Operation Flashpoint 2 - Dragon Rising Preview

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Operation Flashpoint is PC royalty. It free-roamed before it was fashionable, it was brutally realistic where others preferred you to run around with popguns and its legacy was drilled into stone through a quite remarkable online community.

And now what remains the world's greatest ever war simulator is back - and that old desire for authenticity, freedom and frightening levels of detail hasn't diminished one jot. As a matter of fact, it's more gloriously intimidating than ever before...

"The game is called Op Flash 2: Dragon Rising, which gives you an idea of who you're fighting against," says Codemasters' Andrew Wafer by way of introduction. "Dragons?" I ask.

"Yes, that's right," nods the man charged with reigniting the Op Flash brand alongside the largest design team Codemasters have ever assembled; a team sitting a few yards away in a converted cowshed deep in the Warwickshire countryside, cradling replica assault rifles as they program. "We really thought the fans would like fighting elves and dwarves with machine guns."

But the average Op Flash fan... Well, they'll be approaching this project with a fair degree of caution - even if the inclusion of fantasy creatures might not be something they're losing a lot of sleep over. After a parting of the ways between Op Flash developers Bohemia Interactive and Codies, the former have gone on to produce the good (although unfinished) Armed Assault and are busy working on a still untitled, separate Op Flash follow-up.

Codies, meanwhile - well, they've been sitting larger and larger numbers of people in a room with 'Operation Flashpoint 2' emblazoned on the walls for four entire years. And now they're in the full swing of creating something that even the hardest of cynics would have to concede is pretty bloody remarkable.

"The thing about the first Flashpoint was that it was really about this bigger conflict," says Wafer, himself a coder back in the day with Op Flash. "It was set in the '80s and the idea was that you're the US Army fighting the Russian army. Two global superpowers. With Op Flash 2, I thought it was very important that we make sure that it wasn't just about a bunch of guys dropping into a Middle Eastern country and fighting people who are armed with weaponry that can't even penetrate the armour of an American tank. We needed a large-scale conflict, and one in which there was real danger and in which both sides are technically matched."

And so the chaps at the helm of the opposing force are the Chinese - proud owners of the biggest and most secretive army in the world. Not a great deal is known about their capabilities, but when prodded, the men from Codemasters nod and whisper that they have their sources. "We didn't just want to say, 'Ah, y'know - the Chinese kick off! And there's this big world war!'" explains Wafer. "So we've got a whole team of guys who are just there for research - making sure that everything in the game is authentic. They study battle tactics, global scenarios and politics."

Four years of study have resulted in an archive of research that would put the Encyclopaedia Britannica to shame (honestly - it's a real shelf-breaker), as well as yielding a genuine, real-world political flashpoint just waiting to have its fuse lit and the UN stand at a safe distance. It's an island located just off the east coast of Russia called Sakhalin, and it'll essentially form the basis of the game's 220 square kilometres of heavy-armament-ridden free-roaming battles.

"On this island, around five or ten years ago, it was discovered that there was a massive amount of oil and natural gas. Some people think there's more here than there is in the whole of the Middle East," explains Wafer, as he calls up Sakhalin's entry on Wikipedia. "So there's a lot of international interest - BP were kicked out by the Russians a couple of years ago, and there are several other companies working there. At the beginning of the game there's a US-backed company operating on this Russian soil, and there's a small contingent of marines there to protect their interests."

What complicates matters is that hundreds of years ago it was owned by the Chinese, after which it was occupied by the Japanese, before (at the close of WWII) being granted to the Russians. And in Codemasters' opinion, with the real-estate value of the island suddenly increasing, something of a confrontation could brew in the real world if and when everyone claims the rights to its tasty oil-rich filling.

In their vision, the marine task force is sent there to protect US interests from a Chinese incursion, but then the Russians (caught somewhat unawares) request assistance. It's at this point that you'll be stepping in, occupying the bodies of various men on the battlefield - whether they're on foot, piloting a helicopter or packed tight within the metal belly of a tank.

