Call it the anti-Call of Duty. There is no secret plot, no megalomaniacal tyrant with his finger hovering over the button, no dramatic betrayal, no getting knocked unconscious and losing all your weapons and – most importantly - no slow-motion quicktime-riddled climax. This is the non-cartoon version of first-person warfare, or at least as close as your Xbox 360 has got.
The year is 2013 and Tajikistan is in the throes of civil war. The United States cannot help but get involved despite there being no oil or heroin for them to confiscate, and this is where you come in. Playing as US Marine Sergeant Kirby, you are in command of three marines who alongside you make up Fireteam Bravo - one of three fireteams under the watch of Staff Sergeant Knox. In true Flashpoint style, you’ll fight across large areas of nicely drawn environments alongside a dozen other marines, utilising a swathe of weaponry including mines and airstrikes, while upgrading your squad and customising their weaponry along the way.
You begin the game by selecting one of four classes: rifleman, grenadier, scout or automatic rifleman. As you’d expect, each has their own unique equipment and abilities as well as differing development trees for you to unlock. You are able to switch classes prior to each of the ten missions (about a dozen hours) of campaign available, but here’s a hint: be a scout. Billed as a tactical shooter, Red River eschews frantic close-quarters combat in favour of long-range sniping battles and careful advancement through wide-open outdoor levels. The scout’s long-range arsenal is by far the most effective in these conditions.
There are many small touches that demonstrate the game’s realistic aspirations: one bullet can put you away or - depending on where you are shot – hamper your movement or aim. There is no in-game music except the metal and frat-house favourites that pump from your humvee’s stereo. If you run for a protracted amount of time, the controller vibrates like a heartbeat even after you stop to recover. Weapons occasionally jam. You can crouch or go completely prone, but it takes an often-precious second to get to your feet again. Bullets fall over long distances. The sun is ever-present and blinding, and shots falling around you kick up dirt that obscures your vision.
Indeed, Red River is packed with small details that show Codemasters were keen on making your experience as simulation-like as possible. But those unfamiliar with the franchise will notice are that there are much fewer enemies, and there is a lot of downtime for a shooting game - too much, perhaps.
Prior to each mission, you must sit through an unskippable minutes-long Humvee or chopper ride while Knox prattles on in his overly-macho fashion about very little. The lulls during missions work better, evoking the boredom then extreme tension of war nicely. That said, there are parts where it seems unnecessary to make the player spend a minute running back to a Humvee only to see it then drive past your former location, for example.
However, these are trifling criticisms next to some larger issues present in the game. All the realistic details so lovingly coded into the game are undermined by some truly abysmal artificial intelligence, and your squad are the worst offenders. They’ll happily run you over in a Humvee, walk across your line of fire (even if you’re spraying 50 calibre rounds with reckless abandon), push you out of cover, and seem to prefer to watch each other bleed to death rather than apply field dressing. There are over twelve commands they can be issued but the one that gets the most use is the equivalent of “stay here” if only to ensure they’re out of the enemy’s line of sight. Even asking them to take cover is a roll of the dice: often one somehow ends up standing on the wrong side of it – you can imagine what happens next. The only real way to keep them all alive is extreme micromanagement and tactical shooter or not, there’s little entertainment value in babysitting three idiots.
All of that said, Codemasters have always maintained that the emphasis would be on co-op gameplay in Red River, and playing the campaign through on multiplayer bears this line of thinking out – it was great fun, and headset communication to a fellow fleshbag trumps ordering bots around every time.
Unfortunately, enemy AI is just as bad as that of your AI squad. They’ll stand in the open shooting or - in some cases - not doing anything, making the game nothing more than dressed-up target practice. Couple this with some truly dull levels early on, and Red River – in spite of solid graphics and crisp sound - seems initially to be a terrible proposition.
But inexplicably, things improve markedly as the campaign progresses. It begins when you find yourself trying to hold back a huge army of Chinese soldiers while retreating through a village, and continues through to perhaps the game’s best level; a mission through orchards at dusk which boasts great atmosphere and is a nice twist on the run-of-the-mill night-vision stages found in so many shooters. Levels following these are also strong, and enemies even become something of a threat, moving from cover to cover and flanking your squad if given the opportunity.
Sadly, the back half of the campaign is riddled with bugs. You’ll encounter some foot-high walls that cannot be vaulted, invincible or otherwise glitched enemies, and in one level, an objective that doesn’t always show up, requiring you to restart your console until it decides to do so. By this stage, the six phrases your accompanying marines regularly spout will be wearing very thin too.
Outside of the campaign are Fireteam Engagements – a more arcade-like mode that presents scenarios stripped of all the backstory and downtime of the campaign. Meeting objectives such as rescuing downed pilots or protecting convoys will secure you a spot on a global leaderboard. These are a good alternative to the main story, a lot of fun in their own right, and perhaps the bridge that will tempt Call of Duty lovers.
Red River resembles a game six months of tweaking away from being a masterpiece. As it stands, it’s intermittently thrilling (particularly in the larger firefights), but fans of the Flashpoint series will be disappointed by the relatively narrow battlegrounds of Red River and newbies may be utterly bored by the time the first handful of missions are completed. There’s definitely room in the FPS world for the kind of cerebral, tactical shooter that this game aspires to be, and beyond a slack initial offering are riches that hint at how great Operation Flashpoint: Red River could be.