The squad based soldier simulator gets a gorgeous makeover, as we found out when we met Steve Bennett and the team at Codemasters.
Central Tajikistan, 2013. The distinctive twin engines and tail fins of a Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolt II are picked out of its dark silhouette by golden glints of early morning sunlight as it swoops eastward down the path of a slowly moving river.
It’s an unusually evocative image for a tank-busting aircraft which didn’t earn its nickname the ‘Warthog’ because of its good looks.It takes a lot to make the ‘plane that’s called into battle with the phrase ‘Go Ugly Early’ appear beautiful.
The A-10 is en route from its USAF base to seek out and bombard positions help by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army. The scene hasn’t been captured by a war photographer, though. It’s been uploaded to the website for Codemasters’ forthcoming multiplatform videogame, Operation Flashpoint: Red River, due out this summer.
Red River is the third game in the Flashpoint series, and one of the most strikingly well realised first-person shooters to date. In it, you play a member of the US Marine Corps dispatched to police a civil war in the ex-Soviet state of Tajikistan, which unfortunately sparks a wider conflict with the neighbouring Chinese.
Like the previous Flashpoint games, there’s a lot of intricately modelled weaponry and military hardware involved. From the A10s to the M16s, the level of detail and attention to accuracy is second to none, but the real appeal of Operation Flashpoint has always been its dependency on authentic squad based tactics rather than the go-it-alone heroics of more mainstream shooters. Traditionally this has meant computer controlled team-mates, but with the rise of online technology, this time round human beings are centre stage.
“The core mechanics are based around four player co-op as well as the single player game,” Lead Programmer Steve Bennett told Military Times, “The world differs from most other first person shooters in that it’s a very open world in which you can decide your own goals and tactics. This really does separate Flashpoint from other FPS games that are very much on rails.”
As the franchise matures, however, Bennett admits that there’s a general move away from absolute realism to something that can reach a wider audience.
“We’re trying to appeal to a lot more people than those who want a purely tactical experience,” he explained, “We still have a lot of tactical elements, but we want to appeal to as many people as we can.”
Control the battlefield
The original Operation Flashpoint pioneered the use of squad based gaming in 2001. Its ingenious controls for issuing orders to your computer-controlled team mates was something of a revolution. The other hallmark of a Flashpoint game is far larger maps than their rivals, and freedom for the player to draw up their own tactics for completing objectives.
Previously, though, in order to manage the technical requirements for rendering these large combat areas, Flashpoint games were set in places which were relatively easy to model on screen: the Arctic tundra and windswept northern Atlantic archipelagos. In Red River the environments are much richer and more detailed.
“A lot of the gameplay is based in small villages with narrow paths around a very complex environment,” Bennett said, “This gives a very large range of combat – from long distance over open terrain, to very close up with people coming out of doors and shooting out of windows. It’s a lot more tactical when you approach those areas. It’s been a real design and technical goal.”
In other words, if you’re after a fast-paced first-person shooter that requires you to think on your virtual feet, Red River could be it.
Enhanced for Intel Core – The hardware that matters
Replica rifles and other small arms decorate the walls of the offices at Codemasters and are used for the designers’ reference, but its another type of hardware that makes the most difference to the game. By cultivating a close relationship with CPU manufacturer Intel, the Warwickshire-based developer has had early access to next generation chips and advanced tools for optimising its graphics engine.
As one of the design goals is to make Red River appeal to a wider audience, Bennett is particularly pleased with the way the game runs on the new second generation Core processors from Intel.
“On older hardware, you’d have to lower the quality level and texture resolutions to the extent that the game would look quite poor and play quite slowly,” he said, “Recently, the quality of entry level systems has improved a lot, which makes our job a lot easier.”
The making of Operation Flashpoint Red River
Watch the video interview with Codemasters about how they made the game: