Review | 10/14/2009 at 2:26 PM

Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising Co-Op Review

Games these days use so many methods to immerse you into the world they've digital surround sound, high resolution, and five hundred actions mapped onto a sixteen-button controller. They employ professional scripts and voice actors, advanced methods of motion capture and graphics rendering. For the most part, they do a great job helping us get lost for a couple of hours, returning to reality long enough to invite a co-op buddy to join the mythos.

Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising captures players in this way, drawing you into the struggle for occupation of an island off the coast of Japan. The game has no shame in its presentation, stealing its impressive opening timeline sequence straight from the Peter Berg-directed film, The Kingdom. The soundtrack is a mix of tribal beats and orchestrations, and more often than not will recall scenes from Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down. The story itself is a Tom Clancy clone, and pits the Russia against China in a bid for the fictional island Skira, which holds a critical resource for both countries: crude oil. The U.S. Marine Corps is called in to act on Russia's behalf against China...hence the title, Dragon Rising.

Get ready for a different kind of game, one that stays true to the roots of a first-person shooter while changing the way you approach enemies and keep yourself alive. Ballistics, inventory, vehicle control, and human limits will be among the opposition. Collecting ammo from dead bodies...eliminating radar stations to allow airstrikes...putting on your own tourniquets...these are some of the actions you'll take in order to ensure success, and each step puts you at the risk of catching a bullet from the next hill. The campaign is 11 missions long, which will take even the most hardcore player all of six hours on the easiest difficulty setting.

The very first mission of the Dragon Rising campaign gives you a taste of combat, but don't be put off by the blandness of the setting and the objectives; the campaign has quite a variety of flavors to it. You'll see a volcano, some woodlands, beachheads, and plains, but even more a stark contrast than the locations are the times of day that you'll deploy; from reinforcing another fireteam at dawn to organizing an airstrike at night to hunting tanks at noon...the visuals in this game -- particularly the lighting -- do a wonderful job of making you feel like you are experiencing true 'round-the-clock Marine deployment. 

The 360 version (and possibly the PS3 which we did not play) of the game is absolutely gorgeous, and really closely resembles its PC counterpart in just about every aspect.  The PC excels in draw distance and foliage amount, but above and beyond that the version are identical.  In fact, they are so identical you can play the PC version with the 360 gamepad plugged in, which helps aid in some of the vehicles while driving.  The other thing it aids in, unintentionally of course, is the squad command menu which uses a radial hybrid system that's incredibly clunky on a keyboard.

It shouldn't come as a surprise that my attention snaps to the weapons fairly early on while playing, both with scrutiny and fascination for new surprises. The ballistics in Dragon Rising definitely affect your ability to wipe out enemies from afar, but not so much as you'd think after reading several preview articles. For the most part, the guns that you use can accurately hit any human-sized target that you can see with the naked eye, both in real life and in the game. Rates of fire on the automatic and semi-automatic rifles seem to be slower than real-life counterparts...this is likely to make recoil manageable, and to help conserve ammo. Also, the pistol fires slowly, emulating how a Marine would take their time between shots to make each one count. It helps to make an otherwise brutal experience more comfortable...but in a game that boasts realistic bullet trajectories and injury trauma, in my opinion the gun fire rates should not be tweaked to assist the player. This is especially true for multiplayer versus modes, which are supposed to be easy to learn but difficult to master.

Along with the many interesting intricacies of Dragon Rising come several distinct disappointments. Because you play the role of a U.S. Marine, your weapons are limited to specific loadouts for each class that you play. During the campaign, you are stuck with one character and his specific weapon and equipment set. By joining a co-op game, you have the option to choose a different soldier in the group, but you're still limited to one or two different loadouts. The frustration compounds when you try to play a multiplayer game, which gives you more options, but no customization whatsoever. The primary weapons change depending on which faction you play as -- and they are very balanced, so no worries there -- but basically mirror each other. To top it all off, there is no way to tell what kind of loadout each class provides without playing as that class and memorizing it.

Dragon Rising is not without its glitches, either. I've played matches where the gun pops in after a few seconds, and some where it never does (you literally have an outstretched arm with nothing propped in it). I've spawned on top of a building that is otherwise impossible to get to...boy, was that lobby conversation interesting afterward. The friendly AI has held up a mission's ending for fifteen minutes because it ignored an order to move up while it waited for a medic who was following the move order. And the most prevalent is the bandage glitch, which may or may not be a technical issue, but it sure is annoying: when swapping to your bandages, pressing the trigger too soon will interrupt the sequence of patching yourself up, which wastes valuable time while you literally bleed out.

Speaking of wounds...this game really makes sure you understand that getting shot is not a good thing. Injuries are location-specific to a shallow degree: headshots are usually fatal, body and arm hits will bleed until bandaged, and leg shots will render you unable to sprint, even after the bleeding is stopped. Every class has a unlimited bandages available -- you just have to find cover and apply them. Once the bleeding stops, you can call for a medic, who will stab you with a syringe and magically bring your health back to 100%. If you suffer a fatal wound to your torso, you will be incapacitated, which gives you some time for a medic to revive you; unfortunately more often than not the medic is farther away than time allows, and you bleed to death. On the flip side, enemies can take quite a few hits to kill, and can be incapacitated just like you. Making sure you get a solid kill shot -- or at least finish off a downed enemy -- is important; it's best to hold your fire until you can ensure good contact, or search the area after a firefight to make sure no one is breathing. It's a ruthless way to play, but once you have to re-start from a checkpoint and hoof it back up the hill, you'll see what I mean.

Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising has two multiplayer modes: Annihilation, and Infiltration...both are fun in their own respect. The former is an all-out deathmatch. The latter pits three Americans against five Chinese and their subsequent AI squads, the objective for the Americans being to regroup inside a designated Chinese compound while the Chinese camp out. Both modes split up to eight players into two teams and throw in AI soldiers to bring the count to 16 on each side. Unfortunately, a match cannot start without at least one human player on each side, so strictly comp-stomping is ruled out. Players can choose to lead one of the four squads, or join one that has a human leader already; it is completely possible to have all four players on one squad and let the AI take care of the rest, or for all players to each lead a squad. Teamwork is varied and has tons of potential.

Where the versus modes fall, however, is in the lack of maps and modes. Two maps each for two modes can get old fast, despite the large size of the maps (four square kilometers, I believe). The co-op campaign is where it's at, and Codemasters knows this as well as we do: the default filter on the online server search is the "Cooperative" mode. You can choose an open room from the server list, or choose Quickmatch. Drop-in support would greatly benefit this game, but players can leave a mission without ending it, so long as they are not the host; that counts for something. All players keep their progress, and can join a game in any mission, whether they've made it that far solo or not. One subtle co-op addition to gameplay include being able to collectively turn over a toppled vehicle...this is one of a few surprises in store, and the more you play, the more you'll find better ways to meet all of the primary and secondary objectives.

I've spent a good deal of time scrutinizing this game, I can see that. Truth be told, it invites scrutiny by flaunting its pedigree. In the end, though, I've enjoyed myself immensely and will continue to play with friends. I recommend playing Dragon Rising, closely behind an even higher recommendation to try it before you buy it, as the game appeals to a select group of gamers.

The buzz hitting the 'net this week is that updates are coming down the tubes for all versions, which should address some of the glitches. According to Codemasters, we can also expect more maps and weapons for the game within the next few weeks. The game as it is, however, can hold its own as a unique and fun experience, if a little too brutal for some. Co-op makes all the difference -- as it should -- making Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising a recommendable game with some flaws that can be largely ignored by sticking to the campaign and its backstory.