Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising
War, they say, is hell. It’s noisy, disorientating, brutal and confusing – an assault on the senses. Yet in many games, this atmosphere of extreme danger is a thin veneer hiding an essentially linear narrative. A path has already been chosen and little thought is required besides how to kill the enemy in front of you. Operation Flashpoint is different though. Its limited number of scripted events and open gameplay translate into an atmosphere that at times, is unrivalled.
Dragon Rising is set on the oil-rich Pacific island of Skira, whose resources have been successfully exploited by Russia and the US for years. Hit hard by economic and social pressures, China invades the island and Russia calls on the US to help liberate it. With forces massing along the border on the mainland, it’s up to the US Marines to cut off China’s oil supply and prevent a larger conflict.
Expelling the Chinese forces is not easy though, and neither is Dragon Rising. You might survive a bullet hit, but a single well-placed shot can be enough to take you or your teammates down. Running into firefights without thinking or advancing into an area without properly scouting them will quickly result in failure. Make no mistake: this is one hardcore first-person shooter.
Similar to real combat, Flashpoint is equal parts shooting, orienteering and tactical command. You’re never thrown straight into battle, but instead given the location of your target and left to make your own way there. All of Skira’s 220km² is open and much of your time will be spent navigating it. Many FPSs skip this portion because understandably, it can be quite boring hiking across fields. However, having to do so gives you an appreciation of the ground and encourages you to use it to your advantage.
99% need not apply
If you really want a truly realistic experience, then you can ramp up the difficulty to Hardcore, which removes all of the HUD elements from the screen. This means that you have to remember how many rounds are in your weapon and manually check that enemies have been killed. The underlying game is still the same, but the lack of information on screen makes it far more challenging.
You’ll frequently spot your enemies from hundreds of metres away, allowing you to stop, check your map and then plan your attack. It’s this tactical freedom which is central to the game’s premise and gives those looking for a more realistic shooter experience exactly what they’re looking for. Dragon Rising is unforgiving when you make mistakes, but you always do gown knowing that there are countless new ways you can approach your target next time.
Each of the eleven campaign missions is structured around primary and secondary objectives. You’re given an optimal route to follow which contains the sparely distributed checkpoints, but it’s at your discretion whether you follow it or not. Deviating slightly from the prescribed course is often rewarded with better angles of attack, which means that the huge open terrain doesn’t go to waste.
Trekking over Skira’s windswept grasslands, fighting through skirmish after skirmish, Dragon Rising is at its best. The frequent change of pace from planning to adrenaline-fuelled combat is one of its strongest points and allows you to keep fighting for hours on end. Each mission might only last around forty minutes, but your numerous attempts at each one quickly add up. In many games, having to repeat portions of the game so many times can grate, but Flashpoint‘s atmosphere is so engaging that it keeps drawing you back for more.
This has been achieved through the extremely successful combination of the game’s graphics, audio and general presentation. The visuals are laden with filters, giving it a grainy, cinematic aesthetic, while the audio complements it perfectly. You can often tell how close bullets are from you just from the whistles, pings and thuds that they make as they narrowly miss you. All of the weapons have also been accurately recorded and together with the controller’s vibration feedback, firing a rifle with a control pad feels as realistic as it can be.
Sprinting from cover to cover, the sound of your breath barely registering above the gunfire, your heartbeat reverberating through the controller’s vibrations, Dragon Rising is a stunning success. But, for every moment of exhilaration, there’s one of frustration as the game’s bugs and elements of poor design threaten to ruin the experience.
In several missions, scripted events will either not be triggered when they should or simply not work. In one mission where you’re infiltrating a fuel depot at night, you’re told to wait for a diversionary attack, but it frequently doesn’t appear or just gets stuck on its way to you. In another, if you reach an observation point before the target you’ve been tracking does so, you’re never given air support which is almost essential to completing the mission.
Take the war online
Perhaps the strongest aspect of Dragon Rising is the ability to play any of its campaign missions online with up to three other gamers. You can communicate via headset and arrange tactics, which also takes away the sometime burden of constantly looking after AI teammates. The missions themselves remain identical and each player chooses their particular role in the squad, ensuring team work and tactical co-operation is vital to best succeed. There are also competitive player vs player modes for when you tire of that too.
Checkpoints can also cause issues. In a couple of missions, they can save your progress just at a point where you’ve failed a key objective, so that when you restart from it, you can never succeed. The AI is generally solid, but on occasions falls apart. You can generally trust your three other squad member to shoot straight, but they’re not as smart as you might hope in some situations. Ordering them is also a pain; you can give a multitude of commands, but selecting individual soldiers is clumsy and since the game isn’t paused when you look at the map, it’s impractical to do anything but order your whole squad to do something instead of individual members.
The worst culprit is the vehicle handling though. Huge, heavy Hummers and trucks handle like Dodge Vipers, oversteering at the slightest power increase, while helicopters are best left to the AI to fly. Fortunately, you’re never required to use the game’s vehicles and it often makes more sense to approach enemies on foot instead of as a larger target.
Dragon Rising‘s attention to detail is what defines it, but it also lets it down in other areas. It’s no good modelling the speed of sound for gunfire, then not allowing players to look from side to side when driving, something that makes no sense whatsoever.
For all its shortcomings though, Dragon Rising is still an extremely enjoyable game. Almost all of the time, its atmosphere holds up well and firefights feel as close to the real thing as you’ll ever want to be. Patient gamers who enjoy more tactical shooters will likely appreciate its strong points and look beyond the bugs and glitches. Those that prefer to run and gun should probably steer clear.