Thing is, even though Sakhalin is being recreated from satellite data, detailed research and beautiful panoramic photos of verdant forests, lonely lighthouses and jagged rocky outcrops taken by newly employed locals and sent to a development house near Leamington Spa, Codemasters are refusing to say that the game is actually based there. Instead, they're giving the island the fictional name of Skira.

Why? Well, because they don't want the game to be inauthentic in any way, shape or form - and in their view, claiming the game is set there when it isn't a 100 per cent geographical recreation would be a failing. 'Not being flamed by fans' is clearly of critical importance - it's almost like a mantra that echoes through their halls. Codies want the real deal - no more, no less.

So it is that 70 people are currently employed in Kuala Lumpur to ensure that every weapon is modelled entirely accurately - from the bullets it fires to the scope. A single hand grenade is now composed of 5,000 polygons - an entire Op Flash soldier used to have only 500.

"The core of the game is the gun in your hand, and it either keeping you alive or not keeping you alive," explains Clive Lindop, the game's senior designer, when I meet up with him later on. "We've put an enormous amount of work into replicating weaponry, both in terms of the physical thing in your hand - models and texture-wise - and everything that surrounds it: ballistics, different ammunition types, weights of ammunition, characteristics of the weapons themselves." In fact, the type of ammo you fire from a gun will even affect its range and damage. Anal genuinely isn't the word. Codemasters are talking to veterans and serving soldiers alike (the dialogue and script are sent straight to the Army to check terminology and the exact phrasing), and a large number of developers are themselves ex-servicemen.

It doesn't stop with the authenticity of the shiny sheen on your gun barrel, though. Oh no, sir. Codemasters want the tactics and the way the enemy reacts to you to be entirely real. "As with Flashpoint, the enemy will adapt and won't always do the same thing twice," claims Wafer.

"They're going to be extremely tactically aware and strategic. You're not fighting a couple of guys - you're fighting a unit that's able to adapt to the circumstances that are going on. You need to think, do I suppress the enemy? Do I call in an air strike? If I do, how will that affect the troops around me? How will it affect the scenario? What you do will affect what the enemy does - they may decide to retreat, or they may throw smoke grenades at you.

If you then set up a manoeuvre, they may call in armour support, and if they do that, what position would you be in? There's a lot more military tactical thinking going on than in your usual first-person shooter."

I attempt to ask another question, but the list isn't over... "If you make a wrong move, then everyone could be killed - how do you deal with that? Also, how close are you to medevac? How close to assistance? If you get injured, then that's going to affect your performance as well. If you don't get medical attention, then you could bleed to death. You can stay in command or get shipped out - but if you get out, then how will that affect the battle?"

As the battle rages on over the island, you'll be given a number of objectives that you'll be able to come at from any angle you desire. As the excellently named Lee Brimmicombe-Wood, the game's chief designer, explains to me later on, "We're not tramlining the player into just going down a scripted set of experiences or feelings." So in other words, if you want to flank the enemy miles over to the east, then you can - you just have to bear in mind that your foe could well be doing the same thing to you.

Whatever the case, though, as with the original game, Rambo-style theatrics will inevitably result in a rather swift demise. What's more, if you want to survive this mission, you've got to obey orders, and by the end you'll have to know how to give them as well. "Every soldier - thank God - that goes into war doesn't necessarily get killed," says Wafer.

"The idea is that we're recreating the tactics and also the body armour authentically, so - especially at the beginning of the game when you're not in command - if you do what you're told you're not necessarily going to be killed the moment you start playing. Also, you'll be with a highly trained group of AI soldiers; they'll be spotting things around you, pointing things out and shooting enemies. It isn't just you on your own versus the Chinese army."

With regard to the game's actual structure, the idea currently being kicked around is that different outcomes to your strategic manoeuvrings will have an effect on the next scenario you find yourself in (making matters harder or perhaps giving you a bit of an edge), lending a rather looser, more realistic feel to the comings and goings of war, while still keeping within the overall linear template of the storyline.

