War can be such an anticlimax. You go through months of rigorous physical and psychological training. You have every ounce of defiance and individualism beaten out of you by some psychotic drill instructor. Are brutalized to the point of a nervous breakdown. Remoulded into a minister of death praying for war, until at long last, you find yourself aboard a transport headed for some obscure backwater - about to be embroiled in a conflict you don't even understand.
Psyched up, armed to the teeth, adrenaline pumping, you land at the insertion point; that war cry you practiced so hard ringing out as you and your comrades charge forward. Backed up by cutting edge firepower you feel almost invincible, until, after only about three and a half seconds, an enemy gunner mows you down as casually as a fox caught in the sights of a farmer's 8 bore. And it’s all suddenly over.
There aren’t many games which bring home this harsh reality of war quite like the Operation Flashpoint series. Having evolved from VBS1 (the US army’s virtual combat simulator) it was about one of the only tactical first person shooters where you didn't assume the role of some bullet absorbing superhero. However, with Operation Flashpoint 2: Dragon Rising - the sequel which is available on not just PC, but Xbox 360 and PS3 and picks up where Resistance/Armed Assault II left off – the series has tragically lost much its unique appeal. Despite some strengths and undeniable improvements, the game retains few qualities from its predecessors, and, in many ways, fails to be anywhere near as dynamic.
That is not to say there aren't similarities. Like OPF:CWC, Dragon Rising still has great emphasis on realism (it only takes one or two bullets to kill), and provides players with total autonomy when it comes to tackling mission objectives. Whether you choose to tackle an enemy position head on, circle round to some trees for stealth, split up your squad, or go it alone as your men provide cover, is completely up to you. The game is great at presenting the player with challenging scenarios to test their competency as an officer.
Whilst charging some objective you might find one of your men cut down in the open, and, with him under fire and screaming for help, deciding on the best course of action requires real decisiveness. Rush out to try and give him aid before he bleeds to death and, chances are, you’ll be half dead lying next to him. Try and take the objective too quickly, and more men risk getting torn up. Finally you may have to face the only alternative: sacrifice him for the good of the mission and the rest of your squad. In the words of a German officer from WWII, ‘Being a good officer is to continually swing back and forth like a pendulum between a Knight’s Cross and a Court Martial,’ - something which, to its credit, Dragon Rising doesn’t fail to convey.
Squad and Orders System
However, despite all this emphasis on being pragmatic, adapting to unexpected circumstances, and thinking on your feet, Dragon Rising has the most terrible system for issuing your squad with orders. It’s like a cross between Ghost Recon and Brothers In Arms done badly and, mid fire fight, is horribly cumbersome and completely impractical.
Unlike previous Flashpoint games, you are unable to issue orders to individual soldiers. Nor can you tell them to take cover at specific points or tell them to watch a particular direction. And, like in Brothers In Arms, you have to physically select the point you want your men to attack, which means, should you want them to suppress a machine gun nest, you have to stand right in front of the damn thing until you can line up the marker correctly. Worse still is the fact Dragon Rising lacks many of the customization features of previous Flashpoint titles. You can only control a squad with four members and have absolutely no say in which weapons you take with you on various missions.
The game also lacks any kind of real narrative which, yes on the one hand, does mean you can get straight into the action, but it also means that missions are not put into any form of context. Cold War Crisis and Resistance were great at showing you how missions related to an overall grand strategy and it also gave the developers the opportunity to include dramatic twists mid-mission (i.e. The Evacuation of Everon). There is a hint of laziness about the way Dragon Rising just throws you into mission after mission with only the vaguest sense of what you’re actually doing. To make matters worse, the missions themselves are often dull and uninspired.
In terms of plot, the game centres upon America’s agreement with Russia to liberate the Alaskan Island of Skira from the communist Chinese. But if it really is modelled on a real location, Skira must be one the most mundane landscapes on Earth. Talk about being 'in a world of shit' because there's nothing but brown fields as far as the eye can see, the occasional hut or farmhouse, and, as you traipse from one end of the Island to the other, the whole place just feels totally deserted. You never even cross paths with enemy patrols, and with very view built up areas and no civilians, Skira lacks just doesn't feel alive.
However, despite the cynical tone of this review, Dragon Rising is actually a good game. Team and enemy AI is excellent, the graphics are also superb (even though the setting is dull) and whilst not exactly being phenomenal, it’s still a thoroughly decent, very playable FPS. However the game’s problems stem from the fact it has been badly adapted to work as a console game, hence the difficulty, which is high, but no way as high as prior editions, the squad control system which has been poorly scaled down, and all the contrived "Call of Duty/Ghost Recon style" cinematic sequences.
Apart from the sheer scale of the island, the distances you are expected to cover on foot and the fact it takes one bullet to kill, the only thing the game has in common with the classic Operation Flashpoint is the fact it’s about war. Although you do have the freedom to approach mission objectives as you choose, Dragon Rising does not provide players with the opportunity to be completely outlandish - like in Flashpoint where, behind enemy lines with nothing but a silenced HK, you decide to teal a Hind-D Gunship to carry out a lone special-op stealth mission. Unfortunately the developers of Flashpoint 2 have sacrificed much of the depth traditionally associated with the franchise in order to heighten the action, make DR less overwhelming than its predecessors, and of course, give it broader appeal.
Unfortunately however, with an awful control system and repetitive, unimaginative missions, they have failed to even produce a particularly decent dumbed down version of Operation Flashpoint. This in itself is enough to alienate dedicated fans of the Flashpoint series, whilst providing console gamers with little more than a fairly average FPS.