Operation Flashpoint: Red River not for everyone. It’s closer to a military simulator than your average holiday FPS and the pace, structure, and gameplay reflects that more tactical approach. There’s not even any competitive multiplayer, so if you’re expecting Call of Duty or Battlefield, you will be disappointed. However, Operation Flashpoint is nonetheless an incredibly deep game with a lot of strategic nuance, and it’s worth a glance if you’re looking for a title that prioritizes thought instead of reflexes.
At its core, Operation Flashpoint is designed for squad-based cooperative multiplayer. You’re playing as U.S. Marines divided into four-man Fireteams, and the game is at its best if you’re able to scrounge up a few friends and can set up a voice chat. The game isn’t broken if you play solo – you can bring up a radial menu to issue commands to your team – but communication is essential and the AI isn’t as good as a competent human player.
With that said, the first-person controls and features are pretty much textbook, so there’s not much to complain about from a purely technical standpoint. You can customize your character and weapon load out as you gain levels and experience, and there are four different character classes – rifleman, auto rifleman, grenadier, and scout – with equipment that corresponds to four different gameplay styles.
Operation Flashpoint stands apart because all of the Hollywood conveniences have been stripped out and replaced with mechanics that reflect a certain degree of realism. There’s no regenerating health bar – if you get shot, you’ll continue to lose blood until you stop and dress your wound – and you are vulnerable to one-shot kills.
You can also run out of ammo if you’re not careful and bullets will respond to gravity. If you’re hoping for a headshot at 200 meters you have to aim above your opponent or you’ll only see an ineffective cloud of dirt explode at your target’s feet. A steady eye is far more important than an itchy trigger finger, and some people won’t like that methodical style of play.
The thing is that’s a deliberate design decision instead of a flaw so I’m not going to criticize Operation Flashpoint for its difficulty. It’s the sort of game in which you’re supposed to set up camp with a sniper rifle and thin out the enemy ranks before you enter the village because that’s how trained soldiers approach combat, and it gives Operation Flashpoint a genuine niche appeal for people looking for a slightly more intelligent shooter.
The game itself is divided into eight separate multiplayer maps spread across four distinct gameplay modes. Combat Sweep asks you to kill all of the insurgents in a village compound, while CSAR is a search-and-rescue mission for two downed helicopter pilots and Rolling Thunder asks you to lead and protect a vehicle convoy on a road littered with ambush sites. Finally, Last Stand is a relentless tower defense mode in which you have to hold one location against sixteen waves of enemies.
The campaign story, meanwhile, is neither brilliant nor deficient. The first act is spent quelling an insurgent uprising in Tajikistan in 2013, and the skirmishes eventually escalate into a more serious (yet localized) conflict against the Chinese PLA. The characters espouse the usual patriotic bravado, but there are a few good lines and the scope is in keeping with the game’s more grounded tone. You’re fighting for control of a specific geographic region, and the real-world atmosphere raises the stakes without resorting to collapsed skyscrapers or spectacular set pieces.
That restraint is also what makes Operation Flashpoint such a refreshing title. At times, you won’t even be able to see the people shooting at you because they’ll blend into the landscape, and that uncertainty breeds a rather unique brand of excitement. You can spend five minutes running from one village to the next, but you’re never quite sure when enemies will appear and the sheer weight of the PLA coupled with the potential for instant death fosters a tension that doesn’t feel manufactured.
Thankfully, the authenticity has been toned down just enough to make it accessible. The game isn’t too punishing on Normal, although it can get ugly on the Hardcore setting when there are no checkpoints and no onscreen markers of any kind. If you’re looking for a challenge, Operation Flashpoint certainly provides.
Unfortunately, there are a few legitimate gameplay grievances. For starters, the game’s steep learning curve is an overly harsh barrier to entry. The developers assume that every player is already familiar with American military jargon, and the sheer number of acronyms is overwhelming about five minutes into the first mission. Your commander may tell you to call down a JDAM strike, but what that is (or why it’s useful) is up to you to figure out.
Things aren’t much better when the game tries to provide contextual instructions. There’s no way to check prior transmissions and orders fly across the bottom of the screen at a clip that guarantees you’ll miss something, so it’s seldom clear which actions correspond to which objectives. Even in 1080p, menu screens are difficult to read and the whole interface is generally cluttered and unintuitive.
For the team leader, the radial menu is another constant annoyance. There’s no break in the action and the process doesn’t flow naturally into combat, so you have to stop moving and scroll through three menu screens to tell your squad to take cover. The AI is serviceable, but it’s only programmed to perform certain preset maneuvers and consequently lacks the instincts that can frequently save a player character.
So while all of the gameplay elements are functional, the game falls short when it comes to player education. “Flank Left” and “Flank Right” are fairly self-explanatory as concepts, but you need to know exactly what will happen when you issue a command and Operation Flashpoint doesn’t take the time to explain anything with the appropriate level of detail. Soldiers go to boot camp for a reason, and trial and error shouldn’t be the only way to acquire that information.
I should also mention that while Operation Flashpoint is mostly stable, I did run into some connectivity troubles the first time I tried to play online. The game refused to let me create a private session, and it was only when I went public that I was able to get things up and running.
Yet despite the flaws – and there are many – I have to admit that I enjoyed Operation Flashpoint. It’s not the most user-friendly title on the market, but there’s a definite payoff if you’re able to stick with it for a few missions and it stands out when every other FPS is trying to mimic Call of Duty. I wouldn’t recommend it for everybody – some people just won’t have the necessary patience – but it’s a solid game for a particular target audience.