Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising is, to quote Tristram Shandy, my hobbie-horse. Despite the groans every time I mention it, I persist in telling as many people as possible how good it is. All the time. And it is. Good. Honestly.
You could be forgiven though, for thinking otherwise. A battery of complaints have been levelled at the game by fans, including an array of multiplayer connection issues on release, the lack of dedicated servers (perhaps justifiably), inconsistent AI and worst of all – broken promises. The spiritual successor to Bohemia’s ‘Operation Flashpoint: Cold War Crisis’ promised a large array of vehicles and weapons, some of which never made the finished product, much to the ire of fans, and the appearance of a co-op tether (due to online engine limitations, players must remain within 300 or so metres of each other) provoked more outrage. Codemasters’ post-release support has come under fire as well, from the lack of SDK kit to poorly received multiplayer DLC.
But despite all this, Dragon Rising is still good. Very good. Marketed as a ‘tactical shooter’, Dragon Rising places you as part of a US military operation to secure the oil-rich Skira Island from Chinese aggressors on behalf of the newly-allied Russians. Within that context, the game does a decent job of immersing you in the conflict – but don’t expect large scripted mission briefings or cutscenes. Menus and game interfaces are stripped back, no-frills affairs with simple implementation. War is sparse, apparently.
Players used to a diet of Call of Duty and Medal of Honour will likely be surprised on dropping into the first mission to discover a hike of four hundred metres over open terrain to the first objective. They will likely be more surprised during their first encounter with the enemy, where it is entirely likely they’ll be instantly killed. ‘Run and gun’ this is not. Most engagements will take place at around one to three hundred metres, with anything below 50 being a life-or-death heart-stopping race to spot and fire before the other guy blows you away. A single bullet can end your life instantly. And there are a lot of bullets. After years of instant-respawns on every console FPS you could name, death really means something again. If they see you before you see them, you’re in trouble. But the open terrain is what gives it life – there are any of a hundred ways you could approach that objective, if you take a little time to look. Dragon Rising is the malevolent bastard child of GRAW 2 and Vegas 2, with a much bigger, prettier playground.
On the higher difficulty levels, where there are no assists, no respawns and no checkpoints, death can mean 45 minutes of lost gameplay – which can be irritating, but players looking to beat it on hardcore are more likely to just grit their teeth and start again. On the standard difficulty level, painful reality is offset with decently placed checkpoints, and respawn in co-op. The standard difficulty also offers a compass with enemy indicators, a weapon HUD and waypoint/objective markers. It’s worth noting that Hardcore difficulty does not increase the ability, number or damage of your opponents – it simply removes all HUD elements, leaving you with a map, your gun, and your eyes.
Back to our four-hundred metre hike. Moving through a sparse treeline towards the hilltop objective, the machinegun barks into action as Knox lets rip at two PLA who’ve just rounded a small building in front of us. Both go down in a hail of bullets, and we advance higher. Cresting the hill, we spy the objective – a mobile SAM radar emplacement, three PLA in attendance. There is a massive battle in the valley to our left, a village assault. They have no idea we’re here.
We line our shots carefully. The PLA by the radar hit the deck, one dead, when the air to our left is split by bullets. A PLA spec-ops squad defending the flank of the village has spotted us. All hell breaks loose.
One of the things Flashpoint does especially well is making firefights terrifying. When bullets are flying round your head, you want to hit the deck, because any one could be the death of you. The superb sound adds to the realism immensely – this is a game best played loud, preferably with a woofer. The sound of bullets whipping into the six inches of tree you’re trying to hide behind is enough to provoke a stream of obscenities as you pray that none of them emit that sickening thuck that tells you that bullet found your head, not the tree, even before your eyes register the hit.
God help you if you happen to be shelled by a tank. Or a helicopter, for that matter – suddenly you’ll have all the coordination of a taser victim as your brain instantly panics. Using vehicles against enemies is satisfyingly loud, and the campaign is sprinkled with the occasional APC or helicopter to experiment with. Use of vehicles is a much larger part of the multiplayer however, so gearheads will find greater thrills there. Just remember – modern infantry anti-tank weapons are frighteningly effective.
Multiplayer takes the form of two modes: straight up deathmatch in Annihilation, assault/defend objective in Infiltration. But to write this off as another standard shooter multiplayer is to miss the point entirely. In both modes, players have control over up to four squads (with friends taking the places of other friendly fire-team leaders, lightening the load), which can be tactically deployed and generally ordered around using the map screen, or line-of-sight in close encounters. Orders can be strung together to allow intricate tactics and patrol plans, flanking manoeuvres and full-blown assaults. Playing the multiplayer mode well entails learning how to use multiple AI squads effectively – making it a bizarre cross of real-time strategy and FPS, rather than a straight shooter – but mastering it is a singularly rewarding experience.
Both current DLC weigh in at 400MSP on XBOX360 (the PS3 is still waiting for the second ‘Overwatch Pack’, as well as the game-fixing second patch that has solved so many of the game’s annoying bugs), and are surprisingly good value. Both packs include new medium-sized Fire Team Engagements; smaller co-op missions designed for team or solo play. The first pack, ‘Skirmish’ adds two extra maps for each of the multiplayer game modes, while the second ‘Overwatch’ pack adds two new multiplayer modes: Blindside (an objective based mode similar to Infiltration, with multiple objectives) and Supremacy (objective based territory-control with off-map supports). Both complement the game well. Players may sputter at the notion of a multiplayer mode with only four maps in it – but that again is to miss the point. It’s your tactics, your reactions that count.
We deal with the spec ops squad, one man at a time through the evening treeline, bullets whipping through the branches. We pause after the engagement to heal a squad member, then set our C4 on the SAM Radar and get the hell clear. One large explosion and a plume of smoke that will be visible for miles. The call comes in. Lay down artillery fire on the PLA controlled village below, then move in for the assault. I watch the heavy shells fall through my binoculars, again and again; watch the fires start. Then we charge like cavalry down the hillside, firing as we go.
So yes, Dragon Rising is good. Mama’s god-damn hot-chili it’s good. I’ve had more memorable gaming moments in this one game than in any other for a long, long time – the multiplayer is excellent, the co-op and single player great fun. But you have to be patient, play the single player campaign, learn how to use squads tactically. Take some time to get to grips with it. If you don’t, you’ll get shot. Horribly.
In that respect, Dragon Rising is the Marmite of the next-gen shooters. You’ll either love it or you’ll hate it. It’s a thinking man’s shooter, the absolute antithesis of the current generation of ‘run n gun’ Modern Warfare clones, owing more to GRAW and Vegas than to Medal of Honour. If dying for the tenth time on Hardcore mode from one lucky shot just makes you want to do it all over again, just to get the bastard, then this is the game for you. If you want to be genuinely scared at the sound of bullets and tank treads, this is the game for you. If you want genuine, unscripted, memorable moments of sheer terror and exultation, then this is the game for you. Death means something again.
Just be careful. If you like it – really like it, you might never go back.
*While this review is based on the XBOX360, it’s worth noting that the PC version comes with a mission editor and an excellent mod community, although no SDK kit will be made available. The PS3 should receive Title Update 2 and the Overwatch DLC shortly, due to unexplained delays at Sony.
(Ed: The Claw often has online nights on OpFlash over at the forum. Feel free to join in )