After my other two reviews, I decided to change my style of reviewing a bit, taking the criticism on board to create a more dynamic style.
Operation Flashpoint: Cold War Crisis - A Retrospective Review
Operation Flashpoint: Cold War Crisis is a 2001 PC-format first/third-person tactical shooter and combined-arms military simulator, developed and produced by Bohemia Interactive, a Czech company now best known for their work in the field of military simulation, including actual work for the world's militaries with the related Virtual Battlespace series, which I hope to be covered separately in a later section to this review.
The year is 1985, and Mikhail Gorbachev has assumed power of the Soviet Union, preaching the principles of perestroika and glasnost. However, certain hardline communists are unsympathetic to his cause, including the generals who command the largest military in the world. One of these, a general called Alexsei Guba, is determined to bring down Gorbachev and proclaim himself leader of the Soviet Union. Therefore, with an enclave of soldiers, he takes over the island of Kolgujev in the fictional Malden Islands and moves to take Everon, an independent republic within the Malden Islands. From Kolgujev to Everon, he next sets his sights on Malden, the last of the Malden Islands. The United States colonel commanding NATO forces on Malden, Colonel Blake, moves to investigate the lack of contact from Everon, soon ordering an assault on the island. However, he remains unaware of the Soviets and the plans of Alexsei Guba, including a gambit which could lead to annihilation for both sides.
Throughout the game, players will play in the roles of Private David Armstrong, a newly-recruited infantryman who has just completed his training at the start of the game, Lieutenant Robert Hammer, an inexperienced tank commander, Captain Sam Nichols, a helicopter pilot who is called upon to fly transport and attack helicopters, eventually flying A-10 gunships, and Commander James Gastovski, a retired special forces soldier called out of retirement to carry out sabotage missions.
And so I begin with one of the greatest strengths of this game: Variety. Within the campaign, one will carry out a huge variety of missions, from taking enemy-held towns on foot, to using the armoured fists of the tanks at your disposal to break through fortified positions, to having the air at your command as you rain rockets and guided missiles down onto vehicles from above, to sneaking in during the night under cover to take out supply trucks, or armoured vehicles. Each of these roles is fully realised and featured with great attention to detail, and your roles are not fixed; instead they are very elastic, if resources are there to make it so. If there is a working vehicle in game, just take it! Have the Soviets left behind a tank in one of their bases? No point leaving it to waste - put your squad inside and use it to full effect.
In any other game, having this much variety would be considered enough, but not for the producers of Operation Flashpoint, as they have seen fit to include a completely featured and very powerful mission editor, including every single vehicle and almost every person from the game to do with as you please, on any of the three islands of the game, or the "blank canvas" desert island which is included as a bonus for the express benefit of the mission editor. This mission editor can be difficult to use, but the possibilities are almost endless. Want to have a simple "capture the enemy town" mission? Easy. Want to have a full-scale island war, including air, land and water combined-arms missions? More difficult, but very possible. This feature greatly increases the length of playability, and can even include such non-combat scenarios as a round-the-island car race, or a simple fly-over of the island in a civilian aircraft, if your imagination stretches to those possibilities.
But all of these various and multiple features would be somewhat wasted without the proper immersion in the game. Fear not. Operation Flashpoint is one of the most immersive games I have ever played. That attention to detail described earlier makes itself very evident whenever you fire a gun, or when you climb into a tank, with all of the systems of the tank laid out in front of you, or when flying an aircraft. Most computer games which include vehicles as a part of them render the vehicles in either third-person or through the sights - see the Halo series, Call of Duty, et cetera. While both of these are options for Operation Flashpoint, the default setting for a tank, for instance, shows the insides in surprisingly high detail, showing you just how claustrophobic it can get inside a modern armoured vehicle. For me, it was the closest experience I'd ever had at what it was like inside a tank until I happened to actually get into the driver's seat of a decommissioned French vehicle in a tank museum. For a computer game to generate that feeling is a tremendous achievement and just shows how ambitious this game was - and still is.
