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Virtual war, with all the bells and whistles

Screenshot from Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising

I had a chance yesterday to play through several missions in Codemasters' recently released Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising (PS3/360/PC), one of this fall's many mid-tier shooters. It puts players in the shoes of U.S. Marines helping Russia repel a Chinese invasion of a fictional, oil-rich island in a near-future that sees China consumed by an energy crisis.

It's not an arcade shooter featuring characters that can take extensive damage without dying, but rather an authentic military simulation in which players conduct combat from long ranges, strategically position their fireteams for assault and defensive missions, call in artillery strikes, and take control of genuine military vehicles to provide support and covering fire. Imagine Ubisoft's old Ghost Recon games, then crank up the realism a few notches.

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It nails the details of the ground soldier experience, including the difficulty of pinpointing enemies without typical game aids such as heads-up display markers (the best position indicators are your teammates, who call out compass directions for new contacts), the tension and danger of long-range rifle firefights, and nervous treks across kilometres of rugged terrain filled with hills, trees, and buildings-all perfect spots for enemy ambushes. It's even got plenty of jargon-laden marine radio chatter, which instantly reminded of HBO's excellent miniseries Generation Kill (though, unfortunately, the game lacks the show's insightful commentary on the politics of war-perhaps a bit too much to ask of a rah-rah military sim).

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The game's believability also extends to the difficulty of surviving a firefight against trained soldiers. If your squad mate calls out that he's found an enemy, best take cover immediately and get your buddies to do the same or risk being mowed down in moments. Head-on run 'n' gun assaults have about as much chance of success as they would in real life.

Your only option is to make use of the game's powerful squad command system to send your teammates on strategic missions, like providing covering fire while flanking. Just be careful in how you use your authority; your team will stop obeying your commands if you waste their lives by using them as bait or continually try to send them into suicidal situations.

You'll also need to take care of yourself. If you take damage you might lose the ability to run or see clearly. It's always a good idea to patch yourself up with a field dressing kit as soon as possible. That's assuming, of course, you haven't been shot in the noodle, in which case it's simply game over.

My only serious beef with the game was that my computer-controlled squad mates seemed unable to effectively multitask or prioritize. They'd often remain focused on an enemy behind cover 150 metres away when others were walking in the open just a few degrees to their right or left. At least we have the option of replacing them with human-controlled allies in cooperative online missions.

This one issue aside, Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising is a fairly impressive play that should capture the interest of players looking for a lifelike recreation of modern combat.

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