It’s always somewhat fulfilling when a game development firm listen to critics and gamers at large.
It’s even more fulfilling when those changes turn what was a pretty standard game into something extraordinary.
So, after Codemasters fluffed Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising (and I quote myself: “a buggy, underwhelming and thoroughly mediocre shooter which falls flat on Codemasters’ promises.”), it was somewhat liberating to find that Red River… kicks ass.
Yes, this time the Codies bunch got it right.
Set shortly after the previous game, and now in the real-life locations of Afghanistan and Tajikistan, Red River is a brilliant military squad shooter that manages to pull off both military realism and gaming fun in one fell swoop.
Putting you in the boots of a fireteam leader called Kirby, the game tasks you with taking on the insurgents of Tajikistan – and eventually the might of the People’s Liberation Army of China – as part of a whole: the US Marines.
Unlike other games, where you feel like a one-man army, Red River takes pains to make you feel like part of a much bigger operation.
While the player is directly in command of fireteam Bravo, you take your orders from your superiors – specifically from Staff Sergeant Damian Knox – an experienced infantryman with a potty mouth and set of rules to live by: “Rule number one: DON’T GET SHOT”.
This leaves the game feeling pretty close to the life of a line Marine – following orders, ‘hoofing it’ from place to place, clearing buildings and sniping bad guys.
The majority of the game is precisely that – moving from point to point, keeping your head down when the bullets fly, ordering your squadmates about, and generally doing your job.
That’s not to say that the game is dull – far from it.
Starting off with firefights in the narrow streets of Tajik villages, the game eventually graduates to massive battles against waves of Chinese troops, and sees you calling down pinpoint artillery strikes as you dodge tracer fire and helicopter gunships zip overhead.
The only downside is that this time the experience is far more focussed – there aren’t any tank-driving missions, and there’s only the one night-fighting mission (which is still brilliant), so it’s less big on scale than the previous titles, but still great on a smaller scale.
With so many bullets flying at you, it quickly becomes second nature to take cover and sprint from low wall to low wall.
Thankfully, the controls are responsive, and the gunplay well thought-out and intuitive.
The game features an XP system as well, allowing you to unlock new weapons and ‘perks’, such as better weapon handling, for the four core classes – grenadier, rifleman, machine gunner and sniper.
The AI is occasionally problematic, however, and has a nasty habit of standing on the wrong side of a wall when you order the squad into cover, or walking into your firing line and getting a bullet in the back of the head.
The enemy AI isn’t much better and troopers often doesn’t run to cover when you pick off the guy standing next to him. They are, however, pretty good shots – especially the professionals in the PLA – and can kill you with a couple of rounds.
So, if you get fed up of the dodgy AI, it’s somewhat fortunate that the game features four-player co-op in both the campaign and a selection of random missions – such as rescuing downed pilots or assaulting a convoy.
Logging on to the pretty decent matchmaking system will quickly find you some soldiers to join your fireteam – whether they follow your orders is a different question.
The difficulty in the missions can also be scaled, increasing the enemy numbers and weapon accuracy – as well as removing the HUD entirely.
Needless to say, playing the game without a crosshair and a minimap is an entirely different – and often nervewracking – experience, and well worth a go if you’re looking for the intensity of an infantryman’s life (without the getting shot part).
Graphically, Red River does some things right, and others wrong.
The beautiful sunsets over the deserts as you rumble past in the back of a Humvee are always stunning, and the way blood and mud splatters on your screen as you crawl through a building in the middle of a firefight is a nice touch.
The same can be said for the animation for the troopers – they run like they’re carrying heavy packs, and take forever to go prone.
That said, the textures take a while to load sometimes and at a distance (and most of the firefights happen at a distance) the enemy seem to hover over the divots of the desert valleys at points – it kind of breaks the immersion somewhat when a squad of PLA gunners do a Seacat impression.
The sound effects, however, are amazing.
Backed up with a rousing score of rock music – and a group of over-the-top voice actors gifted with a huge range of swear words – the sounds of the battle, the rattle of the guns and the yelling of wounded soldiers bring the game to life.
The sheer terror that you feel as a Chinese APC rolls past, blowing holes in the wall with a gun you can’t possibly match, really brings the experience home – as does shooting it in the arse with a rocket.
So, while Codemasters listened to their critics this time around, Operation Flashpoint: Red River is still a mixed bag. The singleplayer campaign is a blast (if a little boring in the plot stakes), and draws you in as one cog in a larger machine. Though the dodgy AI is a let down, the multiplayer pulls it all together and the half-realism, half-action game vibe the developers aimed for hits all the right notes.
Good long campaign with some great moments
Not so good stuff:
Dodgy AI and texture issues