October 15, 1985: We went out on patrol in the woods near Regina today…we were just a few clicks away from our camp when these Russkie tanks came out of nowhere and opened up on us…only me, Tompkins, and Delaware Andy are left…we had to hide in the woods, but we’ve still got our guns, so maybe when the sun goes down, we can [narrator killed by someone way, WAY off-screen]
That paragraph above encompasses today’s game a nutshell. Operation Flashpoint by Codemasters and Bohemia Interactive is basically the genesis of the soldier simulator games like the ARMA series, but, being the first also means there’s also a bit of slop with the soup. The story begins on a U.S. outpost on an island called Malden in 1985, with Cold War tensions rising, as Private David Armstrong conveniently happens to be going through basic training just before the Russians decide to launch an assault on the neighboring island of Everon. Yes, the plot is wafer-thin, and it serves only to explain why it’s necessary to shoot Ivan in the face.
Now, I’ll get to the graphics and sound and what makes this game innovative in a minute, because I need to get this out of the way before we go further: this game is FUCKING ROUGH. I know I bitched a lot about Clock Tower being hard, but this is different. Clock Tower had one enemy and a bunch of set-piece deaths. Op Flash is just out to butter your bean and serve it to you cold from start to finish. First of all, this game borrowed from the Rainbow Six theory of “one or two hits is enough to kill”, which is fine, but your enemies all apparently graduated from the Alvin York School of Marksmanship. You can and will very frequently be killed by someone you barely could make out on-screen, and when you die, a “kill-cam” a la Counter-Strike shows who put paid on your account and will undoubtedly drive you to cursing at how someone 500+ meters away could tag you with an AK-47…at night.
You, on the other hand, have to pretty much be lying still on the ground to be consistently accurate, and trying to shoot at someone without going into aim mode is only feasible when an enemy is at the pointiest of point-blank range. I understand that the game takes things like windage and bullet drop into account for long-range shots, but I don’t think that should be as big of a problem for shooting at targets less than fifty feet away. Compounding the problem is that your squadmates…well, they’re somewhat less capable soldiers, and can get mowed down en masse because they were too concerned with keeping their position in line to worry about the guy twenty feet away shooting at them. This isn’t even getting into the missions later where you’re asked to hunt through a massive swath of backcountry to locate a Scud launcher (seriously?) or escape from Russian custody (while completely unarmed) and navigate back to friendly territory by using the stars (oh, oh yes).
So what makes Op Flash worth enduring this factory of frustration? Well, for one, there’s actually a good bit of variety to be found here. Despite your first mission being basic infantry training, you’re not just stuck as a line grunt. Along the way, you’ll climb the ranks and eventually become squad leader, allowing you to customize your team’s loadout (which can pay dividends if you’re up against enemy armor) and issue orders. You’ll be given a tutorial of sorts when you finally get to command, but realistically, you’ll probably never use most of the commands besides “stop” and “go here”.
You’ll also have breaks where you play as a different character, either an up-and-coming tank commander, a helicopter pilot, or a special forces member who has the greatest power in the game; if he goes prone at night, he is essentially invisible, and enemy troops and tanks can basically roll right past you, either completely oblivious or utterly indifferent to your presence. Sadly, though, the special ops character gets saddled with some of the most frustrating missions in the game, so if you see the man in black, you’re about to be in for a bad time.
The other big selling point here is that this game is VAST. Each of the three islands is a massive self-contained environment, with tons of little villages and farmhouses along the way, with missions often taking you from one town to another, pushing the Russians out and liberating the islands bit by bit. It definitely adds to the feeling of being in an actual warzone, as opposed to a movie set being built entirely for the purpose of being knocked over, especially when you will be going to the same places in different missions. The towns themselves aren’t just blocks, either. You can enter a good number of the buildings for cover and go out a side door to flank an enemy, even climb up into an attic to snipe targets from the high ground. Pretty much every vehicle you come across can be driven, from jeeps to a farmer’s tractor. You’ll also get an opportunity to fly an A-10…but it won’t end well. Just trust me. Even the forests can be traveled through instead of serving as barriers, and steep hills are passable by going prone and crawling up to the top.
