Operation Flashpoint: Red River review

It’s always weird to see a “hardcore” PC series get transmogrified into a console-friendly title, and always a little bittersweet. On the one hand, it’s great to see new moneymaking opportunities for a quality series that deserves some revenue, but on the other, it sucks to see that same series effectively dumbed down to make it easier (or even possible) to play with a controller.

And such is the case with Operation Flashpoint: Red River. The original Operation Flashpoint was a realistic military sim that happened to be presented as a first-person shooter. Red River is a pretty arcadey first-person shooter that decks itself out with a few “realistic” elements and claims to be hardcore. Not that there’s anything wrong with an arcadey first-person shooter, of course; Red River’s gameplay is actually pretty fun, it’s just markedly different from that of the original in the series.

In the main campaign you play as one of four US marines newly sent from Afghanistan to Tajikistan in a fictional conflict along that country’s border with China. Things go from hairy to hirsute pretty quickly, and you end up fighting local insurgents, organized terrorist groups and, eventually, the People’s Liberation Army. As Red River is fully cooperative, up to three of your friends (or random dudes from the internet) can jump in and jump out of any campaign mission at any time. This sort of cooperative gameplay is great, not just because it’s more fun than playing alone, but also because Red River’s AI sucks so bad. Many was the time we’d need to end a mission by killing our AI comrades because their pathfinding algorithm got them stuck on some geometry and they couldn’t cross the trigger area to move on to the next mission. Enemies, too – although they were preternaturally accurate with their weapons – would often stand stock still on a hillside or in an equally visible location, just waiting to get mowed down by M4 fire.

In terms of gameplay itself, Red River tries hard to bridge the gap between a full-on simulation and something like Call of Duty, and while that’s sometimes fun, it more often leads to bizarre situations. For example: while you spend a lot of time sitting in the back of vehicles listening to your staff sergeant wax rhetorical about kicking ass, much as you would in the military’s hurry-up-and-wait real life, if you’re shot in the head in combat, simply use a medkit on yourself (make sure to use it twice, not just once), and you’re A-okay. It’s this incongruous pairing of two types of gameplay that makes Red River so hard to sink your teeth into. You never know quite when you can bust out and go balls to the wall Modern Warfare style, and when you’re gonna have to hunker down and rely on some approximation of real combat tactics.

Red River tries hard to make it easy to assign complex tasks to your team via its “orders wheel” interface. Pressing a trigger opens up a radial menu that you’ll navigate through (it’s got a couple of levels of specificity) to choose what team members should go where. While this is a noble idea, and works well when things are pretty peaceful (such as when you’re setting up a perimeter), it’s not very effective to be futzing around with a complex, recursive set of commands when you’re trying not to get your head blown off. Since the game doesn’t have an overhead map on which you can issue orders like, say, in Valkyria Chronicles, you’ve also got to be looking right at the target you want your guys to attack, or the building you want them to secure. If that target happens to be shooting at you, good luck not ending up with a head wound. Still, considering the slew of pure run-and-gun shooters out there now, it’s refreshing to see a console title that gives you a little bit of squad-leader-esque tactical control.

All of that said, when it works, Red River is a damn good time. Jumping online with three buddies to get through some of the tougher missions plays like a really hardcore game of paintball – you’ve all got to get each other’s backs and communicate constantly, much as you would in a competitive gaming situation. Also, the game’s voice talent is surprisingly good and it, along with equally surprisingly good writing, make for a backstory that manages to draw you in, despite its often hackneyed tropes and themes.

Red River may not appeal to everyone – our sense is that it’s too hardcore for the console crowd and doesn’t have enough of a unique identity for the PC crowd – but that shouldn’t dissuade fans of the series or of modern-warfare shooters from taking a playthrough. If nothing else, it’ll whet your appetite for the slew of AAA military shooters coming soon to a TV/monitor near you.

Jun 23, 2011

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