The Eurogamer Black Hawk that carried Sergeant Parkin into Skira didn't come straight home. It crossed the densely-forested console/PC border and dropped off another eager soldier-simmer before returning to base. I was that simmer and this is what I learnt from my time in-country.
The first emotion Dragon Rising stirred in me? Disappointment. Launching into the 11-mission campaign fresh from a bout of ArmA II, the flat lighting, washed-out sepia tones and low-res terrain textures of the Skiran landscape had me checking I hadn't minimised the graphics settings by mistake. Later outings in sunnier/moonier conditions show off the vast seamless battlespace far better, but still, it's hard to shake the feeling that Codemasters has lost the beauty contest to Bohemia Interactive.
If we're going to be petty and keep score, the British devs equalise with their elegant radial-menu based GUI. A control system that allows you to order squad-mates about, altering everything from their stances to their rules of engagement to the sides they part their hair, is never going to be idiot-proof, but Dragon Rising's logically-layered menus, accessed through the oh-so-convenient WSAD keys, come mighty close.
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.