War. Every gaming platform does it and each year a new pretender steps up to try to take the crown. Operation Flashpoint – the PC original – left fond memories of a true sandbox combat sim, with freedoms that aren't always found in other combat games, then and now.
Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising picks up the action in the not to distant future, weaving a neat historical timeline to set the scene before pitching you into the action. But action of the Operation Flashpoint variety doesn't mean a baptism of fire: you are broken in fairly gently, although the tutorial-style hints soon drop off and you are left to figure things out for yourself.
As Operation Flashpoint is a combat sim, you are given command right from the off: as a sandbox game, you can walk off and do what you like how you like, but your mission objectives have to be completed. Before starting a mission you are given these objectives and a map to peruse, a map which you can access at all points during actual gameplay.
Some missions will suggest you don't engage the enemy at all and with command and control playing a large part, you may find yourself completing objectives without actually firing your weapon at all. Mission objectives will be relayed to you over the radio, but it's easy to miss them. On normal difficulty it perhaps doesn't matter, as you can just follow the waypoints.
Commands are accessed through a menu on the right bumper button, leading you through a series of options to the final order. There are a range of things, some you might never use and some which become frequent occurrences. Setting the rules of engagement (through ROE) can be useful, to stop your men blatting off at hostiles as you move around the area of operations. There is no point in alerting them to your presence when you can just box round them and get on with the mission at hand.
"Heal wounded" is a command you'll find yourself using perhaps more often than you want, to force team members to patch up wounds, rather than just walking around bleeding out. But be warned, your medic and the injured party will often walk off to find some a tree to stand under, rather than just doing it where they are, so often expose themselves to the enemy. You can patch yourself too with a field dressing, but if you take a serious injury, you'll have to call the medic as you writhe on the ground.
You won't find yourself soaking up bullets however: one well-placed shot will kill you and if you take a leg wound you might find yourself unable to run or sprint. Mortars are especially irritating, but fortunately the enemy fire a spotting round first, giving you the chance to get out of the target area. But this is what you expect from a combat sim and it is often the case that if multiple members of your team are walking wounded, you need to re-think how you are going to achieve your objective.
Waypoints are provided to guide you in and out of the mission (until you move up to a higher difficulty level) and being sandbox, you'll find yourself doing a lot of walking and running around. Some might not like having to spend 10 minutes simply traversing the countryside, but it's inherent to how Operation Flashpoint works, and if you can find a vehicle, you can often steal it.
In some cases, waypoints will guide you straight into the enemy, so it is well worth making use of the binoculars in your inventory to recon the route before you step into the open. And that's the great thing about Dragon Rising – you can view the map, look for topographical features and use them to your advantage, as you would in real life.
But the game does show its hand far too often with autosave. You'll be walking along, approaching a ridge line and you'll notice the autosave symbol. Step over the ridge and the enemy engages you. It means that if you mess it up you can reload from that point, yes, but the nature of the game doesn’t always make this as smooth as it is in other combat games.
Because of the open nature of the game, you might arrive at an objective and get your autosave point in a position that you can't survive. After you try various tactics to extricate yourself from your predicament, you'll realise that restarting the mission is the only way you'll get through it, remembering, of course, not to barge straight back to the same spot again.
Graphically Dragon Rising is impressive. Time has been spent on character models, weapons and equipment to make things realistic. The terrain too contains plenty of detail, although once you are on your belly in the grass, you might find it is a little blocky. Settlements can be a little bland compared to some of the on-rails FPS titles out there, with the island of Skira looking like an awfully boring place to live, devoid of almost all life except the odd PLA solider and the occasional tractor.
But you probably won't notice, because I'll spend most of the time scrutinising the terrain looking for PLA adversaries. Missions hang together loosely along the plot, but do feel as though they sit in isolation. Special Forces do one thing, the Marines follow-up with something else, but really they could be totally disconnected events. It is also irritating the game selects your weapons load out and dumps you on the ground, not always best equipped to do your job. Still, half of the fun here is stripping your enemy of their weapons and rolling on with something different. Scoped weapons give you a distinct advantage as sniping enemies will make things much easier.
You also get access to vehicles which you can command or drive yourself although they don't play much of a part in the campaign itself, which is dominated by grunts on their feet.
Playing through the campaign in normal mode will only see you through a weekend of gaming, we spent perhaps 8 hours getting though it. Going back to complete the missions on more difficult levels may not appeal so much, as you already know what you have to do and more or less where it is, so if you fancy a challenge, it is perhaps worth avoiding the normal level altogether and setting out in a higher difficulty level.
Unfortunately the game is littered with the bugs, none that stopped us progressing, but making us keen to get the forthcoming patch into place. Shoot someone and you get a satisfying red mist (with a red cross on normal difficulty to indicate a kill shot), but sometimes you'll put a couple of slugs into someone and they just freeze, standing, lying, kneeling, without dropping down dead. We're also annoyed that corpses disappear after time, taking their weapons with them, so back-tracking to get more ammo doesn't always work.
AI is also a bit of a let down too. You fire team members will often walk right into the line of fire, or crouch on the wrong side of cover, meaning that despite your stalwart leadership, your team isn't always dependable. Things are much better, ironically, when playing as special forces, where your team seem to be able to fight and move without taking so many hits.
Online cooperative modes let you pair up with real teammates and ditch your AI buddies. There are also Annihilation and Infiltration online gaming modes, letting you battle it out with real people, which is fearsome, and really the scope for longevity as the game stands.
To be fair we were slightly disappointed with Dragon Rising. Having loved the original PC version, we expected a longer campaign, or more out of the box options. Multiplayer is great, yes, but we can't help feeling that Dragon Rising is really about opening the door for extending the game via downloadable content, which is rumoured to be coming soon.
Despite the bugs in the initial playable content, Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising will entertain, but won't quite leave the impression that the original did.