I really can’t stress enough how impressed I was that the developers went to such lengths to make every inch of the map into more than just scenery, especially for a game made in 2001. The game also divides the islands with a grid coordinate system, so it is possible to spread your forces out in a pincer move or a leapfrog and actually keep track of who’s where and what’s happening without being completely lost. It definitely makes the tank missions considerably easier, seeing as you’ll be covering long swaths of territory between engagements. Of course, the downside to this setup is that it allows for missions like the above-mentioned Scud hunt and other needle-in-a-haystack missions.
Controls…well, they’re a bit convoluted. Doing tasks like getting into vehicles or planting bombs requires you to push a button to reveal a list of available actions, and then moving down to select it. Issuing orders to your team is similarly constructed, and has you run through a tree of possible actions, rather like the NPC interactions in Sentient. As for the basic controls, they’re not too bad, certainly no worse than most PC FPS’s in terms of how many buttons are actually needed. You’ll probably never need to look at your watch, but the map and compass will prove reliably useful. Also, it should be noted that while reloading or being healed, you are stuck in place for a good five seconds while it’s going on, so try not to get stuck out in the open when the time comes.
Another hitch is that, if you’re like me and own a gamepad, you’d probably want to use it…unfortunately, even if your gamepad allows you to map buttons independently of the game, you’ll probably never be able to calibrate the look axis sensitivity to find a medium between “cold pot of molasses” and “hummingbird on diet pills”; I spent the better part of two hours trying to find the sweet spot before giving up and just using the keyboard.
Visually, Op Flash is a bit muddy. People look like wax figures, and a lot of the animations look wonky. Soldiers run with their arms stock still, holding their rifles in a death grip, turning their entire upper bodies to look around instead of their heads, and climbing into vehicles shows them grabbing a big handful of air and teleporting into the next available seat. Your own character isn’t very refined, either, as your arm is basically a green-brown blob. Most of the areas look pretty samey; all the villages are made up of the same kinds of buildings, and forests are giant brown poles with convenient running lanes between them. There are some details worth noticing, like the signs telling you which town you’re entering or leaving, or the “No Smoking” signs in vehicles, which at least tells me they tried.
If you’re playing on the…less hard difficulty (I can’t in good conscience call it “easy” mode), moving your target reticule over a person will make an overlay pop up showing the range, what type of soldier (anti-tank, machine gunner, officer) they are, and whether or not they’re an enemy, which can be a big help in a heated firefight. It all works, but make no mistake, this is not a festival for the eyes. Sound isn’t mindblowing either, but you will be able to tell the difference between M16 and AK-47 fire, explosions sound sufficiently crunchy, and your radio can blow up with your squad leader ordering your team to engage different targets and soldiers reporting that they’ve been hit or a buddy’s been killed. Nothing great by itself, but again, it really emphasizes what kind of clusterfuck pitched battle can be when it gets to that point. Either way, I can’t bitch too much about graphics and sound when it was kinda obvious the developers’ focus was elsewhere.
I’ll leave you with a quick story that illustrates the experience of the game pretty well. (Mild Spoiler Alert!) There’s a mission fairly early on in the game where your squad’s been wiped out after a battle and you’re stuck in the woods and have to evade the Soviet patrols to reach an evacuation point. I checked my map and compass to find the quickest way there without having to use the road. Unfortunately, there was a helicopter patrolling overhead, so I had to find another route. I found a farmhouse, and hoped there might be a vehicle there. Along the way, I managed to surprise a couple of patrolling enemies and took them out with two quick shots…but others heard the noise, so I sprinted to the farmhouse and found a little beater of a car, hopped in, and took off…the helicopter broke off of its patrol and began following me, so I drove towards some woods, ditched the car, and escaped through a forest as the chopper opened fire on the car, thinking he’d taken the American out… he was wrong… fucking awesome, and completely unscripted by the game.
It was also the 17th time I had attempted the mission.
An extremely expansive world to wage war in, enough variety in mission types to keep you pressing forward, took great lengths to be more realistic than the Call of Duty‘s of the world.
Getting to all that fun stuff requires either tremendous luck or you to die eleventy billion times. Some missions are quite literally searching for a needle in a haystack…with dudes waiting in the haystack to shoot you.