Video Game Review: Operation Flashpoint: Red River
Rule No. 11 — If it bleeds, we can kill it…
Even as games like Call of Duty and Battlefield try to push the envelope in terms of realistic graphics and gritty storytelling, there remains an undeniable disconnect between the ostensible super soldier you become in those series and actual combat operations. Into that gap comes Codemasters’ Operation Flashpoint: Red River, a squad-based shooter that undeniably presents a more authentic representation of contemporary warfare.
Although the basics should be familiar, there are a number of additions and omissions that’ll take some getting used to. The two industry standards that missed the cut are jumping and melee attack, which means close quarters combat is firearms only. On the flip side, radial wheels filled with various commands (toggled by holding down the right bumper and modified with the left) are decidedly different than what you’ll encounter in most console shooters.
In terms of layout and function, the radial wheels are a mixed bag. They require both hands to operate, holding down the bumper with one hand and using the d-pad to cycle through commands with the other, which means you’ll need to stand still while issuing orders. That’s fine if you’re in cover, but when you’re trying to move quickly and organize your fireteam it can be troublesome. Driving is also really clunky, though you’ll spend the vast majority of your time on foot so it’s easy to overlook.
Given its desert setting, there’s only so much to be done with the game’s environments. Therefore a level of sameness permeates nine of the 10 missions, meaning you’ll see the same arid region with large mountains, sparse trees and rundown buildings repeatedly. It looks decent, and it’s certainly more realistic for a squad to be running operations in one area of the world, but it gets a bit stale. Textures and objects can be slow to load as well. It’s most noticeable when reloading checkpoints — sometimes I found myself standing in digitized hash before a roof and door loaded — and with enemies in the distance (so prepare to see tangos running on air).
Character models look good with plenty of detail, and the frame rate keeps up with all the on-screen action no matter how many soldiers are doing battle. Kill animations are varied and generally look natural, highlighted by the awesome blood clouds that accompany ranged head shots. There aren’t any dynamic cut scenes in Red River. Instead, you’re treated to lengthy car rides while your Staff Sergeant explains the upcoming mission and verbally dresses you down for the umpteenth time. It gets the job done, but it feels amateurish compared to other high-budget shooters.
Allow me to skip past the music (meh) and sound effects (solid) to get to the featured player in the audio department: talking. The voice you’ll hear more than any other is that of your commanding officer, Staff Sergeant Knox, who delights in insulting you at every turn and hurling plenty of profane barbs. It’s definitely R-rated stuff, and some may even be offended by Knox’s vitriol.
For my money, it’s not offensive. It is, however, incredibly annoying after a while. Throughout Red River you’re constantly bombarded with pointless chatter from Knox. Combine that with incessant battlefield updates from the other fireteams, and you’ve got a game dominated by noise — and make no mistake, once you’ve heard Charlie company announce they’re being fired on for the 20th time when you’re literally in the same building enduring the same fate it becomes just that, noise.
Set in Tajikistan, a small country bordered by Afghanistan and China, Operation Flashpoint: Red River casts you as one of the four members of Fireteam Bravo. It starts off as another plausible “War on Terror” scenario but stands out from similar fare by having a more mission-based focus. You’re not racing against time to stop a nuclear launch or tracking down some shadowy force bent on world domination here. Instead, you’re assigned very specific objectives within a larger conflict.
This squad-based shooter is also far removed from the Call of Duty crowd with its relative sense of realism. Get shot and you’ll need to bandage your wound, otherwise you’ll bleed out. Headshots can even spell your instant demise, leaving no opportunity for a corpsman to patch you up and creating a constant sense of unease as a result. Caution, patience and teamwork are vital to the successful completion of your goals.
When Red River works, it’s a riveting affair. Sweeping through buildings and clearing pockets of resistance with your team is great stuff, and when the game focuses on skirmish-sized encounters, it’s a much appreciated breath of fresh air. Unfortunately, Red River is weighed down with a number of issues, ranging from inconsequential to infuriating.
Let’s start with the smaller stuff. Levels begin and end with lengthy exposition from Knox while you sit motionless in the back of a chopper or Humvee. That’s fine when mission parameters and plot points are being discussed, but much of what’s said falls under the barrage of insults category. Add that to the downtime you’ll encounter waiting for enemies to attack or traversing the sizable maps on foot and you’ve got some shaky pacing. Is it more realistic to have those moments of waiting? Sure, but this is already a lengthy game, and it didn’t need the filler.
Checkpoints are another issue, and it directly relates to that pacing. Red River tends to save your progress after you’ve completed an objective. Under normal rules of gaming engagement this would be fine, but when the next firefight takes several minutes to reach you’ll be making that long, uneventful walk each time you’re killed. There are numerous examples of this during the campaign, and they definitely add up.
Ultimately, though, the game’s biggest problem is the inconsistent A.I. of your squad. There are times when they’re crack shots and move intelligently from one marker to the next, and others where they are a legitimate detriment to your cause. I can vividly remember instances where instead of ducking behind a wall with me, they went around it right into the line of fire and were “incapacitated” almost immediately. Some of the worst moments came when defending buildings, including one where two of my teammates literally ran up and down the steps until they were dropped.
Once again, in most games squad A.I. isn’t an issue because you’re expected to do most of the heavy lifting. That isn’t the case here. Operation Flashpoint: Red River is built around a four-man team working together to achieve success, so you can imagine how frustrating it is to watch the other three members mowed down because they didn’t follow your orders… and then be forced to walk 500 meters to reach the skirmish once again.
These A.I. issues are, of course, eliminated by subbing in human-controlled players via online co-op, and it doesn’t take long to figure out this is the way Codemasters intended the game to be played. Find the right mix of players and you’ll move slickly through the missions, calling out targets and dividing and conquering areas in half the time. Even with just one other flesh-and-blood gamer, Red River becomes a much more scintillating adventure as those long downtimes are suddenly filled with tactical discussions (or at least small talk).
The 10-mission campaign took me over 11 hours to complete (that number includes deaths) and is one of the longer single-player affairs we’ve seen from a first-person shooter in a while. Even when playing solo there are multiplayer aspects at work as you’ll level up in the four available classes, which unlocks additional weapons, attachments, perks and more. Medals awarded at the conclusion of each mission also allow you to augment your team’s overall abilities, making them more accurate with assault rifles or helping to spot enemy troops earlier.
In addition to the story, Red River also features a number of self-contained fireteam engagements that strip away some of the less enjoyable elements of the campaign to present more streamlined, action-packed encounters. There are four modes to tackle: Combat Sweep, Last Stand, CSAR (rescue downed helicopter pilots) and Rolling Thunder (convoy defense). Each has two maps to test your skills, and they’re really some strong pieces of supplemental content.
For lack of a better term, Operation Flashpoint: Red River is a thinking man’s shooter, and because of that you need to be willing to embrace a deliberate approach to gameplay. If that sounds like your kind of game, none of its shortcomings should be considered large enough to dissuade you from picking it up.