Most of the time, when people say "with the best will in the world," or "I don't mean to be rude," you know full well they're probably going to follow it up with something unnecessarily harsh. It's a cheap way of softening the blow, when, in fact, you'd perhaps prefer they just came out and said something. But in this case, we really do have the best will in the world for this ridiculously long overdue port of Operation Flashpoint. It's one of the most progressive, ambitious, forward-looking military shooters of its time - that time being 2001.
There's no easy way to say this... and we really don't mean to be rude, but, tempting low price or not, it's just hard not to be completely put off by how eye-gougingly hideous the game looks in this day and age. It's hard, but not impossible. You just have to almost completely shut off your brain to the current standard and be aware that looks really aren't everything. Yes, it's still a great game, just one that happens to be one of the worst looking ever released in the Xbox's history. What a dilemma.
There are undoubtedly a barrel load of genuinely good reasons as to why Codemasters and Bohemia ported the game so faithfully and didn't update the graphics engine or the character models, but it's desperately disappointing to think that so many potential fans of the game won't be able to see past the shambling soldiers, vile texturing and amateurish presentation. Cramming such wide open maps into the relative confines of the Xbox was evidently enough of a challenge on its own, and one that took years to satisfactorily accomplish - but it's unlikely Joe public will understand this. Getting a no-compromises version to run at a decent frame rate with minimal pop-up was apparently a huge challenge on the Xbox, yet who's around in the press to understand this and educate the public otherwise? We'll give it a go.
Like Codies said, they could have released a stripped down version easily, but they loved the way it was too much. Kudos for that, but in a way it's one of those conversions that probably should have been abandoned so that it could remain fondly remembered for what it represented back then. Dragging it into the current era on a machine it was never designed for is unfair. The brand's heritage deserves more than to be given a kicking by unsympathetic critics.
For what you actually get within this decent-value package, it's hard to argue too hard. In terms of content, it's the full Monty, with the entire 40-odd mission-long Cold War Crisis campaign, an additional 15-mission long 'Resistance' prequel campaign (starring the infamous Victor Troska), as well as loads of individual single-missions, the ability to create your own missions and full co-op or competitive online play over Xbox Live.
If you've never played it before, then in many senses you're in for a treat. As we said in our opening salvo, its single-player design is - in several respects that count - more progressive and ambitious than any other military shooter out there. Playing through it all over again only serves to remind us how much unparalleled freedom Bohemia gives players throughout each mission. It doesn't always come off, mind you, but the more you play it, the more you're struck with admiration over what the game's trying to do. Unlike so many war games, there are no cheap thrills on offer - whatever entertainment you glean is earned, and whatever you've missed might not be all that apparent.
Rush n' attack
Set in the Cold War era of 1985, you play as various characters caught up in a burgeoning conflict where it's not entirely clear who the enemy really is. As part of a heavily outnumbered US force based in Eastern Europe, it's your duty as the nearest NATO force to investigate the source of the conflict and sort things out. Soon enough things become a little clearer, but not before you've been captured, set free again and engaged with a well-drilled, heavily armed Soviet force that strikes with ruthless precision.
In common with any other shooter, you're delivered a rough set of mission objectives and essentially left to get on with it however you see fit. To begin with, most of the missions play themselves out with your role reduced to a mere spectator on many occasions. A well-drilled AI force generally gets on with the task at hand pretty effectively without your input, effectively serving as little more than a mission-based tutorial for much of the first half of the campaign. It's a fairly underwhelming introduction to the game as a result, with most early missions over and done with in a matter of minutes.
But after schooling you in some of the vehicles (such as tanks, jeeps and eventually aircraft) the real meat of the game begins to become apparent, with your promotion leading to a more strategic experience, where commanding your squads and issuing orders is as important as putting bullets between enemy eyes.
