Wednesday, October 14, 2009

As Close To (The Tedium, Boredom and Frustration of) War As You’ll Ever Get

War is hell. War is long stretches of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror. With Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising, developer Codemasters promises to bring us closer to war than we’ve ever been.

Even if they succeeded (spoiler: they didn’t), is this a good thing?

Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising is not a nice game, and it doesn’t pretend to be; in fact, it makes its meanness a selling point. “As close to war as you’ll ever want to get,” boasts the tagline. The sissy bullshit of regenerating health, in-game tips and theatrical gunfights are left to Hollywood franchises like Modern Warfare. Hard, uncompromising realism is the provence of Dragon Rising, where a stray bullet can, and often will, kill you dead.

“Hard” games like Dragon Rising strain towards the moral high ground by pretending to offer the gamer greater responsibility. But if your game is marred by lobotomized AI and a crucifying checkpoint system, is it “hard” or is it just difficult?

Dragon Rising is nominally a sequel to 2001’s Operation Flashpoint: Cold War Crisis, developed by Bohemia Interactive and published by Codemasters. The first game set the mood, tempo and difficulty for the two franchises that would develop from Bohemia’s split with Codemasters: ArmA and ArmA II, developed by Bohemia, and Operation Flashpiont: Dragon Rising, heir in name.

The military-realism games are nearly mirror images of each other; each game plops players on a contested island, and each gives them straight-faced seize/destroy/defend objectives. Because the ArmA games are crippled with bugs, OpFlash devotees had high hopes for Dragon Rising.

If fans craved the borderline cruelty of Cold War Crisis, they’re in for a treat. But if they expected anything approaching immersion – the small details that, I’m told, make the otherwise buggy ArmA II worth playing – they’re out of luck. For its competent execution of fundamentals, Dragon Rising will frustrate players looking for an equally professional level of polish and refinement.

Missions begin without cutscenes, merely plopping you into the midst of battle. I can appreciate a certain lack of flair, but really? Can Dragon Rising not be bothered to treat me to a little en-route helicopter ride? A scene flyover of their much-vaunted 100 square miles (or whateverthefuck) of playable terrain would have been welcome.

While the draw distance is indeed impressive – you can see for something like 10 kilometers, maybe 20 – the graphics fall prey to the dreary brown-and-olive-drab palate that plagues too many games in this generation. The animation is fine, I suppose. Nothing visual in this game will inspire so much as a raised eyebrow.

It begins and ends with the artificial intelligence, which is uneven where it absolutely needs to be spot-on. Any game that proposes an open-world, multi-angle approach to tactical battles must furnish itself with crafty AI – the duncery you’d get away with in a corridor crawler simply won’t fly here. While enemies are reasonably bright – taking cover or hitting the deck when you shoot at them – their primary advantage is always numbers and distance, never tactics. They’re a problem to be solved, not an adversary to outwit.

Grievously, the friendly AI is borderline-brain dead. One mission seemed to perfectly illustrate their sometimes crippling incompetence: tasked with sabotaging an oil refinery, I proceeded to the OP (or Observation Point; Dragon Rising mistakes jargon for authenticity), where I’m told to wait one ‘mike,’ or minute, for a diversionary assault to begin. One mike passes, then two; when I open up the map, I see the little blue APC icon – my diversion – doing doughnuts two kilometers away, with no sign of stopping. With the stoicism of those all-too familiar with game-breaking bugs, I lauched a frontal assault.

Which, surprisingly, worked. I sabotaged the plant and our extraction chopper was on the way. Crouched behind a concrete barrier with bullets snapping overhead, I remembered spotting a Jeep on our way into the complex – might be a good way to make a fast exit, I thought. I sketched a quick plan in my mind: tell my squad to move to the center of the refinery, where I’ll meet them with the jeep. We’ll go screaming off into the night, avoiding the Chinese reinforcements already en route.

It took six attempts. Here’s what happened.

First attempt: Shot on way to Jeep.

Second attempt: Killed PLA soldier who ambushed me last time; made it to the jeep. Shot climbing in front door.

Third: Got the jeep started this time. Was driving in reverse when a .50-caliber round punched through he engine block. A flurry of green tracers shredded me before I could fall out of the driver’s seat.

Fourth: Hey, I actually made it to the rally point! Where’s my squad? Where I left them, of course, apparently unable to climb over the two pipes between them and my jeep. As I fumbled with the command menu, reinforcements closed in and murdered us.

Fifth: Managed to get my men into the car this time. While backing out of the refinery, machinegun fire flattened two tires and fucked up my engine. Taking a defensive position, I ordered one of my men to repair the jeep. Shockingly, he complied, until he was shot. Then, so was I. My life flowing from me, I called for a medic. The good doctor braved certain death to rush to my body, lean over it with bandage in hand, and do nothing. We all died.

Sixth: Escaped from the refinery, bounded over two hills and made it to the extraction point – where an anti-tank team was waiting in ambush. We died on fire.

The “command radial” – a right bumper-triggered menu with a deeply-nested tree of orders – lets you direct your men into left/right flanking maneuvers. But when they can’t figure out a goddamned fence, why bother?

Codemasters: is this as close as I’ll ever get to war? If so, I say bring our troops home, cut all defense funding and throw up the white flag. The war was lost before it began.

In fairness to the “competent execution” compliment above (it was a compliment), Dragon Rising often delivers on the promise of tense, authentic gameplay. During one mission, I had to climb to the top of a control tower to shoot down a gunship, all the while getting hammered from three different directions by APCs. I called down airstrikes, narrowly avoided death multiple times and knocked the bastard out of the sky. It was triumphant. It was…

Modern Warfare. At its most entertaining, Dragon Rising resembles the game it seemingly exists in defiance of. When it comes down to it, I don’t think most gamers will bite on the concept of “authentic” warfare, even if executed flawlessly, which Dragon Rising isn’t. War is nerve-wracking and tedious, and last time I checked, I pushed that little green button to play a game.