Version tested: Xbox 360
Infinity Ward is a liar. An excellent liar with a clutch of fantastic, irresistible lies, but a liar nevertheless. Its Modern Warfare games claim to show players the future of professional conflict, a virtual replication of the horrors and thrills that will soon buffet soldiers to their particular nation's greater good. And we swallow the story. Who knows if, like many of Hollywood's action movie producers, Call of Duty is part-funded by the US military? It would certainly be money well spent. As an army recruitment tool the series is unrivalled: how many young men have been drawn to real battlefields, inspired to enlist by their glories on those virtual ones?
But Modern Warfare's relentless firework display of mortars and corridored, Michael Bay-esque set-pieces are, in truth, little more than a theme-park approximation of combat. The slick drama, that flows largely absent of reality's upsets, is more military-themed rollercoaster than sober training tool. As a result, in some far-flung theatre of war, a gamer soldier today lies facedown in the sod, his friends dying all around, no mission checkpoint markers to guide his advances or soft-save his progress, cursing the day he swallowed the lie. Codemasters sidles up alongside him, drops to one knee and presses Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising into his wounded hands, whispering: "If it was truth you were after, soldier, you should have played this."
Mission 7: Bleeding Edge. My four-man squad is huddled close to the battle's edge, but not quite close enough. It's a long walk to the first objective: an enemy AT team blocking a road that must be cleared out before our vehicles can advance. If there's one thing you're going to be doing a lot of in Operation Flashpoint, it's walking. The game's much-touted 35-mile draw distance may be an excellent back-of-the-box boast, but you'll rue the scale when you have to trek across it. As a simulation, even these fit marines tire soon enough when running at full pelt, the frantic pulse of their hearts soon vibrating loud through the controller. Moreover, take a stray bullet to the leg and you won't be running anywhere in a hurry.
As such, I order the team to a nearby armoured vehicle: two in the back, one on the mounted gun; I drive. The road is clear ahead, the desaturated, next-gen screed of greens and browns uninterrupted by the wobble of enemy movement. Foot down, I move to call up the overhead map to take point but, before the input registers, there's a thwap and the screen falls black. In Operation Flashpoint, like war, there are no archangels to soundtrack the transition from this world to the next. Death is instant, usually unexpected and never vainglorious. I didn't even get to see my mind splatter on the windshield, or the cold smirk of the twitching sniper who, two kilometres away, took the shot.
When it comes to military simulations, console gamers have been poorly served in recent years. The Ghost Recon series' transition from Xbox to Xbox 360 shifted the game from military sim to military rollercoaster, thus doing away with one of Xbox Live's most popular serious multiplayer war-games. It's this long vacant niche that Dragon Rising steps into, its business primarily frowning over huge maps, plotting paths through enemy patrols before inching forward through the undergrowth, breath bated, knees a-knocking.
Through a single-player campaign of 11 missions you take control of a four-man squadron of US marines, taking on the Chinese army in an effort to free a Russian island taken over by the PLA. Each mission is divided into a handful of objectives, which you are free to make your way towards in pretty much any fashion you see fit: direct, as the crow flies through enemy machine-gun emplacements, or via sweeping detours around the island. The emphasis on realism means that, despite the contemporary weaponry, you're not guaranteed a headshot just because you lined one up perfectly. For players mollycoddled by recent FPS military titles this will be a rude awakening. Want to switch from an assault rifle to a bazooka? Then you'll have to sit through a painstaking 10-second animation in which you lay the weapon on the ground before uncasing a rocket and gingerly loading it. Every manoeuvre has to be carefully plotted, closing distance before attacking, making use of terrain and the islands copious foliage cover, thinking like a soldier rather than an action game hero.
Death becomes a close acquaintance to the reckless. While on the lowest difficulty you're given a sparse HUD that lights up enemy positions on a simple compass read-out, there's no indication of a target's distance from you. With tall grass covering the island, trepidation is crucial, especially as it's very difficult to distinguish between friends and enemies in the field. Play at a higher difficulty and the HUD disappears completely, leaving you feeling as though you've had the stabilisers taken off your FPS bike, disorientated by the lack of read-outs and safety nets we rely so heavily upon.
By default your squadron will move as one, but it's possible to split the four-man team up in order to flank enemy holding positions. While the basic radial menu for ordering your team around is quick and intuitive, actually dividing them into groups and managing them is fiddly. It's something that far better handled in, for example, Full Spectrum Warrior and makes fast, efficient execution of advanced strategies more tortuous than it should be in a game of this ilk. For that reason, it's preferable to approach the campaign via the solid co-op mode, working with up to three friends, negating the need to wrestle with in-game tactical menus altogether.
There are a number of shortcomings in regard to realism. In one early mission you're asked to defend a village from enemy attacks. Instinctively you hole up in a building, shooting out the windows before assuming a defensive stance. However, once you've opened a door, it won't close again, leaving huge gaps in your otherwise secure position. Likewise, nestle yourself into a good spot by a window, your gun pointing over the frame, and more often than not your bullets will just thud into the woodwork, despite the clear shot on the enemy presented down the rifle's scope. Finally, while it's possible to loot dead soldiers, appropriating their ammunition (a valuable commodity) and guns, the bodies inexplicably disappear after 30 seconds or so, taking their assets with them. The game has a relatively small population per mission, so this design trait is both anachronistic and irritating.
As with all of Codies' recent output, Dragon Rising's presentation is sparse yet exemplary. The studio knows how to create maximum impact at minimal expense and as such, the simple, economic motion graphics the flit across the screen, introducing the background to the conflict, or displaying campaign stats during load times pack more impact than a thousand pre-rendered cut-scenes. There's no soundtrack in the game outside of the haunting melody that backs the menu screens, but the game's front-end is so effective that it colours the whole experience, setting the tone for the missions it embeds.
Nevertheless, it's hard not to come away feeling the developer made a robust, strong military sim engine but failed to fill it with engaging missions. There are high points, such as defending an airfield from helicopter attack or escorting hostages across hills while under heavy fire, but they rarely sizzle with excitement or novelty. This isn't helped by the dev's reuse of key locations, something that ensures the relatively short campaign begins to feel samey towards its conclusion. There's also a lack of fine polish with a few noticeable bugs interrupting play every hour or so.
Even so, Operation Flashpoint offers a sobering counterpoint to the riotous action of the typical contemporary console FPS and as such is very welcome. As with Race Driver: GRID, with which it shares elements of its engine, some will find the concessions to reality go too far while others will say they don't go nearly far enough. There is, however, just enough range between its difficulties to appease both ends of the spectrum: those who want an unflinching recreation of island-based warfare, and those who want a manageable, mostly enjoyable military videogame. But its mild shortcomings ensure that, until Codemasters can fill its framework with a little more imagination and purpose, neither group will come away fanatical about the effort.
7 / 10