game's most distinctive features: shooting people from miles away.
Most FPS games have your opponent invading your personal space before you're likely to dispatch them. In OFP you'll be wanting to take enemies out while they're still specs on the horizon, whether that's with your rifle, ordering your sniper, or maybe dropping a missile on their heads. Dozens of enemies on screen at once, while you're controlling up to forty men on your own side, miles apart: they had to build something impressively sturdy.
Rather than having set scripted missions, the freeform battles across the Island of Skira - contested by China and Russia, with the American troops sent in to capture the island for the Russians - instead depend on an AI Codemasters is extremely proud of. "Having an AI you can rely on to not be stupid, but to actually look after themselves properly makes a big difference," explains lead AI designer, Clive Lindop. "There are unnamed other titles - squad-based titles - where you're better off leaving them behind a dustbin and coming back at the end of the mission to get them, because they're a complete hazard to you. Whereas these guys - after a while you'll frequently forget they're there, because they're doing their job and you're not having to worry about them all the time."
The role you play appears impressively malleable. During the single-player game you're a commanding officer carrying a rifle, able to issue orders to your squad, as well as to larger groups of fellow soldiers as the scenarios require. This can mean playing hands-on, in the thick of the action, letting the AI worry about itself as you pursue goals. You have to be careful here, as the AI is constantly judging your actions, and if it thinks you're a loony, your troops will abandon you. Or you can station yourself at the top of a hill and order your troops into action on the fly, using the quick-command system. This is a series of threaded menus that appear on screen, rapidly flicked through to find the required option. "It's pretty handy," says Lindop. "It's designed in such a way so people would have the same muscle memory you'd get from a collection of keyboard commands. It has a couple of layers, and it's context-sensitive, so when you get used to using it, you even stop reading what it says."
The farthest extreme lets you choose to play completely from the game's command map, based on real-world Blueforce Tracker technology. Information your troops are able to see is reported on the map, and you can issue orders, orchestrate attacks, and generally play Napoleon without even seeing the real world. Of course, without your own eyes you're risking inaccurate information or out-of-date information from your men on the ground, but it demonstrates the versatility of the game.
Codemasters' aim for the game is to create a balance between the ultra-realism for which the original was famous, and creating an evocative simulation of being involved in a war. This extends from intricately accurate physics, right down to different bullet calibres making different sounds as they pass your ear, penetrating objects to appropriate depths. A column of smoke after a missile is dropped on a building gradually drifts away as the breeze carries it, while the resulting concrete dust billows and spreads below. Get caught in it and you'll have trouble breathing, and maybe even collapse.
Consulting soldiers recently returned from the Gulf and Afghanistan, experience plays an important role alongside technical accuracy. Lindop clarifies. "It's striking a balance between realism, which is all nuts and bolts and flying a space shuttle and pressing a thousand buttons, and the fact that in real life people are very intuitive." The game shouldn't be unapproachable just because it's realistic. "Firearms are designed to be used quickly by anybody, so the control methodology is really quite fluid. It's fast. Because the game's so lethal you don't want to blame the game when you die because it's like trying to drive a bus somewhere."
This is not to say it's going to be anything other than brutal. While there are difficulty settings, these aren't going to change how the AI treats you, or give you improved health. You're still a fleshy human even if you ask it to be easy. Instead you'll get more technical support. Easy will offer you a compass that shows you sighted enemies as red marks, and on-screen info gives you useful advantage. Put the difficulty up to its highest and you're not even going to get a crosshair.
There's obviously significant concern from the hardcore fans of the original PC version that this is coming out for 360, PS3, as well as PC. But this is something Codies is determined will surprise everyone. The engine has been specifically designed to achieve its enormous scale without burning out your console's chip, and as such will also not demand a top-of-the-range PC to play. However, play it on a top-notch PC and you're going to be able to scale it to look stunning. There's also not been any compromise in the features when switching to a controller. The quick-command system replaces the need for a keyboard full of buttons, and enormous amounts of work has been put into letting the analogue sticks provide something equivalent to mouse aiming without adding in any aim assist.
"The hardcore base don't want aim-assist," says Lindop. "We had an aim assist at one point, we did put it in just to see what the experience was like, but it was worse. You've got so many enemies on the battlefield. It's okay when the guy's ten foot from you, and you're in a street, and you say 'snap to that' and it does. But when there's thirty, forty, fifty guys on screen, and they're all very far away, you press snap and the system goes, 'Who?' There's about thirty guys within that tiny area."
