The original Operation Flashpoint was released in 2001, and if you say that fast enough it doesn't seem like it was eight years ago.
Due to an extremely under-performing PC at the time, my recollections of this otherwise excellent title are a bit like viewing a slide show from a holiday in the Waikato. Nevertheless, it came along at just the right time to bridge the gap between Counter-Strike and Battlefield 1942, even if its level of realism far exceeded both titles.
Eight years is a long time to wait for a proper sequel, so naturally there's a bit of a story behind the delay. Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising is a sequel to the original in name only. The spiritual successor, created by the original Operation Flashpoint team Bohemia Interactive - and based on an improved Flashpoint engine - was ArmA: Armed Assault, released back in 2007 (ArmA 2 has just been released). As it turns out, publishers Codemasters retained the intellectual property rights to the Operation Flashpoint series, so what we have here today is their own re-imagining of the franchise without any involvement from the original team whatsoever.
Because of this, an apology is probably in order. I'm sure a decent percentage of you reading right now saw the title of this article and assumed the Dragon Rising would be made by a small development team eager to push the limits of realism, perhaps with a new game engine thrown in, and extensive support from a small but dedicated online community of testers and modders. If it were possible to squeeze in "Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising - it's not really a PC game anymore, so if you have fond recollections of the series then go play ArmA 2 instead" as a title to this article, we would have done so.
There's no doubt that Codemasters have identified a need for a heavy-hitting, realistic war sim specifically tailored for the next-gen console market. As the PC community becomes ever more fragmented and specialised, and more and more development capital is invested by companies towards standardised console releases, it seems likely that a lot of these old PC-only IP's will be rehashed for a new generation.
Ultimately, this isn't such a bad thing, after all a good game is a good game, and Dragon Rising is shaping up nicely in this regard.
The preview code provided to us consisted of two short missions designed to showcase the squad-dependent nature of the game. Codemasters have reiterated their intention to provide distinguishing features in the form of heightened realism and a blend of infantry and vehicle-based combat, and as there are to be a total of eleven levels in the final game we can only assume this won't be "run and gun" so much as "creep and snipe". Although, as you would expect in such a title, there's no exact linear path to completing most missions, it's very much down to your individual gaming style. Just don't stray too far from the objectives however, as they should remain your focus at all times.
Your AI squad members respond well to radio commands, and actively seek out cover and provide suppressing fire at all the right moments. The experience of charging up a slight incline whilst peppering a sandbag bunker with machine gun fire seemed entirely fluid, and the constant radio chatter provided helpful clues as to the location of enemy combatants.
Our initial objective, as part of a SpecOp team, was to destroy a warning radar at the south of the island, allowing the main island invasion force to land in numbers. This was achieved by taking out the force guarding the tower, planting the explosives, then retreating to a suitable distance before detonating to avoid having to have to reload from your last save point.
Once this objective was completed, we were able to call in a Howitzer strike on a nearby encampment. Accurate sound reproduction allowed the flash of the explosions to pre-date the noise in a realistic fashion - nothing that we haven't seen before, but a nice touch all the same. The rolling pitch of the landscape actively encourages you to seek cover from far-flung enemies - the identification of which is made progressively harder at each difficulty level by a reduction in visual aids. In fact, everything is made harder and more realistic the further you push it, so if you're not used to playing a game where individual bullets kill and bandages are necessary, there are plenty of less cerebral 3PS/FPS games out there for your console. Too many, it could be argued.
Visually speaking, Dragon Rising really encourages nature to be the true star of the show. Flora moves accurately in the breeze, the lighting and shadow effects are superb, and the current trend towards lighter, dusty colour palettes ahead of the sharp colours found back when the original was released clearly pays dividends. Sound, too, is excellent, even in this early preview build - bullets whip overhead with convincing urgency, vehicle engines roar with battlefield intensity and everything is as you would expect from a battle sim released in time to round out the decade.
For console owners, it's a no-brainer - Dragon Rising will be successful, because it's well made, fun to play and occupies a market segment without any major competition from blockbuster titles. A Gears of War or Killzone clone it is not. For PC owners, the real question here will be whether the numerous fans of the original can be convinced to put down ArmA 2 and sacrifice a bit of realism for something a little less intense.
I still think they should have called it Phoenix Rising.
Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising will be released in New Zealand on October 9 for Xbox 360, PS3 and PC.