And a character-led storyline there will indeed be, bringing a human element to the flames and the cold, hard steel of war. This storyline will be complemented by a documentary-like grounded approach - something comparable to a more hard-nosed, serious attempt at what Epic were going for with Gears Of War.

As for the look and feel of the game's proceedings, well, it seems that Codies have the right people in town for that too. In fact, lead artist Michael Field is positively breathless as he flicks through some of the game's concept art with me. "It's a piece of modern warfare, but it's also very beautiful," he murmurs as we look at a tank belching flame in the darkness of night.

By the time we hit an image of vapour trails criss-crossing a blue sky, he's so absorbed in his work that his head tilts to the side and he just sits there smiling.

"One of the things you get from television reportage is a feeling of what we're trying to put into the game - the sheer power on display," chips in Clive Lindop. "When a tank fires, there's a wall of concussion, there's a massive flash, the ground shakes and a round as thick as your arm fires at thousands of miles an hour. It's that kind of punch that you often get a very visual signifier of in games, but we're trying to give
you a sense of the power all around you, and more importantly, your vulnerability.

As with the first game, there's that sense that you're not Superman. You're a guy with a gun with a helmet on that's about this thick - an inch of steel. That whole feeling of shock and awe in a game." And as a result of this, more than ever before, it's all about the long-range combat - projectiles lobbed from miles away bringing untimely death to one and all. There's never been a game quite like it.

If Codemasters manage to pull this one off, we could be looking at something not seen on the PC for a very long time. While other mainstream developers
and publishers are fervently ignoring the hardcore shooter brigade (just look at the dilution of the Ghost Recon and Rainbow Six franchises), Codemasters are showing a keen awareness that their former audience haven't gone away; they've just gone unloved for far too long.

And again, there's that concept of absolute realism - an absolute tonic in this age of auto health regeneration and easy-access save points, and a sharp reminder that PC gaming can be something more than what we're so often presented with.

"When we made the first Flashpoint, people asked us if we were glorifying war, and we said, 'No - if you play this game you will not want to go to war," says Andrew Wafer, as my allotted time at that little patch of rural England that will be forever Codemasters draws to an end.

"We've got thousands of these MPEG videos of Americans in Afghanistan and Iraq, and you should see the expression on these guys' faces! Just how nervous they are. That's what we're creating - the realism. Not the Hollywood movie." And amen to that, quite frankly.



Operation Flashpoint 2: Dragon Rising - The Story
Codemasters targets three theatres of combat for Operation Flashpoint 2, the sequel to the revolutionary military simulator.

Codemasters today reveals that Operation Flashpoint 2, the sequel to the internationally acclaimed military action simulator, will feature three different theatres of combat set in environments across Southeast Asia, Central Europe and Africa.

The game's mission-based campaigns will take gamers through fictional conflicts based upon authentic events during the years around 1970.

Operation Flashpoint 2 is now in design and development at Bohemia Interactive Studio, the Prague-based creators of the original, and will be published by Codemasters in Spring 2006 for PC.

Set to advance and expand on the groundbreaking squad-based gameplay of the original, Operation Flashpoint 2 will set a new standard in its realistic portrayal of conflict situations where, for the player and his squads, everything happens for real.

Marek Spanel, the Project Leader for Operation Flashpoint 2 at Bohemia Interactive Studio says:

"We want to create a game set in realistic theatres but not tied to any single historical event. The theatres selected for Operation Flashpoint 2 will provide for a great variety of combat environments and draw players into a thoroughly believable experience where every element of tactical combat is important."

It's also revealed that an important part of the main campaign will focus on events from the Vietnam war in late 60s, when US forces in South Vietnam numbered over half a million. Missions will see players engaging in solo action, commanding a squad, driving military vehicles, or taking to the air in authentic 'copters and planes. Weapons and military and civilian mobile units are being accurately modelled from period military data.

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