Operation Flashpoint: Red River tells me that I'm a slick sonofabitch, commanding three other slick sonofabitch marines. It tells me loudly, repeatedly, and gratingly – via the mouth of staff sergeant Shouty McRacist – that I'm a Spartan and a devil dog, and all those other ultramacho things that make me feel terribly uncomfortable because I haven't seen combat.
My squad and I, we're told we're the best. We were the best at killing nebulous insurgents upset with America on first insertion in the dusty Central Asian country of Tajikistan; when the Chinese army arrived, the gruff man narrating the story told us we were the best at killing them too. But if we're the best – the last bulwark against virulent, encroaching communism – then it'd be a good idea to start practising your Mandarin. Because we're fucking terrible.
Red River's squad AI is infuriating. Playing as a blank faced squad leader, you have access to a radial menu that lets you deliver a set of commands. They range in scope from the order to lay down a blanket of suppressing fire, to a 'move' command. Every single one is broken.
“Hold that position!” I'd shout, aiming the helpful white circle at a square of sandbags. “Okay!” my men would parrot back, before giving each other the secret gesture that meant “Haha! Let's fuck with his head.” Let's zoom out from the desert to illustrate my point. I'm going to talk directly to you. For a moment, I'm going to pretend you're my soldier. We've seen some PTSD-inducing shit together, OK, and I love you like a brother. Even if you're a lady. Imagine we're in Tajikistan, being pressed by Chinese troops. I'm going to tell you to hold position at those sandbags.
What do you do? If your answer was any permutation of “Umm, I guess I'd probably crouch so the sandbags are between my soft skin and hurty bullets?” I want you transferred to my squad in place of Red River's artificial men, doubletime. Their answer – presumably delivered between bouts of dribbling and bumbling into furniture – was always: “Let's stand in front of the sandbags! It'll be fun! And if it isn't, we'll just wander around a bit until our circulatory systems churn more metal than blood!”
Occasionally – very occasionally – they'll get it right. I had the most success with the 'defend building' command. During a staggered retreat from the Chinese Army's first spearhead, the game asked me to protect a series of two-tiered structures. When I specifically pointed my sniper to an upper window and left the other two men behind reassuringly chunky masonry, I was left with a semblance of a defensive force. That was, until I also asked them to provide covering fire. The advanced multi-tasking necessary to process the twin orders of 'stand still' and 'point your gun at this' caused all three squadmates to run out the front door in a blind panic, lest the complexity of my orders force their brains from their ears. Don't worry, they were all shot before that could happen.
It's for the best, anyway. By the end of the game, I hated my squad for both their propensity for dying in the most inconvenient ways, and their general character. They're meant to be straight-talking alphamales lifted directly from cultural sources like HBO's Generation Kill – but where those soldiers are presented as morally questionable and damaged by war, the marines of Red River are deliberate heroes. There's no discussion on the nature of conflict to sweeten the nasty taste left by the game's incidental conversations; we just get Staff Sergeant Knox launching into another five minute, racism-tinged diatribe about the eating habits of the invading Chinese forces. These rants are meant to sound big and clever, but go on far too long and sound indelibly self-satisfied.
The enemy AI is as wonky as its friendly counterpart. Early on in the game, I flanked an infested compound as three squads opened fire on the front gate. Peeking through windows like a terrorismpervert, I murdered a handful of oblivious insurgents. This first part is Red River's best bit: I'd snuck behind a set of enemies as their attention was drawn away. But when I'd entered the compound, I found their equally dull-witted chums glued to their assigned windows.
The first one I spotted made me panic: despite the shift from military sim to linear shooter, Red River still runs with the tang of Operation Flashpoint's blood, making one or two shots deadly. I popped a few bullets into his back as he stood unmoving. When I met the second one, he didn't turn. I pulled out my pistol and fired over his shoulder, breaking the window in front of him. No reaction. Finally, I let loose a few shots at the dirt around his feet, trying to make him dance. Slowly, in three distinct movements, he turned to face me. I killed him before he raised his rifle, a full 50 seconds after I'd clomped into the room.
Dumb AI means traditional infantry battles are trivial shooting galleries: enemies distrust cover more than your own squad, and kneel in open fields, praying for death's sweet relief. This is the same enemy force that, when presented with the freshly exploded carcass of an APC on a wide track road, can't drive its convoy around it. The sight of an armoured vehicle gently humping its dead brother, in case you were wondering, is both hilarious and touching.
Applying vehicles to any of Red River's situation seems to be a recipe for incalculable disaster. In one of the later missions, an empty Chinese transport helicopter landed on the rooftop I was standing on. Both pilots sat in the cockpit, facing directly ahead, making no motion to continue their flight and giving no reason for landing their multimillion pound charge less than spitting distance from their enemy.
Any chance to mitigate the use of the game's AI is a blessed oasis of competence in a sea of fuckuppery. Real humans are the best tonic. To its credit, Red River is thick with co-op potential, allowing up to three friends to join the main campaign mode, as well as four game modes built for groups. Last Stand sees you simply defending against waves of attackers, but the others are more nuanced. 'CSAR' has you inserting, finding and extracting a prisoner, and 'Rolling Thunder' gives you a humvee and full charge of a convoy, forcing you to clear a route before pressing on. Attempt these with a team of four and you're guaranteed repeat fizzles of enjoyment.
The campaign, too, regains some lustre in co-op, where less time spent screaming for the death of your AI squadmates means more time devising sneaky battle plans. Problem is, in order to play you're going to need friends willing to jump through the hoops of Games for Windows Live.
Multiplayer sessions seemed to smoke out Red River's bugs faster than singleplayer. Much of this is likely thanks to mankind's innate curiosity when put in a room with someone else. Pootling around the countryside with a friend in a humvee, we managed to drive directly through several threefoot high walls, only for our ride to permanently sink a few feet into the Earth's surface.
With the spirit of exploration in our hearts and a seemingly magic car at our grasp, we abandoned our convoy and pushed for the horizon. We didn't get far. Don't let the extensive environments mislead: go off the beaten track and you're punished: your screen goes wibbly, and you're ordered back into the combat area. It's the diametric opposite of the freedom of the first Operation Flashpoint.
Red River takes all the things the Flashpoint name is associated with – creative, emergent destruction and go-anywhere realism – and lets them wash away. It tries to be a bombastic shooter, but dodgy AI, a warren of bugs and an unpleasant tone mean the few gulps of fun you could draw from its waters are to be taken in multiplayer only.
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