However, it's not supposed to be too simple to master. Codies says it takes around twenty to thirty minutes for a player to become comfortable with the controls, but you'll find you'll only truly master certain aspects. "It's part of the system we want. The game rewards skill," Lindop explains. "We think players want to have that experience, to be able to say, 'I won because I'm good at the game. Not because the game carved a hole for me through this experience.'"
"Not everybody's going to be a great sniper. Others will be excellent. Some will find it tricky to do. This is one of the things I think the co-op will show is, because there's a genuine skill level in the game, then co-op will become a lot more meaningful and rewarding experience."
Co-op changes how the game is approached. In the single-player campaign you play as one character, and leave the sniping, etc., to the AI experts in your team. Enter co-op and you can play anyone you choose. In fact, if you're finding a particular section of the single-player game too difficult to pass, you can switch into co-op mode, get a few friends to help you out, and then drop back into offline mode and carry on.
Multiplayer opens up other opportunities. If just two of you create a private game, you can play like generals, commanding the AI from your Jeep on the hilltop. Or you can get up to 32 players on PC, 16 on 360/PS3 and have an all-out infantry war.
There are no plans for cross-platform multiplayer, Lindop citing the complete lack of a reason for it to exist. Not only do PC and console players tend to approach shooters differently, there's also a lot that makes a game like OPF:DR very hard to fairly balance. "The only thing that restricts draw distance is resolution. At about 500m a human on a 1080i is one pixel high. On a 1600x1200 screen he might be five or six pixels high. Even if the control methodology allowed them to be equally accurate, the PC guy has a slight edge. The PC guy needs less skill to make the shot than the 360 guy."
As for those controls, Lindop claims they're pretty similar, even opting to play the PC version with a 360 controller. "I like the 360 controller when I'm playing because my skills at flying a helicopter are better. It's one of those classic balances between a high-fidelity simulation model and one that doesn't necessarily require every button to operate."
It's going to be an interesting summer, with both Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising, and ArmA 2 coming out alongside one another. There's animosity between the teams, mostly from Bohemia after their recent furious reaction to the incorrect suggestion that someone from the original OPF team was working on Dragon Rising. But Codies is taking the attitude that the genre's small enough that there's room for both games, and both are likely to provide something quite different. Lindop once more:
"Our Flashpoint and their Armed Assault I don't think are fundamentally the same game. They went down a very serious simulation route with things like Virtual Battlefield Simulator. What we wanted to do with the game was still keep that simulation core, but we wanted to focus on delivering the human experience of being in combat. What's it like to be shot at? The whistling noise, the tracers going past. So I don't think their focus is quite the same."
Does Codies feel that it owes anything to the legacy of the game?
"They made a great game. For a game that's now bordering on a decade old, it had a great legacy. It's why people are excited to see another one. I think [Bohemia] are justifiably proud of the work they did on that. I'd say you have to give a nod of courtesy to the fact they did all this groundbreaking work the first time around."
But there's no desire to continue the scuffle. "I think we've taken the right approach. We'll judge them, and hopefully they'll judge us, by the game that's put out. It's the only honest way of doing it. I'm sure there will be things I'll really like in ArmA, and things I won't. I think it will be the same for them and OFP. It's one of those things where you say, they're allowed to express their opinions, but we're working!"
As they enter crunch, the team are still listening to their forum, still trying to include as much as they possibly can, and refusing to compromise.
"We read the forums because we want to deliver as much as we can," explains Lindop. With a wishlist of thousands of features, there's only so much the team will be able to achieve, but they want people to know they're listening. "We've got a really good community guy, he sends us their questions from the forum. If we can answer it we will, and he forwards the answer back to them. I'd feel like I wasn't doing my job properly if I didn't read the forums."
"We went into it knowing that the worst living nightmare of the PC guys was that we'd compromise. You read the forums and they still think we will. They're basing that judgement on experience with other franchises that have gone cross-platform and simplified," says Lindop. "So we were very deliberate in making gameplay that you could get into, but at its heart it's still a rather unforgiving, quite relentless experience.
"Why? Because the purpose of the game is to show what combat experience is like. The truth is, in combat you don't bunny-hop, you don't run at the enemy blazing away, you don't hide behind rocks and feel better. You get a bullet in the face and you bleed to death. If you hit the spacebar you'll dive to the floor, because what's the most important thing you can do? It's not jump, it's get your face in the dirt as rapidly as possible. When you're carrying 170lb of gear several miles, the last thing you'll fancy doing is star jumps while somebody's shooting at you."