In the loosest sense, Operation Flashpoint is a straightforward run-and-gun first- or third-person shooter, but with this extra strategic layer there's a far greater scope to plan each mission with the kind of military precision that so few games in the genre seem willing to grant players. And such is the flexibility of the design, you can pretty much wash your hands of any kind of strategic involvement if that's not your thing, with the ability to simply run around each mission with soldiers following obediently behind, or send them up ahead to do your dirty work for you. Along the way, the game does give you a pretty decent, gradual tutorial in exactly how to issue commands to specific squaddies, allowing you to quickly send them marching (or driving) off to wherever you want via a seamless and largely intuitive system of branching menus. Accessible via the d-pad, a few quick taps are all you ever need to issue even the most complex order. As far as converting the controls to a joypad goes, it's an excellent system that works well.
The real joy of OpFlash is carving your own path; deciding on a plan of action and seeing it through. During each mission you're generally given a waypoint to follow, but getting to it is fraught with pitfalls that won't be obvious the first (or even the second or third) time you encounter them. The satisfying thing is trying things different ways. Sometimes taking a tank seems like the best option, other times sending in different squads from opposing sides and outflanking them from somewhere completely different as a lone wolf, or maybe sniping your way to victory. Unlike almost every military shooter there's as much fun in replaying a mission using new tactics as simply completing one and moving onto the next.
Bohemia pulls all of this off thanks to vast and sprawling maps where nothing's arbitrarily off-limits like so many of its peers. If you encounter a choke point somewhere and get heavily outnumbered, then simply taking a different route might well be the answer. If you think you can outrun machinegun patrols in a jeep, then the chances are you'll pull it off. In one memorable mission, you can even nick a chopper from under the noses of numerous enemy sentries and use it to blow up their base. No obligation, and not even any advice that you can - but the fact that you find this sort of stuff out accidentally just makes it all the more absorbing and fun.
And, of course, unlike other subsequent 'openworld' games like GTA, the sprawl changes with every single mission. There's no city hub or anything like that, just mission after mission of unfamiliar, daunting and generally undulating terrain. All you've got is a map, a few scraps of information and your wits.
Of course, thanks to all of this, it's hardly the most friendly or approachable of games. With the stabiliser of constant checkpoints, health packs and linear level design taken away, you might feel the game lacks focus. More often than not you're taken out by nothing more than a cluster of wobbly pixels that you had no idea (or no way of knowing) were there. There's not much in the way of up close and personal combat - unless you're being run over by a marauding tank - so for those of you schooled on Ghost Recon and Call of Duty, it's one hell of a contrary experience that can feel completely at odds with what you expect from this type of game.
Yet it's a game that truly gets under your skin if you've got the time and energy to treat it with the respect it deserves. No, it's not particularly polished. Yes it does look dreadful. But if you can overlook the inherent issues that threaten to bring it crashing down, there's still much to admire.
To be completely honest though, no matter how much we still admire everything Operation Flashpoint stands for as a game and as an experience, there can never be a big enough excuse to pardon the grotesqueness of the engine that the game's lumbered with. Everything has been so spectacularly surpassed in so many important ways that you almost feel sorry for Codemasters for having to defend it. The character models aren't just a bit rubbish, they're probably the worst to have ever (dis)graced the Xbox, and the environments are sparse, green scrublands, populated by uninspired block housing and pixellated bushes. The vehicles are a bit better, but not much. As a stark reminder of how things used to be, this is it. Even four years ago it looked pretty nasty, but we forgave it. Nowadays we wince in pain.
There are a few redeeming features, mind you. Being able to create your own single and multiplayer levels is a bonus for the real diehards (and no, we really didn't have an opportunity to take more than a cursory glance at it, sadly), and the chance to engage in Xbox Live play is a boon - so long as you can actually round up enough people to play it. In theory, you've got all sorts to enjoy: deathmatch, team deathmatch, capture the flag, sector control, hold location and co-operative, but the main problem many people (including us) have had is finding others to play against. Private matches seem to be the way forward, but in a sense that's only perpetuating the lack of bodies online.
If you feel like the military genre is stuck in a rut, or you're bored with how linear and unchallenging a lot of these games tend to be, then you could do a lot worse than check out Operation Flashpoint Elite. It might have the worst 3d engine you've come across in recent years, but so long as you can see beyond its technical deficiences then there's truly an outstanding game in there somewhere. It may test your levels of forgiveness, and stretch the boundaries of your patience, but if you want a game that delivers something close to the unforgiving challenge, tension and confusion of real warfare, then give it a try.