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Operation Flashpoint: The sequel

The map you saw on the opening pages is your first look at that war zone, targets marked for your elimination.

"The gameplay is more continuous in nature," Marek expands, "You don't have short, isolated missions. Rather we have much larger level goals. What you might call a chapter will last for many hours of game, but still be in a persistent world. Whatever happens goes forward to influence what happens next."

On top of the size and continuity of this world, Bohemia is aiming to make it far more lively. "Wherever you go, any place in the map, there should be something there," Marek states, "not only men with guns".

While it's adding as much of an ecosystem as it can manage (during our visit, we found the team busily researching butterflies to add to the simulation), the biggest change to the players will be the NPC civilians.

Depending on your actions you will either alienate or befriend the population, the help they provide dependent on your social standing with them.

For the first time a soldier game is about something more than just pulling that trigger: the very real business of soldiering in a difficult political situation, trying to win hearts and minds.

And to communicate with civilians, you need a conversation system. The game will feature an elaborate version of a conversation tree system, where you choose the line of interrogation.

While some topics will be predetermined, many options will be contextual, and generated on the fly.

If you interrogate anyone about the locale, for example, they may know something about the movement of nearby troops and tell you. (The information is actually taken from the AI's knowledge of the world's changing events). Friends, captured enemies, the local baker - anyone can be spoken to.

How the world dynamically changes is crucial to Bohemia's plan. Games which try to create a large continuous environment usually just treat that environment as a static place to explore.

More elaborate games such as Vice City introduce simple reputation systems, so the inhabitants of a region change their behaviour towards you as you progress. Bohemia's shooter will go further, actually making inhabitants move about the map according to their desires and orders.

While the technology is currently being tested on seagull colonies and how they spread across the map (look closely in Armed Assault, and you may see them), its eventual use will be modelling the behaviour of thousands of soldiers.

The distribution of troops will change constantly, depending on the offensives, manoeuvres and retreats - with your soldier often stuck in the middle.

And more than just 'stuck'. That implies the situation is passive. In fact, you'll be given missions that are generated by the circumstances you find yourself in. If the movement of troops means a group has been ambushed in your locale, your commanders may order you to take a look.

Incredibly, even this technology isn't centred on you, but simply following the logic of the situation. You're the nearest soldier? You go and see. A computer-controlled patrol is nearer? They get the order.

This dynamic war feature, previously only seen in combat flight sims, was supposed to be a cornerstone of the original Flashpoint. It was hopelessly ambitious at the time.

"The idea was never wrong," Marek insists, "it was that we started the dynamic campaign before we even had a game. We're not looking at something that drastic now. We still want to do some storytelling. The [unused] original campaign was fully dynamic."

This being a realistic game, the US-based Blue army will eventually win the conflict through sheer force of arms. The question is, what does this mean for your lone soldier, hunting a general across the map?

The mix of scripted missions (following a main story arc), and those spontaneously generated by the war, should convey the feeling of being an individual with a purpose, and also being a bit part in a huge war machine.

Wars have been used as a backdrop for sweeping fiction for years, and that's the effect this project aims to achieve.

Bohemia's technology enables some other flourishes. There are fully destructible buildings and vehicles, each capable of being reduced to their component elements. Yet due to the continuous, persistent nature of the world, anything you destroy stays destroyed.

Previously, destructible scenery has mainly been used for the visceral thrill of seeing something blown apart. Here, it could be married to an emotional impact. You'll only see the explosion once, but the rubble will remain as a reminder of your failure forever.

It's an ambitious remit, and one that would overwhelm most developers. Bohemia does have advantages, however. Constructing the game directly on top of its pre-existing technology means that certain huge technical challenges, like the sprawling environments covered with huge armies, are already possible.

It has the experience, and is now free to push in these brave new directions.

Very few games have conveyed the intermittent horror and quiet tension of modern combat. Flashpoint was unique in its realism, but was still only about the actual fighting.

The 'game previously known as Flashpoint 2' may offer us a chance to not just be a fighter - but to live as a soldier. As they say, how can this be considered anything other than as an RPG? That makes it different. And very exciting.

Armed Assault is due for PC release this autumn and the Operation Flashpoint sequel is expected in 2006

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