I am the ultimate soldier. Clad from head to toe in desert camouflage, my rifle over my shoulder and two pistols in my hands, I’m an unstoppable killing machine, ready to save the world and look cool doing it. Unfortunately, my bravado-filled swagger doesn’t go down so well in Operation Flashpoint: Red River. One bullet to the leg and I’m down. That’s fine, I’ll wince, put on a gravelly voice and power thro… Wait! What? I’m dead?
Operation Flashpoint: Red River doesn’t have time for heroes. Set in Tajikistan, a politically charged nation that shares a border with China, civil war has broken out, leading to a surge in violence and attracting the attention of the encroaching Chinese army. As leader of a small squad of US Marines, it’s your job to help keep the peace, protect the people and watch your teammates’ backs. As I quickly discovered, Red River seeks to emulate the true danger of the battlefield. Unlike the grizzled protagonists in most adrenaline-shooters, the soldiers here are fragile human beings, unaccustomed to soaking up bullets all day before going home to drink whiskey and glower. One bullet can bring you down and, if there’s no one around to help, you won’t be getting up again. The start of every firefight quickly becomes a mad dash for cover before you try to figure out who’s shooting at you and from where.
Granted, Red River isn’t quite as hardcore as its predecessor, Dragon Rising, or the competing ArmA series. Minor ailments can be fixed with a bandage and a medkit, detracting somewhat from the hyperrealism of the combat sim experience, but bringing with it a welcome alternative to endlessly restarting levels. Given the amount of time it takes to get patched up and the debilitating nature of some wounds (bullet to the leg? No more sprinting until that’s fixed) every enemy encounter is filled with more tension than you’ll ever find in more “cinematic” titles.
While authentic enough to ensure the experience is realistic, Red River never excels visually. Stages are expansive and yet still manage to feel dusty and dull for the most part. Worthy of merit, however, is the game’s interface. Designed for co-op (and supporting 4 players through the entire campaign) every menu is designed to provide quick access to the lobby and allow for quick character customisation. Cutscenes between levels are stylish briefings, filled with clever animated word-art and just enough detail to leave you informed and entertained.
Sadly, the same can’t be said for the long periods of inactivity between mission objectives as you’re ferried to your next location and given a rundown of the situation from Knox, your foul-mouthed commander. While his input is varied and informative, Knox’s voice is one you’ll become far too familiar with as he yammers on, taking it upon himself to deliver the majority of the game’s script. Eventually his colourful combinations of curses lose their appeal and you start to wish he’d let someone else get a word in once in a while. While his ten essential rules do serve to introduce key gameplay fundamentals, they’re hammered home a few times too many, making the sergeant sound more dogmatic than sage.
When Knox isn’t bending your ear, you’re able to issue your own orders, providing a wonderfully satisfying strategic edge that faster paced games often overlook. Directing AI teammates is an absolute joy. Holding down the right bumper and making quick, context-dependent selections using the d-pad, you soon learn how four marines are far better than one, suppressing and flanking the enemy with ease. Computer-controlled marines may not always get it right, sometimes taking an order to advance a little too seriously and wading into enemy machine gun fire, but the range of commands allows for an impressive level of control and depth with which to experiment and explore.
As with any game that falls into the Simulation category, Red River’s story is more an excuse to fight than a driving force behind your actions. Rather than detracting from my enjoyment of the experience, however, I found that the release from the usual narrative trappings and clichés meant that I focused on what was important – keeping myself and my squad alive and following orders. In Tajikistan, you keep your head down and get on with it or pay the price.
During the twelve-hour campaign, you’ll get a taste of how tense every encounter must be for the real men and women on the front lines. Unfortunately, you’ll also get to experience the tedium of marching for miles, waiting around for transport and, of course, listening to your commanding officer mouth off. Relief can be found, however, through the separate Fireteam missions; additional challenges that drop you straight into the action and test your abilities under stress. It’s here that the true pressure comes down as you fight to keep the enemy suppressed and race against the clock to complete your objectives. It’s a welcome videogame concession that provides a welcome break from the slow pace of the campaign and reminds you of the tactical brilliance of the series.
Operation Flashpoint: Red River occupies the space between the frat-boy posturing of the Call of Duty and Medal of Honor series and the anorak styling of the true military sim. If you’re looking for something slightly more authentic than the usual orgy of explosions and heroics but still want an engaging and fun gaming experience, Red River is a great introduction, achieving a balance that suits it perfectly, albeit with some pacing issues.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Microsoft Xbox 360 code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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