Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising doesn’t have save points - it uses checkpoints. Whoa there, hold on a minute. Don’t go slouching off, grumbling about consoles and whatnot. It’s not that bad. These checkpoints actually work. They don’t always work, but they do the job better than the solitary save game in the first game did. This is one game you’ll actually finish before your hair falls out and you start looking longingly at cardigans in shop windows. If you want to keep it real and are into masochism, you can always just set the game on Hardcore mode and not have any saves at all.
For those of you who are baffled by the words we’ve just written, let us elucidate. Dragon Rising is a game where you get to play as a US soldier in the liberation of the fictional island of Skira. The people you’re booting out are the Chinese People’s Liberation Army, who’ve decided that the oil reserves contained underneath Skira are worth killing for. They plonk their troops in, Russia gets angry, the US is called in, and Uncle Sam proceeds to kick some PLA ass.
Your first mission is essentially a tutorial, although it never once drags you by the pubes down certain routes. There’s also no patronising “Press W to move forward, left-click to fire” either. It errs too much on the ‘let the player get on with it’ side of things, telling you the name of the command you need to issue, but not which key that corresponds to. A quick scan through the key commands list will sort you out, but it does interrupt the flow a little. This doesn’t happen a lot, though, so it’s more a minor little quirk than anything else. Nearly everything in the game is intuitive and easy to get to grips with, except perhaps the radial command menu.
This will probably get the most attention from irate fanboys. The deal is that you press Q and a radial menu appears. You then press one of the WSAD keys to pick a subsection, and so on. It’s clearly designed for an analogue stick and can be a bit clunky, especially when you’re bogged down in combat and all you want to do is tell your guys to defend a position or engage an enemy. A small number of commands can be issued on the map, but generally, if you want to tell your guys what to do, you’ll use the radials. It takes time to get used to where certain commands are and how to get to them quickly, but once you do getting your comrades to do what you want is easy. Usually.
This is a game that relies heavily on AI, but sometimes it’ll fall over. However, it’s nowhere near as bug-ridden as its rival ArmA II was on release. There aren’t amusing/frustrating moments like finding your CO’s mangled corpse under his desk at the beginning of a mission for no reason. What’ll happen instead is that maybe one of your guys won’t duck down quick enough behind a wall and get his head blown off by a lucky shot. Certainly, it’s annoying, but unless you’re playing on Hardcore mode, they’ll get revived when you pass through the next checkpoint.
Unrealistic this might be, but it does mean your frustration levels won’t boil over if your guys do something a bit dumb. It might offend some people’s sensibilities, but it sure beats going back miles to the last checkpoint.
Perhaps the best thing about Dragon Rising is how you feel challenged by a difficult game, yet never so frustrated that you throw the mouse down in anger and hurry for the uninstall button. Sometimes you’ll get killed by a great shot from an enemy soldier, which’ll force you to repeat a significant section of a mission. Yet instead of frustrating you, it makes you think of new ways of approaching that mission. If you’re getting pinned down by tanks or vast numbers of soldiers, perhaps when you do it again you’ll approach the situation from a different angle to see if that makes a difference.
This is a game of exploration and options, where the solution isn’t just “go this way or not at all”. It’s challenging and hardcore, but always accessible. You’ll almost certainly make mistakes and be cursing either luck or ineptitude (either your own or your allies’) but you’ll also be learning all the time, thinking about new ways to achieve the goal, and because it’s virtually all driven dynamically with very few scripted events, each time the outcome will be slightly different.