It's 1985 and Gorbachev has become leader of the Soviet Union, bringing about the end of communist rule. But while we survived perestroika and the collapse of the eastern bloc more or less intact, Operation Flashpoint offers a "what if" scenario in which a maverick Russian General opposed to Gorbachev's reforms decides to force the Kremlin to relent by invading a chain of islands off the coast of Eastern Europe.
Here Comes The War
As part of a small American force on the southernmost island of Malden you are just completing your training as the game begins, which acts as a neat tutorial to introduce you to some of the basic commands, controls and weapons. It's not long before you are thrust into the frontline though, as General Guba and his forces invade neighbouring Everon. Communication is lost with the island and a special ops team dropped in to investigate fails to report back, and so it is up to your unit to find out what is going on over there.
Over the course of the game's lengthy single player campaign you will spend most of your time as a grunt called Armstrong, gradually rising through the ranks until you have command of your own squad, able to give orders to your fellow soldiers and select equipment load-outs before missions. But you will also get to take on the role of an elite special forces soldier going behind enemy lines to steal documents and weaken defences, a rookie pilot flying close air support missions in A-10 tank busters and helicopter gunships, and a trainee tank commander battling against Soviet armour.
Bang Bang, You're Dead
Yes, Operation Flashpoint is the latest in a string of (mostly unsuccessful) attempts to marry on foot and in vehicle action, with an additional dose of squad tactics thrown in for good measure. The good news is that it's without doubt the best example of the genre so far. The bad news is that it's not without its flaws.
The first person action should be instantly familiar to fans of games like Counter-Strike and Rainbow Six, but transplanted into the great outdoors with fields, villages, forests and valleys to fight over. A wide range of weaponry is on offer, from standard assault rifles and heavy machineguns to bazookas, stinger missiles, grenade launchers and my personal favourite, the highly effective M21 sniper rifle. Combat is reassuringly realistic, which means that even on the "cadet" difficulty setting it will only take a few shots to drop an enemy soldier. This also means that you have to be very careful though, as you are equally frail and a couple of stray shots are enough to send you home to America in a plastic bag.
Those of you expecting Quake style run and gun action will be disappointed - moving while shooting is highly inaccurate, and your best bet is to hit the ground and hide behind the nearest bush as soon as the fighting begins. The AI does a good job of using cover and locating threats though, so if you stay in one place for too long you are inviting a Soviet soldier to take your head off with a Kalashnikov. Instead you will have to move from one piece of cover to the next, keeping low and staying alert, making sure to steady your aim before opening fire. In fact, the only real flaw in the AI is that it has difficulty handling close combat, with soldiers sometimes running straight past you without bothering to fire. Luckily this doesn't happen very often though, and otherwise Bohemia have done an excellent job of giving their soldiers believable behaviour.
Combine this realism with a stringent save game system that only allows one save per mission plus (in some of the lengthier battles) an auto-save retry position midway through, and you have an extremely tense atmosphere. At the end of one particularly tricky covert operation far behind enemy lines, running low on ammunition and having used my sole save game some half hour earlier, my heart was beating so hard I thought it was going to jump out through my rib cage and run off down the road screaming when I nearly ran into a Soviet patrol just two hundred meters from my extraction point. This game is not for those of a nervous disposition...
Baby You Can Drive My Car
While most of the missions involve some degree of pedestrian activity, you can also hop into any empty vehicle you come across and drive off in it. In total there are some thirty vehicles available throughout the game, including jeeps, trucks, armoured personnel carriers, tanks and helicopters. Many of them also have multiple crew positions which means that you can, for example, act as the driver, gunner or commander in a tank, or ride in the back of a truck while somebody else drives you around the game's massive islands.
Controls are mostly very straightforward, and the physics seem to have been geared more towards fun than realism. The only real disappointment is the air war, which is complex at the best of times. The A-10 in particular is hard to control from either the first or third person viewpoints, especially when you try to select targets that are flashing past you on the ground below at up to 400 kmph. Thankfully only one mission involves flying the A-10, and as your character admits to having learnt how to fly fixed wing planes in night classes you don't have to worry too much about your own ineptitude - it's all in-character! Helicopters also take some getting used to, but in the Cobra at least you have a gunner who can take some of the load off your shoulders, and the more sedate pace and the ability to stop and hover makes it all much less frantic.
Perhaps the biggest problem though is that the graphics engine which powers Operation Flashpoint simply isn't appropriate for a flight sim. On the ground you are faced with spectacular rolling hills, towering mountains, stunning sunsets and vast swathes of forest, with the slightly blocky infantry models the only fly in the ointment. But from the air things look far less impressive, and because you can see much further from up there the engine sometimes has to resort to heavy handed use of fog and dynamic level of detail adjustments to keep the frame rates playable. Trees pop in and out of view alarmingly as you fly over forests, and you can rarely see more than a couple of miles. As you can easily cover that distance in under half a minute in an A-10, this only adds to the confusion of air combat.
Ground based action is generally far more satisfying, apart from when you are acting as a tank commander, which gives you surprisingly little control over your crew. Your driver doesn't always take the most obvious route when you order him to move somewhere, ploughing through trees or hedges with glee instead of following the road, sometimes even colliding with other vehicles. Give him direct commands (left, right, forward, reverse) and he interprets them rather loosely though, rarely ending up going in quite the direction you wanted him to. This often leaves your tank wriggling around the battlefield chaotically as you struggle to get him to go where you want him to.
The gunner, meanwhile, is a total pain in the ass. Often he will decide to keep the turret pointing in one direction for no obvious reason, and as you can't look directly behind you this can make it harder to select targets using the otherwise simple point-and-click system. Once you have selected a target though, the gunner will fire as soon as you give the order (assuming that he has a shell in the gun), even if he hasn't targeted the cannon yet, or if there's something between him and the target. Like a hill. Or your commanding officer. Unfortunately this can all make tank battles a little frustrating at times. It doesn't help that orders are queued with other messages and then executed strictly one at a time, which means that it can sometimes be two or three seconds before your command is carried out in the heat of battle.
Having said that, only a handful of the single player missions involve taking on the role of a tank commander, and in multiplayer you have a real human driver and gunner to scream at when they do something stupid. As Operation Flashpoint hasn't been released yet we obviously can't judge the quality of online play, but we have spent several hours playing the game over a LAN and are happy to report that the multiplayer mode is incredibly addictive. The game features both co-operative and teamplay missions, ranging from the now standard capture the flag and deathmatch modes to objective-based missions such as seizing enemy villages and rescuing allied prisoners. At the moment online play consists of a simple peer-to-peer system using GameSpy Arcade, but in August a patch will be released adding a Quake-style client-server model, which should prove far more effective. Either way it's an awful lot of fun, and although there are only a handful of multiplayer missions out-of-the-box, with three vast islands to range over and an easy-to-use mission editor bundled with the game it may just unseat Counter-Strike as the online shooter of choice come this autumn.
Apart from a few annoying glitches and disappointing air combat, Operation Flashpoint is incredibly enjoyable and atmospheric, from the vast landscapes and wide range of real-life weaponry and vehicles available, to the deafening sound of your soldier's heart pounding as he runs through a forest chased by Soviet infantry. Missions are varied and well scripted, the plot keeps you hooked even though the cutscenes and voice acting are distinctly amateurish, and the single player campaign alone will keep you occupied for a couple of weeks or more, even before you start exploring the eleven stand-alone missions and various multiplayer options.
Operation Flashpoint is one of the best PC games we've played so far this year, and our only disappointment is that with a little more polish it could have been even better. Well worth a look though.