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Review: Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising

Those that have been keeping up with the development of Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising know that the emphasis of the game is on intense realism. The island of Skira, where all the action takes place, is based on satellite footage of a real-world island located near Japan. Its 220km^2 is completely open, so players can use almost any approach when handling a mission. Everything from the sounds of the weapons and vehicles to the animations are meticulously represented in this modern day shooter. With all this attention to realism, one could probably guess that it's not meant for fast paced run-and-gun shooter fans. A single bullet can potentially incapacitate or kill your character. At the same time, the single player experience is held back by the unreliable artificial intelligence, so the best way to experience this game is alongside other players, preferably ones that are really good at realistic shooters.

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As stated earlier, the game's priority is to provide the most realistic combat experience possible. In this, it succeeds. There's a tremendous amount of detail that spans the open world. The screen gets dirty when incoming gunfire kicks up dirt and mud, injuries impede combat performance, and players will have to get used to the sight of their own blood covering their arms when they are shot. Unlike other action shooters, there's no traditional health system in Dragon Rising. Instead, soldiers have a finite blood supply. Shots that don't immediately kill you or get absorbed by armor will cause you to bleed out. Getting hit in a critical area will have faster bleeding than an arm or leg. Players will need to bandage up the injury before it becomes fatal. If a shot incapacitates you, a teammate will have to treat the wound before you completely bleed out and die. Health does not regenerate, so players that lose a lot of blood early on will be walking on eggshells for the rest of the mission. Even non-fatal injuries have consequences. Getting shot in the arm will impact aiming and taking a hit in the leg may take away your ability to run.

Players will have to carefully survey their soundings, use cover and coordinate with teammates to survive. Sometimes it's beneficial to avoid combat altogether for the sake of the objectives. However, there's a major flaw that ruins the whole experience, namely the artificial intelligence that is completely unreliable. The AI behavior is based on the US Marine Corps manual, but it often seems like your teammates read the abridged version, since computer players will often get themselves killed and refuse to stay behind cover. To keep from constantly getting wiped out, players must continually baby-sit the squad and issue orders using a clunky command system carried over from the console version of the game. Players bring up a radial wheel and flip over to submenus to locate the appropriate command. Unfortunately, it's not exactly an ideal system when pinned down under heavy attack. In order to get soldiers to flank a position, they'll have to peek out from behind cover, bring up the menu and hope they don't get shot in the head while issuing two separate commands, one for suppressive fire and the other to flank. A far better tool involves bringing up the overhead map and issuing commands like a strategy game, but even this method comes with some limitations. Oddly missing from the dial is the command to fall back, regroup and retreat.

There's a long list of infuriating AI issues. After getting hit with an incapacitating injury, we bled out to our last bit of blood before a medic, who was supposed to have been following close behind, finally got around to rescuing us. At one point, an AI teammate chose to crawl over our incapacitated body as it bled rather than lend a hand. Our carefully thought-out plan to circle around a target and attack from behind was ruined because our AI squad mates didn't understand the concept of following close behind and staying low. On the other hand, the enemy AI coordinates with itself very well, and sometimes comes off as superhuman. It can spot your approach as you're on your stomach in high grass and behind a hill. It's quite possible that our so-called allies gave away our position by standing upright while we were crawling on the ground, but we were too busy being shot at to notice.
The best way to play Dragon Rising is by making full use of the 4-player cooperative feature. Dragon Rising isn't exactly the best kind of game for newcomers, since the only difficulty settings are Normal, Experienced and Hardcore. Note the distinct lack of an "Easy" or "Casual" setting. Hardcore mode removes all user interface supports including crosshairs and compass. Players will have to rely on their skills and a map to survive. In any case, an optimal experience would involve players who generally know what they're doing and have the patience to execute plans, since the game doesn't have a save-anywhere feature and doesn't allow restarting from checkpoints in cooperative campaigns. Getting wiped out in multiplayer means having to restart the mission from the very beginning and do everything all over again.

Dragon Rising has a number of other quirks that can try a player's patience. For example, it turns out rocks are a soldier's worst enemy. There's no ability to jump and no means to climb over large rocks, so it wasn't uncommon for us to get trapped as we tried to find our way around them while being shot at. Not to mention, it's really easy to get vehicles stuck on them, so battles can be lost because no one knows how to push a car and dislodge it. There's also a strange issue where crawling and bumping into a rock causes the camera to point straight upwards and occasionally forces the character to stand upright, which can be very disorienting. Speaking of disorienting, the game goes a little overboard with the dynamic lighting that goes with the weather system. When a cloud passes over the sun, things become really dark, then immediately become bright once the cloud passes. Although this follows in the theme of incredible realistic detail, we found it to be a little headache inducing. In an unrelated instance, an allied chopper suddenly flew in without warning as we were closing in on the last AA gunner. It got destroyed, causing us to fail the mission, which was an incident so infuriating that we almost gave up on playing.

Although cooperative multiplayer is very well thought out, with the exception of being unable to restart from a checkpoint, there's isn't much in the way of competitive multiplayer content. While the maps are one kilometer each, capable of supporting a huge number of players, there isn't much of a selection. Additionally, multiplayer modes are limited to Annihilation (Deathmatch) and Infiltration (Invaders and Defenders). The game comes with a custom mission editor, but there really should be more built-in content.

Despite the issues we encountered, we have to admit that Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising is a stunning game. Its attention to detail is nothing short of spectacular and truly captures the intensity of modern combat. The game also forces players to think of plans instead of running in, guns blazing, although the ability to call down artillery fire doesn't hurt either. Lastly, the humongous open world is truly a remarkable achievement. The AI's inability to look after itself, combined with a number of other quirks, tried our patience, but the game really comes to life in cooperative mode. There are few games that compete with Operation Flashpoint in reproducing the high level of realism. If you've got friends to watch your back, or willing to chance things with strangers, then it would be difficult to find a game that rivals Dragon Rising.

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