Operation Flashpoint: Red River
You learn some useful things playing computer games. Thanks to Operation Flashpoint, I now know how to navigate using the stars, although I'm not exactly sure how much use it will ever actually be to me in this real world of A-Zs, late-night taxis, mobile phones and helpful rapists. That is to say, I now know how to locate north by finding the saucepan-shaped Big Dipper constellation. Which will he great the next time I'm on a weekend yomp, but probably as much use as a salad fork in Texas the next time I'm staggering home from the Cow & Abattoir after a Friday night social engagement.
But that does show how much thought and design Czech-based Bohemia Interactive Studio is putting into the total combat simulator that is Operation Flashpoint (previously known as Flashpoint 1985: Status Quo, in case you were wondering what all the dodgy song references in the intro were about). Indeed, nighttime navigation is just one of many training missions and it is odd to think that I'll have less trouble finding the stroppy commanding officer running around in a pitch-black forest than I would were I given a map, a compass and a jeep and told to drive from point A to point B.
Actually, watching the jeep lesson was when the full impact of what Flashpoint is trying to do really hit home. 'Total freedom' is one of those claims that game designers are often making and the truth is often less impressive than the boast would have you imagine. But there you are, getting hopelessly lost in some part of France, stopping every 200 yards or so to hop out of the jeep and check a road sign, when suddenly you hear a loud bang somewhere just over the next hill.
You scramble back into the jeep and decide to check it out. Cresting the hill, you're surprised to see a couple of friendly tanks, one burning away, guns trained on the horizon, and a squadron of soldiers running about trying to take up positions. Swerving the jeep off the road, you jump out and dash over to a couple of your comrades, and hit the deck as another shell explodes nearby.
It's at that point in the demo that the thought hits me - none of this actually needs to be happening. It's just a training level in the game, learning how to drive a jeep. You don't even need to take this turning and probably wouldn't have seen any of this if you hadn't actually got lost in the first place.
There's a world going on here, regardless of what you're up to and if you want to just hop in a jeep, jump into a passing truck, hitch a lift on a cargo helicopter or even hijack a local farmer's tractor and drive anywhere you want to, you can. Impressive stuff.
Believe What You See
Astonishingly though, this is actually a bit of a bodge, according to Bohemia's lead designer Marek Spanel. "Originally, we wanted to create just one world with a real war on it," he confides. "Later, we saw it simply wasn't enough fun so we moved to a more conventional method with pre-designed missions. Strong aspects of freedom and unpredictability still remain in the game, but the campaign itself is just a series of missions with some nonlinear points involved." Fooled me. The other remarkable tiling about the game engine is just how believable the AI is. Flashpoint is perhaps the first game that truly has NPCs who move and act like real humans, putting so-called advances in AI seen in your Quakes and your Unreal Tournaments to shame.
"The AI is good," agrees Marek, modestly. "It allows all units to perform almost independently on the battlefield. I don't want to go into too much detail now, but the player can be subordinated to an AI leader or command his own AI soldiers. This requires a very solid AI background because the player actually sees all his units performing his orders alongside him. Either that or he's listening to the orders of his commander and having to make sense of the changing situations. In the multiplayer game, we had difficulties recognising who is AI and who is human."
This realism extends to the physical nature of units. It's par for the course these days to say that a military simulator has amazing graphics, but when you consider just how ambitious in scope Flashpoint is, letting the player control Veverything from foot soldiers to cars to tanks and even helicopters, you'd forgive Bohemia for skimping a little on the visuals. While it's true that the interiors of vehicles rely on the slightly dated 'painted texture titan' method, the exteriors are very detailed indeed. The real beauty though, is in tile human models. When you first see them, you think they're moving a little peculiarly. They seem to run a little bow-legged. But after a few minutes. watching how smoothly the joints move, how there's none of the polygon break-up you sometimes get at the shoulders and hips in 3D models, it suddenly looks more realistic than anything you've ever seen before. And you realise just how unbelievable all other 3D games are.
Jeux Sans Frontiers
In the past couple of years it has not just been Britain, France and Germany producing top-name games.
Spain, for instance, has begun to get in on the act with Rebel Act's Severance and Commandos' designers, Pyro Studios, taking everyone by storm. However, it has always been more difficult for teams away from the more central areas to make an impact on the global market Things might be improving soon, though, "it's a great time of opportunities for European developers," says Marek when asked about the prospects for growth in the region. "There are no really big publishing forces in the region yet, but that might change with the recent merger of the biggest Czech distributor with one of the biggest Polish game companies. As well as that, there are also two other Czech teams working for big international publishers - one of them is Illusion Softworks, the creators of Hidden & Dangerous, and there's another team in Slovakia working on Battle Isle IVior Blue Byte." It's clear that there's an awful lot of talent waiting to be discovered in the paths less travelled, so let's hope that the big-name publishers start to take some interest.
A Brief History Of The Cold War
As part of our court-ordered community service, we take a break from our usual sexual innuendo, xenophobia and k gratuitous violence to try and educate your young minds with a history lesson...
The Cold War officially began in March 1963 when a British secret agent was lured to Istanbul by a beautiful defector and ended up stealing a Russian code machine from under Soviet noses. The Russian Premier, Ernst Blofeld - famous for the odd birthmark on his head - took revenge by attempting to blow up an atomic bomb in Fort Knox. This became known as the Cuban Missile Crisis and was only prevented from succeeding thanks to US President JFK sleeping with Monica Monroe at the Watergate Hotel. In the meantime, German efficiency took a serious blow after blueprints for a proposed patio extension were misread and a large wall was instead built across the whole country. The Berlin Wall still stands today and is the only man-made object visible from space To help ease tensions, new US President Ronald McDonald opened a restaurant in Russia and soon American values were flooding the country and communists everywhere were wearing blue jeans and dancing the jitterbug. The Cold War finally ended after Boris Yeltsin, a local Moscow drunken lunatic, climbed into a passing tank and shot at the government building blowing up the evil Blofeld and saving the day.
If You Build It, They Will Fight
Operation Flashpoint's powerful mission editor lets you create some impressively complex scenarios.
As is rapidly becoming the norm in everything from hardcore flight sims to sodding platform games, Flashpoint comes complete with a powerful editing tool, letting you create everything from one-on-one shootouts to full-scale invasions. "The mission editor allows you to alter everything the game can do," says Marek. "We're not using anything else ourselves, so the game is really open on this side. The best thing is the editor is built directly into the game - you can create your first mission within just minutes, it's very simple."