As the last of the frenetic apologists for 2009′s Dragon Rising, I have been very excited about the release of Red River. Set in Tajikistan in the near future, Operation Flashpoint: Red River places you in the shoes of a Marine (because they’re the only fighting unit in America, right?) and tasks you with surviving ten days in the desert as you fight Al Qaeda (a fact referenced early in the game but never revisited) and then the Chinese PLA. You will be undergoing nine lengthy campaign pieces that involve a lot of running to places and killing lots of people. There is a fiction in there, told through that now-fashionable powerpoint graphic presentation during load screens, but it’s entirely missable.

The core gameplay is essentially unchanged from Dragon Rising and that’s a drawcard for some and a reason to not buy for others. You’ll cycle through a small subset of weapons and weapon attachments as you fight your way through the 5 to 7 hours of play on offer. Using a context-command dialogue accessible through the right button on controllers or the unwieldy capslock key for PC, you can set your fireteam to engage or suppress hostiles, secure buildings or defend key locations. On the controller this process is simple and intuitive but this is mainly because you’ll only ever really use follow or hold position. You see, the enemy in this game can’t shoot. There was nothing to stop me on the harder levels from rambo’ing checkpoints at mid to close range because the enemy AI generally miss their first shot (and if they don’t it’s rightbutton+right+right to call a medic to you) allowing you to clean them out with ease. Also available through the menu system are CAS missions when you have the airspace to allow it. Whether it’s Howitzers or Large Missiles (yep, they’re actually called large missiles) you’ll hear the same radio chatter followed by the same big plumes of dirt on your target. Throughout the campaign and FTE’s you will unlock various pieces of gear as well as bonuses that add a range of buffs to your character.

Fireteam Engagements and Co-Operative play further expand playtime. FTE’s give you set-mission types and a simple scoring system to determine your outcome. Rolling Thunder has you protecting a convoy on route to your FOB where you have to clear the path ahead. Stopping the convoy costs you points which balances nicely against the points gain for getting everyone home in one piece.. CSAR involves rescuing downed pilots, Last Stand is a horde-mode with waves of increasingly powerful hostiles that make it the most challenging part of the game and Combat Sweep is a run through an AI-held town with a wide range of objectives to complete. These were fun to play through but with the exception of Last Stand they were short in length. Codies have focused on drop-in and out Co-Op for Red River in FTE’s and the singleplayer campaign. This is is handled really well and I must have had 10 or more players with me on my journey throughout the campaign.  Having friends to play with makes the game light up as you no long need to nurse your AI or pick them up after they’ve done something stupid.  Furthermore, co-ordinating attacks, even with limited terrain options, was great fun with friends.

The key difference between Red River and other shooters is the engagement range where you’ll be firing at targets many hundreds of meters in the distance. It’s unfortunate then that the complete lack of anti-aliasing on console means you’ll be shooting at vaguely discernible blocks of colour. Added to the graphical woes are the playing environments. Codies have dogged the path of ArmA 2 and its move from lush Chernarus to arid Takistan and have set Red River in a wide plane of dirty brown, poorly textured desert. This isn’t next-gen brown either, it’s an unpalatable and non-descript landscape broken up by occasional greenery and small towns. And it’s such a shame, the towns come with a fantastic level of detail and are really attractive but you’ll spend most of your time in transit or walking long sections between action scenes. The PC version does offer AA however and looks a lot better for it. The landscape is still unpleasant but distant troops and terrain details are at least sharp and your teammates don’t throw down shadows like they were made of lego.

Staff Sergeant Damien Knox is a character you will come to know well. This is the guy whose exhortations will fill every cut-scene, every moment of radio chatter and every interaction within your squad. It’s such a shame then that he is by far the most irritating and ridiculous game character of all time. Yes, of all time. Even Kanye West is annoyed by this guy.  His verbal interchange with the team consists entirely of tired cliches and bullshit pep-talks. From the very start of the game to the very end this clown will shout the same shit, abuse the same people and brings the game down around his ears.  At one point almost your entire marine force is slaughtered and only five make it back to the chopper but there’s good old Knox talking about the ‘ever-lovin’ Corps’ like nothing has happened.  He never once makes an emotional connection, none of your squad do.  I just don’t think it’s too much to ask that the characters react emotionally to what’s happening around them because rarely in the game did anything actually feel real.

The second most frustrating thing about Red River occurred to me when, mid-mission, I looked at my map. You’re given the impression that each mission takes place in a single area, but looking at the map you can see the entire land as one piece. Giving the player a mission editor would have drastically increased the value of this title and its longevity on the play-list. Even a rudimentary ability to place enemy units and pathways would have allowed for a deeper and more enriching player experience. This lack of appreciation for their own creation shows in the pathing for singleplayer. You’ll be tasked with assaulting a forward enemy position and rather than let the player find their own way through the terrain, a series of red markers guides you through the best approach. You could still turn off markers and ignore this but the game relies on you hitting the right trigger points for the next scene meaning you’ll have to go there anyway.

If you can’t tell, I’m disappointed in Red River. I wanted this to be the evolution of the series where it stripped itself of its arcade notions and gave console shooters a true taste of a milsim. Instead, it’s a pared down experience from Dragon Rising that lacks the exhilaration one should experience upon completion. Codemasters seem to have lost their way when it came to deciding what gameplay path they should take and have rather savagely underestimated the needs of gamers attracted to titles like this. The best and worst example of what Red River is trying to achieve is seen in the final set-piece battle where your squad sits on the edge of a highly detailed town while the last remnants of the Chinese battalion roll across the vaguely brown landscape in-front of you and senselessly dash themselves against your unlimited close-air support and pinpoint rifle accuracy… it feels like the narrative was written in crayon.

Future developers need to understand that macho-fantasy roleplay is dead and that complex narratives and believable characters that have an emotional connection to the storyline are what gamers want. For all that, I did enjoy my playthroughs of Red River and had I not known or experienced the games leading up to this title I might have been satisfied and ultimately returned a higher score. There is a worthwhile game buried beneath my pile of criticisms but in today’s market the franchise isn’t going to have the legs to compete unless it sets out to be radically different.  This means Codies have to take a risk by not pandering to their perception of the CoD crowd and instead making a milsim that rewards a player’s time and effort.

Here’s The Rundown:

+ Long range engagements are a great change of pace
+ City fighting feels authentic (read: deadly)
+ You can blow limbs off

- AI isn’t really needed to complete missions

- No mission editor

- Limited replay value

- Bland visuals

- Sergeant Knox

Operation Flashpoint: Red River was developed and published by Codemasters.  It was released on PC, PS3 and Xbox360 on April 21st, 2011 in Europe and Australia (It will be released in the US on June 7th).  The copies used for review were purchased by the reviewer for PC on the Steam platform for $49.99 and Xbox360 for $99.99 AUD.  Murray played all modes to completion.  He would like his money back.