Operation Flashpoint: Red River preview

The Operation Flashpoint franchise has, for better and for worse, never been a fully "accessible" series. Its focus on realism is both what has earned its fanbase, and arguably what has prevented it from reaching Call of Duty or Medal of Honor notoriety. Codemasters' latest iteration, Red River, attempts the difficult task of continuing to offer "realistic" gameplay, whilst wooing the casual Modern Warfare gamer. It's a balancing act that forerunner Dragon Rising didn't quite realize.

That hasn't stopped Codemasters from trying. Red River's new stylized visuals make an immediate and effective statement: this is not the same Operation Flashpoint of yesteryear. As with Codemasters' other FPS, Bodycount, the team is going for a "J.J. Abrams-inspired" feel. The team wants you to feel like you're viewing the world from a helmet cam and, as such, bright lights will blind you, colors will be slightly distorted, and should you get hit you'll experience Kane & Lynch 2-style visual glitching. The tactical military genre doesn't really lend itself well to such an artistic decision, and it was hard for me to decide if it made the game memorable, tacky, or both.

The balance between realism and entertainment is further evident in the narrative crafted for Red River. This new tale sends you into Tajikistan, a (real) country that borders Afghanistan and China. In the "it could happen" fiction of this world, the military has chased insurgents out of Afghanistan into Tajikistan, and the army must do its best not only to stop these forces, but maintain goodwill in a newly destabilized country. China's PLA, focused on ensuring the war does not seep into its borders, joins the assault, creating a conflict that quickly gets messy. Having the American military go directly against the Chinese army, whilst fighting guerrilla insurgents, is at once absurd, terrifying and exciting.%Gallery-98981% If my reaction sounds schizophrenic, it's probably due to the equally befuddled approach to the game's mechanics. One shot can still kill you, meaning you still won't be able to foolishly rush into enemies. Should you suffer a non-fatal wound, however, it's much easier to heal yourself: simply hold a button while standing still. The game also has auto-aiming and snap-to-aim, for Call of Duty vets -- although, those wanting a more realistic game should opt for "hardcore mode," which disables these aides.

Commanding your squad is a crucial aspect of the Flashpoint experience, and Red River streamlines tactical commands by reducing the "command radial" from three layers to two. It can be a bit daunting to see all the options, but from my limited hands-on time, I found it quickly intuitive. By assigning specific squad members to positions on the D-Pad, you can command one or all of your squad to move to specific locations, rush, flank, and provide suppressing fire. Depending on your class -- Grenadier, Scout, Rifleman and Automatic Rifleman -- you'll also have access to unique commands, like the ability to call in air strikes. SOCOM players will find themselves pretty comfortable here.

It was difficult to assess the competency of your computer AI partners. While you can micromanage their commands, Codemasters promises that the AI will be intelligent enough to fend for itself if you choose a more hands-off approach. During one firefight, however, I noticed that my partners weren't scoring any kills. Was it my placement of them? Did they have bad aim? Or were they simply reluctant to fire? I can't tell for sure.

Like so many co-op games, the experience is obviously geared towards humans. Codemasters is promising "seamless drop-in drop-out" play for four players online, but that's not something I witnessed during my playable demo. Given its tactical focus, having a fully-manned squad certainly would make for a more authentic military experience. Though erhaps there is one caveat in Red River's attempt to woo the casual gamer: there is no competitive multiplayer planned.

It's still much too early to gauge how well Red River manages its balancing act. We're definitely intrigued by the new direction of the Operation Flashpoint series -- and it'll be interesting to see if series vets and newcomers will agree.

This article was originally published on Joystiq.