For some years now the media and gamers alike have been getting excited about the advent of the virtual battlefield, combining the first person shooter with tank and flight sims to produce an all-encompassing simulation of war. And yet, despite a few brave ("Wargasm") or simply downright foolish ("Codename Eagle") attempts, this apparent gaming nirvana still hasn't truly arrived.
All that could be about to change though, with a whole spate of new games appearing over the next couple of years which offer both on-foot and in-vehicle action, often in a multiplayer environment. One of the first of the new wave of combined-arms tactical combat games to appear though will be "Operation Flashpoint", an ambitious title from Czech developers Bohemia Interactive. We recently saw the game demonstrated at a press event in London, and later spoke to team leader Marek Spanel to find out more...
The Game That Came In From The Cold
Somewhat unusually, Operation Flashpoint uses a fictional Cold War conflict between the USA and Soviet Russia as its basis. Set in 1985, you find yourself in the middle of a rapidly escalating conventional war between east and west.
During the single player campaign you will gradually rise through the ranks of the US military, gaining control of more troops and equipment along the way. As in a 3D real-time strategy game, you can use a simple drag and click mouse interface to select and move troops, give orders, change formations and more. But you also have direct control over your own character, who you can move around from a first or third person viewpoint, and who can commandeer any of the game's 30 vehicles. If he dies though, it's game over.
The result is a mix of action, strategy and simulation which gives you an unprecedented amount of freedom. As a foot soldier you can use a wide range of realistic military weapons, including assault rifles, anti-tank missiles, hand grenades and mines, as well as the now obligatory sniper rifle. Meanwhile everything from armoured personnel carriers, tanks and jeeps to helicopter gunships and close air support planes are available, and you can use many of these to transport your troops around the battlefield. "The Soviet BMP and especially the Hind are great vehicles from this aspect", Marek told us. "They have some good armour and weapons, but they can carry soldiers on board as well."
Although the game starts with a fairly small squad and limited missions to ease you into the action, by the end the scope is massive, and the game can handle as many as a hundred soldiers in a single mission. The islands over which you are fighting are equally vast, as much as 100km across. Missions range from your basic landing operations and capturing the high ground to blowing up enemy troops from a helicopter gunship or planting demolition charges in an enemy base by sneaking in during the night. We were even shown one mission which involved racing Skodas along a narrow country road! It's very funny, and beats the hell out of Colin McRae 2.0...
Under The Bonnet
All of this is handled by a brand new engine which was developed in-house by Bohemia. Vast open terrain is handled effortlessly, and although the bushes and trees which dot the landscape are all rendered in glorious 2D sprite-o-vision, overall the graphics are amongst the best we've seen in a military sim of any kind.
Soldiers and vehicles alike are nicely detailed, with support for hardware transform & lighting acceleration helping things along on systems with the appropriate graphics cards. The rolling hills and valleys are criss-crossed by roads and fences, with military bases and entire villages scattered across the islands. There were some amusing graphical glitches in the version we were shown though, including a heavy weapons soldier whose model had somehow become hideously deformed, making him look like he had escaped from a 50's horror B-movie. But with a few months before the game is due for release, things are certainly looking promising.
"The goal of the engine was to display a larger exterior world, but stay on a par with the visual detail of more limited action games", Marek explained. "The player can see to larger distances in Operation Flashpoint, and if you see mountains on the horizon, there are actually mountains there that you can walk, drive or fly to."
This world is also dynamically lit, with the shadows gradually moving over time, until a colourful sunset marks the end of the day. The battlefield is then plunged into darkness as night falls, only to be lit up by tracer fire or the headlights of a passing vehicle, or seen in an eerie spectral green through night vision goggles. Even the clocks on the churches keep time.
Under The Bonnet
The game also includes full multiplayer support, and the possibilities of driving your buddies to the front line in a stolen jeep or giving close air support in an A-10 to a stranded infantry unit under attack from tanks should be enough to excite hardcore action gamers and sim fanatics alike.
"Multiplayer is a very important part of Operation Flashpoint, and the number of possible variations is nearly endless, from basic deathmatch type games up to more sophisticated missions", according to Marek. "We're still working on the design of this area, but we are trying to keep it open."
It's not just another Team Fortress clone with vehicles thrown into the mix though. As in the single player game, the player isn't limited to just one character, but can control an entire squad of other troops as well. You can even combine human and AI controlled units within a single army, allowing a team of human players to control a small group of troops, while leaving the rest of the battle to the computer.
This AI is another of the game's strongpoints, and it reacts realistically to most situations. In one demonstration, Marek opened fire on a Soviet airfield from a hill top using his sniper rifle. The pilots scattered as the guards ducked for cover and started looking to see where the shots were coming from. After every few shots Marek moved to make it harder for them to pinpoint him, and then called in a squad of infantry who started to advance down another hillside. Meanwhile he had gotten careless though, and as he lay face down in the grass trying to pick off the guards, one of them spotted him and a burst of automatic fire cut him down. Game over.
You aren't limited to the missions which ship with the game either, as it will come with a mission editor that allows you to place troops, vehicles and objectives, and so create your own single and multiplayer missions.
Within a couple of minutes Marek had managed to set up a basic mission using the editor, with a starting point for your soldier, a helicopter for him to take control of, and a convoy of vehicles coming down the road to blow up. Later Marek told us that "the mission editor is great fun itself, because you can create nice simple missions with only your mouse within a few minutes".
"Most of the common things can be created just using the mouse - placing units and vehicles, organizing them into squads, placing waypoints for squads, and creating triggers and synchronizing the actions. If this is not enough for someone, there is a huge scripting language available to be used within any mission. As I see it, our campaign and single missions built into the game are not showing all the possibilities of the game. It's one of the reasons why we included the mission editor directly in the game environment, and why we are doing everything to enable players to create and share their own missions."
The only limitation of the editor is that you can only use the three islands which are included in the main single player campaign, "but the islands are huge and the number of units is big as well", so it shouldn't prove to be a problem. "Currently, we're not planning to release the landscape editor and our 3D modeling tools, but it is possible we'll release it some time after the commercial release of Operation Flashpoint."
Operation Flashpoint is looking like one of the most ambitious and downright impressive military sims of the new millenium, with four years of blood, sweat and tears gone into the making of it. Assuming that Bohemia can succeed where so many other developers have previously failed, and manage to balance the game so that both on-foot and in-vehicle action are equally satisfying, they should be on to a winner. We've been talking about the virtual battlefield for a whole decade, but now it's finally here, and in style.