I can’t really remember why I didn’t originally like Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising. Well, there was definitely the fact that it stopped being able to save progress; that was a bit of a bummer. But that hindrance aside, there was a lot of fun to be had in the pseudo-open-world military sim. Sure, the controls were a little off on the 360 version I was playing, and the enemies’ aim was a bit spookily accurate, and checkpoints regularly wouldn’t process. Never mind the crashes, and the poor multiplayer connectivity, and the…
Okay, I remember exactly why I didn’t like Dragon Rising when I first played it in the autumn of 2009. It didn’t help that I was an impatient chump back then who had no time for Operation Flashpoint’s dedication to real military tasks – this is a game where your next objective will be literally miles away, and you better believe you’ve gotta run there in real time. On top of that, the launch version was buggy as hell, and with a shoddy Xbox 360 port acting as a catalyst, it was like a car crash blasting into a train wreck. Soon enough, I denounced it as one of the worst games I’d played of the generation, but in light of a recent Humble Bundle I’ve returned to the island of Skira, this time on PC, and with four years’ worth of patches. My mind is now made up: Dragon Rising is brilliant.
I’d forgive anyone for taking a quick glance and making the assumption that the game is dead boring, though. I’d actually be happy to admit that it’s half boring, and half bone-shatteringly intense, a lot like real-life modern warfare, really. A good sample is the mission in which you’re instructed to sneak through the hills behind enemy lines, observing an enemy general half a mile away through binoculars for about twenty five minutes. Once his activity has given enough clues as to what the opposing Chinese army is up to, you call in an airstrike on him – no fancy ‘controlling the missile’ gimmick, but watching his building get blown to dust in the distance feels so much more significant, and truly brings out the scale that Dragon Rising presents. Now it’s time to get out of there, taking the 2-kilometre trek back the way you came, except now there are several extremely pissed off Chinese squads combing the area. Any other FPS wouldn’t let you leave until you’ve killed them all, but one bullet can mean instant death here, so your best bet is to simply make a run for it. Sprinting across open ground as gunfire shreds up the soil around you is nothing short of terrifying, and crawling on your belly to your downed comrade to patch up a leg wound is even worse.
I’m glad I’ve come to appreciate games like this, where intensity is something to be worked for. DayZ has been a very similar experience, where hours of monotony can be broken up by bursts of brutal player encounters. I’d wanted to properly roleplay Operation Flashpoint when I first played it, but I just couldn’t slip into that world. But now I can. Far from the paper-thin cinematics of ‘Hollywood’ FPS games Call of Duty or Battlefield, I can honestly believe everything that’s happening in Dragon Rising. A squad member dying is simply unacceptable, a blatant failure on my part as a leader and as a fighter, much unlike the shrug-worthy death scenes of absurd, superhuman killing machines Ghost and Roach in Modern Warfare 2. Even the violence feels so much more meaningful, and all the store-bought monologues about the ugliness of war that get hammed into the final mission of any FPS don’t say as much as sniping a distant enemy soldier in the leg, then riddling his friend full of bullets as he crawls out of cover to help him.
It’s the subtleties in shooters that I’ve come to enjoy, scrambling up a hill in twilight as leaves fall from the autumnal trees, the five minutes of Humvee-driving to our next observation post, reading out the map co-ordinates for our next mortar strike. Heck, everyone knows the best Call of Duty level is the sniper mission in CoD4 where it’s all about sneaking around in the grass like a mole. Those moments of quiet, of true atmosphere, are what hit the spot for me now, making aiming down the sights for the millionth time actually mean something. The vastness of Dragon Rising‘s world is a breeding ground for these moments, and the game’s patience is humbling. The island of Skira almost feels like an FPS on holiday.