Developer: Codemasters / Publisher: Codemasters / ESRB: Mature [Blood and Gore, Strong Language, Violence] / Played on: Xbox 360 / Price: $59.99
There’s a group of people down in the Amazon River basin called the Pirahã who don’t have any concept of time, numbers, history, or hierarchy—they just can’t seem to get their heads around them. Similarly, I spent my first few hours with Operation Flashpoint: Red River wading down a narrow path and playing the same game of whack-a-mole I’ve played in Call of Duty innumerable times before. It took me that long to get my head around the fact that Red River isn’t like the other shooters out there. In addition to parading some of the worst AI I’ve ever encountered, Red River walks a fine line between action-shooter and squad simulation that promises a reasonably grounded narrative, tons of tactical options, and one of the most exciting co-op experiences I’ve had this year.
Perhaps Red River’s most mature difference from the other shooters we’ve been playing lately is its story. Rather than pitting you against ex-Soviet super villains amid absurd plots involving poison gas or EMPs that can blanket an entire continent, Red River puts you in the boots of a Marine fireteam leader as the U.S. war in Afghanistan spills over into neighboring Tajikistan (yep, it’s a real place). The narrative turns a little silly when China attempts to annex the country as a buffer zone and PLA troops pour over the Eastern border like fire ants from a kicked hill. But even when fighting a fully mechanized and well supplied army, the story never veers from its sensible feel—you’re a single Marine, not a one man army, neither China nor the U.S. choose to occupy the other, and I never lost the feeling that, provided “x” circumstance, this could really happen.
Both the friendly and enemy AI are so inexcusably bad, they trivialize all other gripes I have about the game. Ostensibly, this is a squad-based shooter wherein a rifleman, grenadier, scout, and auto rifleman must work together as a cohesive unit in order to overcome seemingly insurmountable odds. However, time and time again, friendlies prove to be so incompetent as to be completely useless, and enemies oscillate from expert marksmen to froth-mouthed imbeciles with a death wish.
During one particularly memorable demonstration of my squadmates’ ineptitude, I use the command wheel to instruct them to follow as we approach a small village. Hugging a concrete wall on the right, we scurry along a narrow street until I spot a PLA soldier looking in the opposite direction about 200 meters away. As I take a knee and line up the shot, my team (including the sniper rifle-equipped scout) takes a moment in this highly volatile combat situation to run in circles and wildly teabag the ground rather than assist me.
Even though I aim for the head, the real world physics of bullet drop plants my round into the enemy’s Kevlar protected back—downing, but not killing him. This is where the enemy AI’s stupidity kicks in. It’s pretty cool that both sides can heal friendlies, but sometimes they take it too far. As my target writhes in the street, another PLA soldier runs out to aid him. BAM! Another one bites the dust, and another one, and another one. In all, I down fifteen of China’s finest warriors in exactly the same way while my team dances around as if I’m a maypole. It’s a cheap victory, but my objective, “clear the town,” is complete, and I can’t help but feel like a badass. My moment in the sun is short-lived, however, when my team and I are run over and killed by friendly Humvees for whom we’ve been clearing the path. ABSOLUTELY INEXUSABLE.
What Red River lacks in even passable AI, it makes up for with—relative to the likes of Call of Duty and Bad Company—open battlefields, trust in the player to choose the best of several tactical options, and a level of authenticity that’s been sorely missed in the genre, particularly on consoles. As someone who enjoys an occasional trip to the shooting range, I can attest that these guns handle admirably compared to the real deal. Unless you’re raiding a building, engagements are rarely within less than 20 meters, and there’s no regenerating health—a single well-placed shot will kill you just as quickly as it’ll kill the enemy.
That authenticity also extends out of mission where you can select custom loadouts such as a thermal scope or claymore mines. Additionally, you’ll gain skill points to increase traits such as accuracy and speed that carry over to any class or mode you choose to play.
I’ve fought zombies that are smarter than my “highly motivated” AI squadmates, but luckily, the game’s weakest link is easily fixed by putting a human behind the wheel. There’s no competitive multiplayer in Red River, only four-player co-op, and no matter what you’re doing (i.e. even in menus or single-player), you always have access to a multiplayer lobby that you can set to “private” or open to friends and the public. Co-op buddies can seamlessly jump into and out of your campaign at will, and with four humans running around the battlefield, you’re truly a force to be reckoned with.
Even when I played with three non-English speakers, my team morphed from an AI-driven schizophrenic train wreck to a well-oiled tactical war machine. My favorite mission has your team, Bravo, clearing a valley of hostiles and a fat missile while Alpha and Charlie head up opposite slopes to provide cover. In this mission, you’re given the rare shooter treat of optional mission objectives and completion order. Thanks to the modified co-op radial menu, I’m still able to communicate with my team by highlighting objectives and suggesting orders as we take out a sniper nest, down a PLA chopper, and neutralize APCs with Javelin missiles.
Outside of the campaign, there are also some great co-op specific “Fireteam Engagements” that demand exceptional team communication. When everyone’s working together, victories are still hard-won, but always satisfying. My favorite is probably the basic “Combat Sweep” mode in which you simply clear an area of baddies, but getting it done with none of your team getting killed is a serious “ooh-rah!” moment. There’s a convoy escort, last stand, and search and rescue mode as well.
Graphics and Sound
This is an ugly game. Don’t get me wrong, it has its moments. The desert skyboxes are often beautiful, and there’s lots of detail on soldiers and vehicles, but big maps with long draw distances might be asking the current consoles to perform beyond their abilities. When firing at an enemy down my sniper scope at a distance of around 450 meters, the building behind him (no exaggeration) looks like something rendered on the SNES. Of course, the texture hadn’t completely loaded yet, but after a few Mississippi seconds of waiting for Mario to pop out of the window, I took the shot and moved on. Even when viewing objects up close, Red River is no looker. Shadows look like they’re made of LEGO, and I sometimes wonder if I’ve got Vaseline in my eyes as I inspect environmental textures.
Sound is no slouch, but there’s nothing that makes it stand out either. And the only voice of note is that of squad leader, Staff Sergeant Knox, who’s constantly berating you between orders and apparently believes machismo is specifically derived from squeezing as many “shits” and “bitches” from each sentence as possible—he’s exhausting.
Red River is full of huge maps that you’re often discouraged from exploring, and some pesky checkpoint issues really killed my buzz, but there’s still so much to love here. Due to the horrible AI, I can’t bring myself to grant a higher score, but don’t let that scare you. Even if you’re stuck playing offline, you can still have a great time conducting a nighttime ambush or calling in airstrikes while perched atop a craggy vista, and if possible, the co-op is something that shouldn’t be missed. For merely suggesting that you should have some freedom in how you engage the enemy, and adding an extra dose of skill to the familiar whack-a-mole game, Red River deserves recognition. Despite major flaws that can’t be overlooked, shooter fans should try this out, if only to experience the life that’s still churning in a genre that’s rapidly barreling towards monotony.