Mike's crippling hayfever meant he really wasn't cut out to be a soldier.
Featuring a forty-mission campaign spanning three entirely open islands and boasting the most realistic war simulation ever depicted in polygons, no game in existence was as ambitious as Operation Flashpoint: Cold War Crisis when it was released back in 2001.
While certainly not the first Military Simulator ever made (the genre goes at least back to 1991’s SEAL Team) Bohemia Interactive’s debut game revolutionised the genre in numerous ways. Whereas most shooters concentrated on frenetic combat in tight, enclosed areas, Flashpoint took the fighting to the sweeping fields and sprawling woodland of the fictional Malden islands. This resulted in huge outdoor battles, with bullets flying over hundreds of metres of open ground – any one of which could kill you or your team-mates instantly.
Resultantly the game became less about killing as many enemies as possible and more centred on simply staying alive. Charging into the fray kicking ass and chewing bubblegum would usually end with the camera panning out to show your bullet-riddled corpse splattered above a famous quote about the futility of war. Keeping low, picking your targets and learning how to use the terrain to your advantage were all required to get anywhere in the game.
As you can imagine, Flashpoint wasn’t the sort of game you’d want to play near essay deadlines. The last three missions in particular were aneurysm inducingly-difficult. Once you got the hang of the basic survival tactics, though, Flashpoint was utterly engrossing. Moreover, while depicting the traumatic experience of being a modern-day footsoldier was central to the game, you didn’t spend its entirety as a lonesome grunt with a glorified peashooter and a target painted on his forehead. Backing you up was a squad of up to twelve soldiers alongside tanks, helicopters, artillery and jet-fighters, all of which were playable at some point in the game.
It wasn’t just the mechanics of Flashpoint that made it so successful. Along with their dedication to providing an authentic combat experience, BI also invested in Flashpoint’s story; centred on a conflict between NATO and the rogue Soviet General Aleksei Guba. The mission structure gave a genuine ebb-and-flow feel to the ongoing war and some scenes in the game, such as your character’s survival of a botched assault on the town of Montignac, were truly harrowing.
Despite Flashpoint’s revolutionary gameplay, visually it is looking rather dated. Some of its features, such as the rather cumbersome command menu, don’t really stand up today. So after that sickeningly nostalgic opening, I shall step out of my secluded childhood and return to the year 2009 where two new military simulators are battling for the title of king of the genre.
After the success of Flashpoint BI split from their publisher Codemasters, who retained the rights to the franchise name, and went on to develop a new series of military simulators. The first of these was Armed Assault (nonsensically abbreviated to ArmA). Released in 2005, ArmA was a confused mess of a game that was criminally short and contained more bugs than a fisherman’s bait box. ArmA 2 on the other hand is a solid return to form for the maestros of war-torn world craft, albeit not quite as brilliant as there debut release.
Instead of the island archipelago setting of Cold War Crisis, ArmA 2 takes place within the civil-war ravaged country of Chernarus where the US Army is asked to intervene in the ongoing political unrest (because as we all know the US Army never invades anywhere unless it receives a written invitation first). The player takes command of a four-man reconnaissance team codenamed ‘Razor’, who undergo multiple covert operations within the troubled country.
Of all the military simulators I’ve played, ArmA 2 is by far the most dedicated to recreating the action and strategy of contemporary warfare. Not only does it strive to provide the most realistic combat possible, it also aims to depict the day-to-day experience of being a soldier. The mission structure is remarkably open-ended. Larger levels involve scouting forests for enemy encampments, dealing with angry civilians and partisan groups, and locating and arresting key enemy figures. Additionally, how you deal with these scenarios can often affect the outcome of your mission.
Of course, if the whole game consisted of hearts-and-minds politics then it would be keyboard-smashingly boring. When open fighting does break out it’s both intense and immersive, with enemy helicopters hovering overhead as artillery thunders around you and columns of black smoke tower from the smouldering wreckage of destroyed vehicles. However, while the combat is good, it isn’t quite as smooth or exhilarating as Codemasters’ effort Dragon Rising. Aiming is painfully sluggish, which BI claim is part of there strive toward authenticity. Considering you’re supposed to be a member of an elite special-forces team, surely pointing your gun in the right direction shouldn’t be such a chore.
While ArmA 2 falls a little short in providing a sheer adrenaline rush, it excels in virtually every other aspect of its intentions. Missions are diverse and interesting, the plot is another sweeping epic with multiple factions vying for control of Chernarus, and the number of weapons and vehicles on offer verges on pornographic.
Yet there is a challenger to BI’s monopoly on military simulation, in the form of Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising. Set on the island of Skira, Dragon Rising portrays the conflict between the Chinese People’s Liberation Army and the US Marine force, which has (once again) been requested by the Russian Federation to assist in the removal of the Chinese invasion force from the island.
Of the games mentioned here, Dragon Rising is the only one to be released on consoles alongside PC. Because of this, the game came under a lot of flak during development for being necessarily ‘dumbed down’ in order to appeal to the console market. Let me state categorically that this is not the case. Bullets have physically accurate flight trajectories and it only takes one well placed shot to turn you into another statistic. Also, unlike ArmA 2, the combat system makes you feel like a professional soldier rather than a cack-handed idiot who closes the wrong eye when aiming down the sights of his sniper rifle.
It’s also the most exhilarating of the two games. The camera judders violently when explosions erupt nearby, spraying mud and dirt into your face, and tracers streak accross the screen like a deadly laser show during heavy firefights. Unfortunately, while the core combat experience of Dragon Rising is excellent, every other aspect of the game feels rather half-baked. Skira itself is pretty bland, with featureless terrain and villages that are emptier than Britain’s mailboxes. The landscape is nowhere near as unimaginative as the missions, however, at least half of which involve clearing out enemy spotter teams so heavy armour can move forward, with the occasional village assault or seek and destroy objective thrown in.
The complaints don’t end there. The game’s impressive array of vehicles is hardly ever seen, let alone used, and apparently there are seventy available weapons, but I would be surprised if you encountered more than ten. As for the story, well, it’s briefly summarised in the opening cutscene before being kicked into a corner like a mangy cat in an RSPCA advert.
Frankly, if it wasn’t for the redemptive gunfights this would be the most disappointing game I have ever played. Yet there is one potential saving grace for Dragon Rising (provided you have the PC version) as it has its own mission editor. Consequently a significant number of custom missions are already available online, many of which are better than Codemasters’ pathetic attempts.
If you’re looking for a quick thrill or a straightforward introduction to military simulators, Dragon Rising is worth a shot, but it is also deeply flawed. For a more complete and involving war simulation, get yourself a copy of ArmA 2.