However, the gaming engine must make a few concessions for the other features in the game, and so there are occasional places where immersion can be removed due to these engine limitations. There are, for instance, no animations for entering or exiting a vehicle - military personnel just make a feeble entrance animation and then disappear into the tank. I believe that the game does enough to create immersion and has enough features elsewhere to justify these few limitations, and unless graphical accuracy is your be-all and end-all, you will most likely enjoy the other impressive and ambitious displays of accuracy and immersion to notice much.
But variety and immersion have been done elsewhere, and while the variety is almost unrivalled by any other game in the genre, there have been more immersive games out there. It's time for Operation Flashpoint to show the rest of its biggest and most unique features, and "biggest" does describe the next one quite accurately.
Computer games like the Elder Scrolls series and many other RPGs, including the upcoming Fallout 3 are sold with "epic scale" as one of their selling features, but none of these games even gets close to the grand scale of the magnificently large Operation Flashpoint. Each of the three islands in the game is of the order of scale that makes the likes of The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion look feeble in comparison. Each island comes on a fully-featured grid that measures 12.8 by 12.8 kilometres. That equals almost 164 square kilometres, and for comparison, the game world of Oblivion measures only 41 square kilometres in size. Operation Flashpoint manages to quadruple the game world of a role-playing game specifically sold with scale in mind with a single island, and let us not forget that there are three of them to be played with in Operation Flashpoint.
It's not like the islands of Operation Flashpoint are barren either - they are fully featured and with the same tremendous attention to detail that Bohemia Interactive have applied to the rest of the game. It realistically could take a few hours to walk from one end of the island to the other, which makes the addition of vehicles less of a marketing ploy to increase the variety and more an actual necessity, for once in a game which focuses on infantry action.
And I haven't even come to the most impressive feature of this particular selling point - the entire island is rendered all at the same time. There are absolutely no loading screens once you've loaded the island up onto your computer. At this point, you should stop and think for a second. Nintendo attempts to do this with the Metroid series, and for the most part, it does it well. But there are sometimes areas which make it painfully obvious that it's loading in the background. The majority of games don't even try. Operation Flashpoint, however, a seven-year-old game developed for Pentium 3 processors, manages to pull it off without even seeming like it's trying, making it one of the most impressive technical achievements in a computer game along with all of the other strong points that it has already accrued. It almost makes me think that everybody else doesn't have much of an excuse any more for painful loading times, when an independent game developer, pulling off their first big gaming project, can do it with such ease.
This easily makes it one of the largest scales for any game produced by any company, with only The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall, the Elite series of space simulators and the military-based Virtual Battlespace series which derive their engines from Operation Flashpoint itself being games that I can think of having technical achievements of similar or greater scale. What's more, of these titles, only the original Elite of 1984 was also developed by a team which had not published a game before.
But these features are merely footnotes to the greatest selling point of Operation Flashpoint: Realism. Short of buying an actual military simulator or joining the military yourself, this is the closest that you're going to come to combined-arms military combat. The enemy AI is extremely talented and will shoot you stone-dead if you don't use your wits. Charging the enemy will only end up with your body ventilated by bullet holes. In Operation Flashpoint, realism is king. Be prepared to consider things that almost no other computer game has made you think about. Real bullet ballistics which match up well with the performance of the bullets in real life, with a player needing to compensate for bullet drop, deflection fire when flying aircraft, et cetera. If you're unlucky enough to get hit by one of the enemy, the likelihood is that you'll be staring at the "You Are Dead" screen. If you're lucky enough to survive, don't expect your character to shrug it off - a hit in the arm severely reduces accuracy, a shot in the leg will bring you down, crawling along, dragging your useless body part along with you. Try standing up after a shot to the leg and your character shouts in agony, soon collapsing onto the ground again. It would not be a stretch to consider this one of the most fully realised injury systems in any game.
Among other features of realism include a complete real-time day/night cycle, detailed and accurate military equipment, realistic simulation of character movement, and what is more, what you see in first-person is what everybody else sees you doing. The infantry combat is the most detailed and accurate, with their weapons systems realised realistically, character movement being much more accurate than in many other games, including momentum as you run. They even remembered to render the character's legs, unlike most first-person shooters. The vehicular sections are less realistic, but still accurate enough for anybody who hasn't played the likes of Steel Beasts, or anybody expecting Lock-On: Modern Air Combat accuracy for the aerial sections. This is predominantly an infantry game, and for the vehicles to be as accurate as they are when the focus is on the infantry combat is still impressive.
