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Preview: Operation Flashpoint: Red River
by Chris Hawke

Specks of rain begin to fall on a five-foot poster, flowing gently in the cold breeze. The weather seems fitting of the image itself; the clear white background is dominated by the daunting figure of an auto-rifleman, skinny arms lugging a huge light machine gun as his pale face remains emotionless. Above it, the Operation Flashpoint: Red River logo is the only loose connection between such a gritty, harsh advert and the building it stands in front of: Samarqand, the only Tajik restaurant in London, a place full of delightful, exotic food and plush, chic private rooms. Once you step inside, though, the connection becomes clearer: sixteen flat-screen HDTVs project the dusty and stunning world of Tajikistan, as imagined by Codemasters. Operation Flashpoint: Red River aims to be authentic, and if that means immersing journalists in the heart of Tajikistan's culture, then so be it.

Excited and nervous, a small group of gamers sit down for a presentation, given by various members of the Codemasters team. There are murmurs of agreement when Sion Lenton - Red River's Creative Director - says he's tired of soaking up lead on FPSs. There are guffaws of hearty laughter when the introduction video is played; most are in amazement that such a seemingly serious game has such a jovial and properly funny welcoming. And, unsurprisingly, whispers are abound when it's announced a Kindle is up for grabs for the team with the best score. "GET SOME!" the developers shout, and everyone rushes to take a seat in one of four booths, each with space for four players and equipped with an Xbox 360 and and pre-arranged co-op lobby. After some fiddling with the Class Setup (the version we played was vanilla, so nothing was unlocked), and choosing the 'Scout' class (because snipers always win - fact), our plucky team of four was ready to brave the battlefield.

We were given full access to all four Fire Team Engagements (FTEs), one-off maps that add a lot of extra weight to the game, allowing almost endless replays with your three buddies. First up was Last Stand, the most familiar of the FTEs; perched on a small hill, it was a sniper's paradise as waves of People's Liberation Army (PLA) forces attempted to assault our position. The helicopters landed, the bad guys poured out into the street, and were swiftly cut down by the hot justice of American lead. Our team was overrun, as you might expect for first-timers, but I survived long enough to rack up a cool 59 kills. Combat Search and Rescue (CSAR) quickly followed, as did death: searching for missing pilots and escorting them to safety, while also being given the option to go out of our way and destroy the downed helicopter was all a bit too much for new recruits, and in a matter of minutes all four USMC bodies lay in Tajikistan's hot sand. Five minutes of Rolling Thunder, or 'escort the convoy', had to suffice before it was on to the chance of Kindle-winning glory.

Combat Sweep saw four wiser marines gear up (after trialling the other classes, I switched back into the sniper role) to take out every last insurgent from a sprawling hillside town. While everyone got out eventually, each life lost cut 10,000 points from our score (players have four lives), and Team Awesome retreated from that still opposition-controlled hell-hole with a measly 82,000 points and a bronze star.

Sad faces all round.

But the misery of such a resounding defeat could not drench my high spirits. Red River is fun. It's authentic, too; certainly not as much as ArmA, and probably not quite Dragon Rising's attempted realism, but each one-shot kill - even with an MP5 - was immensely satisfying. Genuine-sounding radio chatter combined with faithful recreations of tatty guns and fading Humvees gave the game that extra edge that more fanciful first person shooters miss.

It's pretty obvious that Red River is an Operation Flashpoint game: the EGO 2.0 engine shares many traits with its predecessor, and has the same slower-paced, sandbox feel that Dragon Rising embodied. However, the real surprise comes from noting how much has changed; the tempo is increased, meaning that while firefights are still conservative and deliberate affairs, there's no need to trudge ten klicks just to get to the action. AI is now a real challenge; from time to time there is the odd fool standing still two hundred metres away, pondering the deepest questions of life as I leisurely line up a headshot, but the overwhelming majority will aim with deadly precision, flank and distract with chilling mercilessness, and gun you down like lightning in close-quarters combat.

Enemies go down much faster, and stumble and fall with each bullet to a non-kill area, making them less robotic and more - dare I say it - fun to kill. Driving now feels like driving, rather than taking a school bus onto an ice rink filled with treacle; animations look much more human; stunning vistas and more graphical charm add an obvious boost to immersion. But, most importantly, it's just fun. It's more deadly and serious than the Call Of Duties of this world, but it hasn't swayed into straight-faced mundane MilSim. Every kill brings a smile to your face, every buddy you rescue prompts an involuntary, over-the-TV high five, and clearing each house knowing that these could be your last seconds is finger-numbingly thrilling.

There's still work to be done; the 360 version looks good, but didn't quite have the charm the PC videos and screenshots hold, and can suffer from just a little bit of lag when things get heavy. Tracers don't look like Star Wars laser beams, I can promise you that, but there is an incredibly disconcerting sci-fi theme to the medkits; you have a seemingly endless number, and even a lethal wound can be totally healed by holding down (A), then holding down (A) again. Sure, it gets you back into the action right away, but it takes away the challenge, knowing a bullet to the heart can be patched up in seconds. It's one of those design choices that serves a good purpose, but is certain to upset the hardcore.

Operation Flashpoint: Red River might not set the world on fire. As much as I might like it to, it won't beat Call Of Duty and the like for sales or hype, and it won't reinvent a genre. But it has the utter joy of those midnight runs of Left 4 Dead with your best mates, the wry humour and authenticity of Generation Kill, and its own unique blend of pure fun. Get your friends together and your warface on: on the 21st April, we're going to Tajikistan.

Gamer's Guide to has a host of exclusive Red River videos for you to feast on. There's snippets of assorted gameplay, a presentation by the Codemasters team, a 14-minute raw playthrough of the Combat Sweep mission we botched and an interview with the oh-so-dreamy Tim Browne for you to enjoy. Watch the homepage for those, and follow us on Twitter to make sure you don't miss a beat.

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- Chris Hawke

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