Operation Flashpoint: Red River is a game stuck between identities. While its ambitions as a simulation are nowhere near as exacting or disturbingly mundane as ARMA 2’s, it’s also too demanding and tactical to be compared to the flamboyant action that makes up the play in Call Of Duty. Beyond the game, though, Red River is also confused with its identity as a story. Just as its play is caught between extremes of realism and spectacle, its story is caught between saying something meaningful about American warfare in the 21st century and the dull-eyed, barrel-chested jingoism of gaming’s worst examples. This confusion makes for a game inoffensive in body, but offensive in voice.
You control Bravo of Outlaw squad, a fire team sent in to subdue insurgents in Tajikistan. By the time the game starts in 2013, the U.S. has finally flushed all opposition out of Afghanistan through the north, and the last militants have taken refuge in the countryside along the Tajikistan-China border. By the beginning of the second act, however, China has become the chief antagonist. Kirby is the fire-team leader in single-player, with Soto, Baletto, and Taylor filling out the ranks. They fill four upgradeable classes; you level up in each class, unlocking new secondary skills. (Player performance in missions unlocks medals, providing points used for player-specific stat upgrades that benefit each class.) When you play with other people, roles and characters can be shuffled. The game is best in multiplayer, as Red River’s AI on any difficulty setting is woefully inept. Though there’s a cumbersome command wheel for issuing orders, it’s more useful to just have partners follow you and react, while you listen to their voices to find enemies in the sprawling Tajik countryside.
While the realism is slack enough on the default difficulty setting to let partners resurrect at checkpoints and bullet holes disappear after you apply a Band-Aid, a single bullet can and often will kill you. Playing requires measured patience, something frustrated by the spotty AI and ill-defined mission objectives. Sure, Staff Sergeant Damien Knox (a churlish cross between Aliens’ Apone and the word “fuck” given human form) wants the artillery gunners taken out, but where the hell are they?
The game’s intentions are just as murky. Red River has pretensions of being something more than a “rah rah war” game. Even inside of Bravo’s fuck-laden dialogues with Knox, the game makes strides to humanize war’s victims. One squad member comments that Tajikistan seems “like a beautiful alien world” before Knox tells him to shut up and remember that it “ain’t Pandora,” that people live there. Knox later says that the whole reason the marines are in Tajikistan is to help people get back to living their lives. These sentiments are never explored, though. Instead, the game opts to cough up overblown mission details from Colonel Hardaway, diatribes calling for you to “SHOOT EVERYBODY,” presented with Monday Night Football-style graphic displays. Next time, Codemasters needs to decide whether it’s making Generation Kill, or just another game of toy soldiers.