When we last looked at Operation Flashpoint back in February we had just received our first batch of alpha code from the game, and although it was looking very promising there was obviously some way to go before it reached its full potential. Since then a demo has been released to give gamers a taste of the action, but to date we had only seen single player stand-alone missions. So it was with bated breath that we installed the latest preview copy from publisher Codemasters, including our first glimpse at the campaign structure and multiplayer options.
The single player campaign kicks off with a series of short tutorial missions to teach you the basic controls and conventions of the game. Appropriately enough this is all set in a boot camp, and as a rookie you should expect no mercy from your trainers - movement controls, for example, are introduced by the drill instructor sending you running across the base and back for getting in trouble during the opening cinematics.
No sooner is your basic training complete than contact is lost with a nearby island amidst reports of a hostile invasion by unknown forces. An American carrier group is on its way to the archipelago, but as the only unit in the region it is up to you to investigate while you wait for reinforcements to arrive. As you might expect, the result is something of a disaster. A rogue element of the Soviet army soon turns out to be behind the surprise attack, and before long you are facing tough resistance, resulting in a chaotic withdrawal from the island that leaves you stranded in hostile territory.
In total there are three vast islands to explore in the main campaign, with total freedom of movement to roam across them as you like. There are dozens of missions to complete, ranging from defending a radar installation against enemy saboteurs to ambushing enemy tanks and securing villages. Along the way you will hook up with the local resistance to rescue hostages, sneak through enemy lines in civilian clothes, and desperately try to hold off overwhelming Russian forces as they move in on your position.
Another new feature of the latest preview version of Operation Flashpoint is the built-in mission editor, which allows you to create your own scenarios with the minimum of fuss.
The same Ordinance Survey style map which you can consult during missions is used for placing units, waypoints and objectives with a simple double-click of your mouse, and pop-up windows then allow you to select details such as which army it is referring to, troop and vehicle types, movement commands and so forth. It might not look like much, but it is very easy to use - within a couple of minutes of starting to tinker around with it I had managed to bodge together the mother of all tank battles, with a dozen American M1A1 Abrams facing off against Russian T72 and T80 tanks on an abandoned airfield, while I watched the outcome from a safe distance using a sniper scope.
Introducing waypoints, triggers and objectives to turn a bit of fun into an actual mission is somewhat more involved, but with a little practice you should soon be able to get the hang of it and start piecing together some basic scenarios. With any luck we should see a flood of amateur add-ons for the game after its release. Indeed, the mission data is mostly stored in plain text script files, and so you can already find mods for the demo version of the game which have been hacked together by overenthusiastic fans armed with nothing more sophisticated than Windows Notepad.
While the single player campaign is highly enjoyable, the real hardcore are no doubt more interested in the multiplayer support. After all, the promise of truly vast maps to battle over and driveable vehicles ranging from tanks to helicopters is certainly an intriguing one.
The multiplayer still seems to be "work in progress" at the moment, although there is already a wide selection of modes on offer. Paintball is essentially a deathmatch style game, respawns and all, with a mixture of free-for-all and team games available. There is also the now traditional capture the flag, but the addition of jeeps and trucks to drive your friends around in and real American and Soviet flags to capture gives it that little something extra.
Probably the most exciting multiplayer missions though are the more complex objective-based ones, some of which are designed to be played with two teams of human players while others are co-operative affairs where everybody gangs up on the AI. Either way you can mix and match AI and human players if you don't have enough people on hand to fill a particular scenario, with team leaders able to assign players to particular slots using a simple drag-and-drop interface. So far there are only a couple of these missions available - one co-op mission involving rescuing captured American soldiers and destroying a Russian base, the other a teamplay mission in which the Russians must defend a ruined village against an American assault. With any luck the final game will include more of these, and you can be sure that adding new multiplayer scenarios will be one of the major uses for the mission editor once the game is released.
Since we last played Operation Flashpoint a number of other changes have been made, including a response to our earlier criticism that the controls weren't configurable enough. Kudos to Bohemia for adding an easy-to-use setup screen which now allows you to redefine almost any key.
It's not all good news though. The artificial intelligence is a bit shaky at this stage, but the docs that came with the preview copy admitted as much and the release version of the game is expected to be somewhat better. Some of the missions aren't finished yet either, and the final voice acting still hasn't been added in. Troop acknowledgements and scripted sequences are all provided by what sounds suspiciously like Stephen Hawking's voice synthesizer, which is very humorous but doesn't really add to the atmosphere of the game. So it looks like we'll have to wait for final review code before we know for sure how the cutscenes have turned out.
Perhaps the biggest problem though is ironically due to the realistic setting of the game - soldiers on both sides of the Iron Curtain wore rather similar looking green camouflage uniforms, and at a distance it can be difficult to tell one little green splodge from another. Needless to say this can result in a lot of embarrassing friendly fire incidents if you lose track of where the rest of your unit is. It also seems to have got harder to call in targets since the last version we played, and as this was one of the few ways of confirming whether or not the soldier in your crosshairs was on your side, short of waiting for them to start shooting, it has made things a bit tricky.
We're not quite sure how this one can be solved, but hopefully Bohemia will think of something before I get hauled up in front of a court martial...