Codemasters take their Operation Flashpoint series onwards and upwards with Red River, a squad based FPS title that looks to offer a far more realistic warfare experience than your average shooter. With slow, nerve racking gameplay, fierce fire-fights and a deep tactical undercurrent (pardon the pun) Red River is certainly a refreshing change, but may not be for everyone.
The first Operation Flashpoint game became very well known for its brutal battlefield gameplay. Many gamers heard “one hit kill” and ran a mile, dropping back into the comfort of more popular FPS titles which allow you to absorb half a crate of ammo before dropping dead. It’s not unlikely the same will happen with Red River – the fighting is still lethal and intense and the change in playing style needed to succeed is sizeable, but spend a bit of time getting the hang of it and everything clicks. You’ll be sending individual members of your squad to various spots, laying down suppressing fire while you sneak round the side of your enemies and calling in air support on distant farmhouses and enemy encampments.
All of this comes under the guise of a middle-eastern war in Tajikistan as the American forces fight to clean up the country and bring safety back to the people. Initially this involves clearing out smaller villages and compounds, a tricky but straightforward task. But when the Chinese Army gets involved everything hits the fan and your fight to survive becomes all the more intense. Suddenly escaping in one piece feels like a victory, preserving your ammo is of paramount importance and every instruction to your squad needs to be spot on. Missions can last a long time with some comfortably passing the hour mark if you’re cautious and take your time when approaching a dangerous situation, and over the course of the game you’ll begin to genuinely care about your 4 man squad. Every hit they take, every time they duck behind cover to reload, every life-saving moment when they patch you up after you’ve taken a nasty few hits, it all adds up to a real connection. Jump into the co-op with some friends and this bond only becomes greater, and although PSN problems meant we couldn’t try this out ourselves on our review copy it was clear from conversations with other reviewers that working as a real team brings about some great gaming stories, the likes of which are rarely brought about by video games. If the hour-long missions sound scary then don’t be put off – you won’t need to do the entire mission at once and a series of sensibly placed checkpoints let you resume mid-mission if you decide to switch off part-way through.
Between the gunplay you’ll be making your way across the desert to your next location, something which initially seems a pointless and slow waste of a few minutes but very soon becomes a welcome break from the intense action. During these journeys your staff sergeant will be barking instructions for the next mission, reminding you of the main rules of engagement and taking part in general banter with the rest of the squad. This dialogue continues during the missions themselves, playing a huge part in building the storyline and making everything feel all the more authentic. Other squads will shout for help and celebrate their efforts over the radio, and although you’ll start to hear the same lines repeated the effect this has on your stress levels in the middle of a fierce battle is incredible. Not only that but when another member of your squad screams at you about a sniper 200m away to the South you’re torn between diving for cover or scanning the horizon to look for a memorable quick kill. Either way, if you’re not quick that sniper will be dropping you to the floor before you know it and you can’t expect yourself to magically heal just by sitting behind a wall. If you or your squad-mates take a hit you’ll need to get patched up; leaving yourself injured only makes your ultimate demise a step closer. The dialogue between troops is great, but one thing to note is you won’t want to play this in front of your 7 year old daughter, that’s for sure – the amount of swearing is probably accurate for the setting and some of the insults the marines throw at each other can be genuinely funny, but this is definitely not a game for kids’ ears. However the game is all the more believable for it; it’s hard to picture some American marines getting ambushed only to shout “darn, those pesky baddies made me jump”.
Considering the huge environments you find yourself in the game’s visuals are, on the whole, very impressive. Mountains give enemies perfect hiding places and as you’re squinting through the glare cast by the low sun, desperate to pick out that last sniper before he finds you, there’s a nice array of buildings, scenery and burning wreckage to take in. There’s the odd occasion where scenery will pop up suddenly way off in the distance and a few animations are missing (most notably when your squad gets into the back of the humvee) which take away from the feel of what’s happening but generally Red River looks great.
Progress in the main campaign, be it alone or with friends, will slowly and silently award you XP based on kills, healing teammates and so on. Don’t expect a message each time telling you how many XP have just been added to your total, in fact the only in-game indication that such a scheme exists is a small message at the bottom of the screen letting you know you’ve just gone up a level. In amongst other squad messages (which show you when you’ve completed an objective and give you a text version of radio chatter) it’s incredibly subtle and much of the time goes unnoticed until you realise you’ve unlocked another weapon, attachment or other improvement. Considering the engrossing nature of the game it’s pitched perfectly, as is the reward for completing a mission which gives you a gold, silver or bronze medal based on your performance. These medals carry a points bonus which can be used to improve various aspects of your character, allowing you to improve whichever aspect you choose.
Operation Flashpoint: Red River won’t be for everyone. Anyone who likes to run around guns blazing won’t find the same enjoyment that the obvious FPS candidates will provide, and those who demand an instant fix from their games will also find Red River slow going at times. But anyone looking for something more authentic where receiving a single shot can severely cripple your progress, where bullets suffer from that new invention called “gravity” and where your squad can actually get killed will find something immensely satisfying about this. There’s no competitive multiplayer, but it’s not needed. This is all about working together, and despite the occasional repetitive sections and small graphical problems it’s an intense yet enjoyable experience. And on the off-chance you fancy yourself as a bit of a hero, switch off the HUD options and try playing through on hardcore mode with no checkpoints, no radar, no ammo count… just you and your squad. It’ll be a challenge like no other but your senses will come alive.
If you fancy something different from your FPS games then Red River is a worthy addition to your collection. It’s a huge change from the run-and-gun crowd and as long as you’re willing to spend the time getting to grips with how best to play then you’re in for a treat. You never know, you might even gain a new-found appreciation for what the real armed forces have to deal with.