As I mentioned before, realism is king in Operation Flashpoint. It is so important to the game that there are few compromises made when realism is at stake, and this is most evident in the difficulty of the game. I'm not going to beat around the bush: Operation Flashpoint is hard. I like to joke that the two difficulty settings are unofficially "Hard" and "Concrete-Reinforced Diamond Nails". The one-shot kill infantry combat will humble you, the realistic ballistics will teach you how to use a gun properly or face the consequences. When the lucky outcome of a gunshot wound is that you are knocked to the ground, probably with your accuracy knocked down to the point where you couldn't shoot the broad side of a barn, you either tend to get really good, really fast, or else get used to the "You Are Dead" screen, possibly to the point where people will wonder whether it's your wallpaper.
One of the most startling mixes of the realism aspect and the immersion aspect working in hand is when as the pilot, Sam Nichols, you are captured by the Soviet force after having to ditch your A-10 on Kolgujev. The objective is to escape execution, and one of the possibilities has you on top of a mountain, using the stars as a compass. Let me repeat that: Using the stars as a compass. That's right - the game has somehow done the technical achievement of producing a star layout that is realistic enough to locate the North Star and use it as a compass. This mission also brings the variety aspect into play - you're on your own, and you have no orders, just a desire to escape. Steal a car, blast your way out using an armoured personnel carrier, nick the helicopter you came in, or just leg it out of the prison camp - all of these possibilities are open and viable for you.
Another example is a mission where as David Armstrong, the infantry soldier, you end up alone in a forest after your squad was annihilated by the Soviet forces. The Spetsnaz are combing the forest and the regular army waits outside for you. This is where the game expects you to recombine with your force in one of the most difficult but brilliant parts of the game, giving you the realism angle by making it almost impossible to break past the soldiers outside using faux-heroics, the immersion angle by making it a really claustrophobic mission and the variety angle by leaving you on your own to decide which way you'll take out of the forest and back to the retreating United States forces. I decided to use the scale aspect of the game to my advantage as I went probably a kilometre out of my way in order to shake off the Soviet soldiers and armoured vehicles.
It's probably evident by this stage that this is one of my favourite games, but I'm not blind to its failings, usually related to engine limitations due to the sheer scale and the uncompromising realism that this game contains. The graphics, for instance, are dated even for 2001. They are not terrible, and the fact that the field of view stretches out to a potential 5,000 metres, which is much further than games would have a field of view for that time, is a justification, but the foliage and the terrain are disappointing, considering that you'll be looking at it closely for a lot of the game. The game was developed for fast CPUs and slow graphics cards, which means that the game is suitable for a wide variety of computers, including the standard Intel graphics adapters on many consumer-designed computers, but this takes its toll on the graphics detail. It's a flaw that can be easily overlooked, but it is obviously there and it makes itself evident.
As I mentioned before, immersion can occasionally be removed by the same sort of engine limitations - the units "teleporting" into the vehicles is probably the most obvious, but occasionally bad clipping for vehicles and the fact that crashing aircraft often bounce after contact with the ground are other aspects that exist. Again, I believe the game shows its potential enough times for this set of flaws to be overlooked, but for the true seeker of realism in vehicular combat, a better suggestion would be to buy a simulator which focuses on your area of favoured combat.
Finally, the sheer difficulty of the game. This is a hit-or-miss aspect of the game. Those who appreciate the realism or who are looking for one of the ultimate challenges in the computer gaming world will also appreciate the difficulty, but those who do not have much action-genre computer gaming experience may well find themselves outclassed very early in the game, as will those who wish to charge into combat. This is where it becomes obvious that as a narrow-genre game, this is not an experience everybody will appreciate, but for those that appreciate the gameplay, and are able to accept the occasional flaw or the steep difficulty curve, it is a game which I would make a quick purchase of the game to experience.