AJ’s ‘Best of 2015’ – Best Old Game

Best of 2015

Because Shaun has shifted more towards PC gaming and everyone on AR seems to have decided that buying a Wii U is a good idea a lot of older stuff has been in rotation for multiplayer sessions, as our creaky Xbox 360 systems stumble past a decade in use. I am sure Shaun mentioned Castlevania: Harmony of Despair (he really needs to get on to playing Symphony of the Night). I’ve also been playing a bunch of the Halo collection and realising how much FPS level design has changed in the 15 years since the original Xbox. And I have had the pleasure of playing Castle Crashers with my partner, reliving the simple pleasure of hitting things in the face over and over again.

Still, my favourite old game of 2015 is…

Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising

You might glance at this game and immediately dismiss it as another military shooter, one amongst the throng of other first person shooters without a clue. A dumbed-down console version of a PC franchise it may be but that doesn’t stop it from being fun.

The appeal of Operation Flashpoint: DR is not always immediately apparent. I know that Shaun’s first foray into it resulted him being bewildered by the hail of bullets flying past him, every target just a speck in the distance, and the very loose sense of direction regarding what you are supposed to do. Wait too long and the game half gives up on you and expects you to just figure it out for yourself. That first time I played with drunk Shaun he bounced off the game so hard it took a few years to get him to try it again.

The thing is, everything that he found difficult or just plain obtuse was the exactly the reason I love Op Flash – it is a daunting first play that is unpredictable and thrilling in equal measures. The thrills are rarely created as a single set piece; this game does not have the dumb bombast of a Call of Duty or Battlefield. Instead each moment of tension is assembled organically as the game’s systems interact with each other (and after these moments pass, the AI seems to occasionally bring the game to its knees in fun ways).

The size of each level also contributes to the fun. There are waypoints set on the map but apart from specific targets you are free to make your own way to the destination – which might get you killed or it might give you the edge, you won’t know until you experiment. The game is always trying to accommodate as a result. I have played the third level – an assault on a beach accompanied by tanks, followed by a trek up a hill to a village that needs to be defended – about seven or eight times and it wasn’t until I played alongside my troublemaking friend Potter that we realised that you could drive the tanks instead of taking the prescribed route. This resulted in Potter running over the entrenched position with his vehicle rather than us flanking through the trees as the game expected us to. Most other games would have prevented this as it ‘breaks’ the mission but Op Flash just let us do what we wanted and adapted to our actions.

The other key thing to note is that one bullet in the wrong place is enough to kill you. Being hit anywhere non-fatal means you better find a place to patch up so that you don’t bleed out, and after that you better find a medic to make sure that you can use whatever limb was injured properly again. Get hit in the leg and you cannot run, whilst a shot to the arm will cause you to lose accuracy.

This leads to a very real fear of dying in the game. During one mission I had decided to move down through a ravine while my other squad mates were drawing fire from a hill. I moved through a small wooded area at a crouching scramble and came across a small fence where I could spy one of the guys shooting at my team. I shot him but as I did that I drew the attention of two more enemies that I had not been aware of. From a distance the combat is about trading pot shots, moving to better cover and hoping that the other side don’t get a bead on you first. At close range, it becomes a panicked exchange of burst fire while you desperately move to cover and hope that you don’t get murdered in the process.

I ran behind a house and shouted down my microphone that I was pinned down and asked if anyone could see where the guys were. One of my compatriots spotted one and took him out and told me that the other guy appeared to be sneaking around my left side. I spun around and saw him in time to release a volley into his torso. Sighing with relief I moved around the house towards a dilapidated stone wall and stood up to look over it and see if there were any other enemies in sight.

The first bullet made a weird whipping sound as it whistled past my head and the second made my whole screen go black before the camera pulled back from my dead body.

For sure there have been just as many times where I have evaded death after being hit in the leg, dropping to my stomach and crawling to cover so that a medic can run over and patch me up, then gone on to shoot five guys (note: 5 guys doesn’t seem like a lot but in this game it is) and hit an armoured truck with a rocket launcher and felt like John Rambo, but just as often there is that chilling split second where you know your time is up.

The game also has an interesting approach to difficulty (see Guillaume’s amusing graphic to explain the effect). Even on normal bullets will kill you with one well-placed hit, so instead as the difficulty ramps up HUD elements are removed meaning that it is less easy to identify where shots are coming from and what you are supposed to do next.

I will say that with the game now being over six years old it doesn’t look as pretty as it used to – buildings are unremarkable squares and the destruction models on them if they get blasted apart are flimsy. The textures, which must accommodate each level’s large play area, are fairly low-res and a bit lacklustre in places. However, the plumes of smoke that fly up when you call down an airstrike remain satisfying as  always and the character models on vehicles and main characters still hold up.

I will also marvel at the flawlessness, so far, of the Xbox Live multiplayer on the backwards compatible version for Xbox One. After some of the problems I’ve had with the Halo: Master Chief Collection, being able to return to this as easily as I have is delightful and the game is never more fun than with two or three other people also sweating under heavy fire.

Although I am sure that the iterations of ARMA on the PC have now left this game in the dust, there is nothing else quite like Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising on consoles (certainly not the lacklustre sequel Red River) and all of you would be remiss to not check it out.