It's been years since Operation Flashpoint first cooked up a Cold War Crisis in 2001, but now the franchise is back on track with its first true sequel, Dragon Rising. It's looking to take the tactical sim to the next level, upgrading its Cold War tech with new weapons, new tactics, and a new theatre of war. Though the original developers have gone rogue, the series has managed a successful tour of duty thus far. Can the follow up hope to be anything more than a flash in the pan?
Trouble is brewing on the sandy shores of Skira, a fictional island rife with a history of political turmoil dating back hundreds of years. In today's economic decline, its oil rich fields have caught the attention of the People's Liberation Army of China, inciting some unrest with its current tenant, Russia. As allies of the Red Square, it falls on the good ole' US of A to join in the conflict on Skira's open plains.
For those weaned on the tightly scripted corridors of recent action shooters, Dragon Rising's wide, open expanses will feel like an immediate change of pace. The action is more temperate, measured by steady leapfrogs from point to point, with you doling out strategic orders via the game's radial ring menu. Bullets pack a lethal punch, and if you're not too prudent, it can take just one to set you back to the last checkpoint.
The campaign encompasses 11 missions, with enticing mission objectives like assaulting an airfield base, slipping past nighttime enemy defenses, and extracting POWs from harm. Once you're placed into these situations, however, the execution isn't quite so sweet; most boil down to simply hoofing it across Skira's lengthy yardage and taking out whatever enemies you happen to encounter on the way. Unresponsive, and sometimes downright dimwitted, the A.I. presents a host of problems, and the occasional odd glitch can leave you wondering just how you managed to die from climbing over a three foot pile of rocks.
At its worst, Dragon Rising weakly imitates the cerebral elements that other tactical shooters have to offer. But when it manages to put all of its good ideas in play, it feels just right. Laying down a barrage of artillery support is sweet vengeance, and if your computer-controlled squad mates do decide to be obedient, the payoff from a carefully orchestrated flank can be pretty gratifying. Skira's massive landscape feels appropriately large and organic. And for some of the more adventurous mercs out there, harder difficulty settings can be turned on to disable on-screen elements like waypoints and the UI for a truly raw experience.
Dragon Rising's field op will last players in the neighborhood of six to eight hours, and the experience is bolstered by a selection of multiplayer modes, including the option to take on the campaign with three other friends. The multiplayer is yet another sour point for players to endure, though, especially for those who play the console versions of the game. Match types boil down to your standard team deathmatch and base assault variants, and the max player cap clocks in at a disappointing four on four on PSN and Xbox Live, versus the 16 on 16 face-offs on the PC.
Dragon Rising features a wide assortment of guns meticulously recreated from their real-life counterparts from both the Chinese and American military. The difference in ballistics between an assault and marksman rifle is noticeable, and alternate firing modes like burst, single-shot, and automatic offer up plenty of ways to make Swiss cheese out of the opposition. But it's about more than just flexibility and range; Dragon Rising's guns feel lethal. It doesn't take much more than a few well-aimed bursts from a semi-automatic to do the job right, let alone from the single, devastating kick of a sniper rifle aimed squarely at the midsection.
As it happens, the same applies just as much to you. A clean shot to the head will send you packing, though if you catch one in the leg, you'll only find yourself unable to sprint for the duration of the mission. Realism definitely plays a part in the way that Dragon Rising presents its gameplay mechanics, and though it seems tempting to experiment with many of the toys you're given, there's almost no incentive to move past a trusty rifle once you realize that all firefights pare down to long-distance snipe-fests in the brush. It also doesn't help that it takes a near eternity to switch to your weapon of choice, making mid-battle swapping not only impractical, but sometimes even costly.
On the side, Dragon Rising also curiously boasts the same engine used to power Codemasters' racing titles like Dirt and GRID. Through in an ironic twist of fate, the vehicles you pilot in-game, like the tank, APC, and jeep, are not only woefully underused in the main campaign, but suffer from some extremely awkward handling.
Apart from a well put-together introduction, there isn't much to Dragon Rising's graphical presentation that makes it stand out among the other visual knockouts in the genre. The game earns some technical marks for Skira's large, sprawling fields, but most of it looks so bland and dated that it's almost impossible to pick out the positives. These days, there's simply no excuse for models lacking an animation for something like applying field dressing, nor for the eerie number of soldiers that all bear the same face. It not lacking in polish so much; it's just simply behind the times.
It doesn't seem like there's much room in the market for tactical shooters these days, but if you're craving a more deliberate type of experience, Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising could fit the bill. It's an intriguing alternative to what has certainly become the high-action norm of the genre. If you can get past its fundamental shortcomings, you'll find that there's indeed something to this fresh, yet flawed experience.
Reviewed on Sony Playstation 3.